• Steve Tuck

All is not what it seems.

Updated: Oct 16, 2019

For most of my working life I have been lucky enough to have worked for independent establishments, with the exception of Hilton Hotels back in the late 90’s. This means that I have been given the freedom to cook whatever food I like, use any supplier that I like and liaise with customers to create bespoke menus especially for them.

As Hilton was the only non-independent company that I had worked for, going to work for a chain pub group was a bit of an eye opener. 

Not just the fact that there were certain dishes that had to stay on the menu, and that they had to be created and presented to the picture that accompanied the spec sheet, but the way that a lot of common sense and practices that I had been taught and are still taught and practised by some of the best chefs in the country were considered not good practise by the company and its internal health and hygiene auditors. To be told by an auditor to forget everything that I had been told by Westminster Council who work directly with the FSA and set most of the health and hygiene rules in the country, certainly surprised me.

​ Since parting company with my last employers I have been for a couple of interviews with other pubs owned by different companies within the same area, and to my horror found that they all followed very much the same kind of rules and regulations.

​ For instance if you go for a meal at a chain pub/restaurant, be very careful what you order. If you see a cured fish dish on the menu then I can guarantee you that it has been cured in a factory and bought in. The reason for this, is the fact that it will have a use by date on it.

I tried to put a beetroot cured sea trout dish on a menu with my last employers. Curing dates back centuries and is a great way of preserving food and improving its flavour. When I had cured salmon dishes on my menus in previous establishments, it would be cured for at least 10 days before we used it, so as I could maximise the flavour and texture of the fish.

But I was told that if it had not been sold within 3 days of it being cured then I had to throw it away. After arguing my corner for ages I was told quite bluntly that it could not go on the menu unless I bought it in. Obviously bought in cured fish is more expensive than home cured fish, but contains more preservatives to keep the internal auditors happy. Suffice to say, it didn’t go on the menu.

Fish and chips, the quintessential English pub classic, but is your fish fresh or frozen. Unless it states that its fresh on the menu then I doubt it. Frozen is obviously cheaper and profit margins are getting tighter for the big boys in head office.

​ At a recent interview of a very big chain pub, I was taken into the kitchen at around 11.30am. There were two chefs on duty. I asked if there was any prep that I could get on with, I was told that 90% of the menu was bought in, even the sauces and gravies came in a pouch which were cut open and heated up, along with the mashed potato. My heart sank.

I get the feeling that some of these companies are not interested in training chefs the way that my peers and I were, all those years ago. They just want somebody who can manage a kitchen and complete all the paper work which gets more and more each week as new rules are drafted in so chefs spend less time cooking and creating, but more time ticking boxes.

​ Monday, the quiet night of the week, you will always get a table but invariably very poor service. As most places work to a wages verses projected takings budget, Monday and Tuesday are skeleton staff nights. 

On a recent spur of the moment visit to a local chain pub (it's within walking distance and I wanted a few beers) on a Monday night, I waited 15 minutes to be served at the bar as there was only one guy on, I had to wander round the empty restaurant looking for a menu, waited 40 minutes for a poor meal, ordered sweet (against my better judgement) only for the waitress to bring it 20 minutes later to our uncleared table. There were only 2 other tables eating that night so obviously the takings would have just about paid the staff. 

​ The problem with this practise, as far as I can see, is that if people know and hear about poor service on the quiet nights, then they simply wont go. So from having a few people poorly served you end up with nobody to serve, that’s when it hits the profit margins and you have to try and make it up on the weekends by losing a chef or a barman for the evening to try and claw back some of your projected budget. Less staff means poor service again which in turn leads to poor feedback on trip adviser, and so the vicious circle continues to turn.

​ There is a general shortage of chefs nationwide. Whether this is skilled chefs or just ‘cooks’ in general I don’t know. The chain pubs and restaurants are killing the chef industry. With all of their menus being written by some ‘company executive chef’ at head office, then all the dishes are cooked, weighed, priced, allergenised, specked and photographed in big development kitchens by a team of development chefs and nutritionalists. They are then shipped out to each pub/restaurant where a ‘chef’ follows the spec sheet and plates it up. So if you walk into a pub in Sunderland you can expect the very same meal as you would if you were dining in a pub from the same chain down in Tunbridge Wells.

​ So there you have it. That basically is what is happening in the trade that I have enjoyed working in for the past 30 odd years. Sad I know, but its what the consumer seems to want.

So be carefull out there, there are some great independent pubs, restaurants which serve some great home made food, they might be a little bit cheaper than the chains because they aren’t tied to set suppliers and can shop around and will most probably be using a local farm or dairy.

I know where I will be spending my money next time I’m out.

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