“What’s the difference between your operation and a restaurant?” I ask Steve.
“So, in a restaurant, they’ve got the same menu for a month. And their dishes don’t change. Say, for example, you’ve got a chicken dish with tomato. They just continuously top up their preparation. They never waste it. They never throw it away… In a month’s time, a restaurant has about ten dishes on a menu over a month.
He pauses and makes eye contact with me for emphasis. “We have about 300 dishes a month. Our menu changes every single day. Every day. Every day.”
I was following Steve Wren, Executive Chef at Saïd Business School, through his labyrinth of saucepans, allergen tracking records, pristine stainless steel counters, and delicately wrapped dessert preparations.
We pause in front of a desk with a bulletin board, a filing cabinet, and neatly organised sheets of paper. This is Steve’s ops database.
He points at the files. “If you tell me, ‘Yesterday, I had some chicken,’ I’ll be able to go through all my paperwork and find you where it was stored, in which fridge it was stored, which chef prepared it, which date he prepared it on, which oven he cooked it in, when it was delivered, the batch number from the supplier, and the supplier can track it back to the day the animal was killed.”
He tracks all this in case of illness, of course. But it’s also just if diners (that is, us) don’t happen to like a meal. In that case, he wants to track it to the source and improve. That focus on continuous improvement is what makes Steve so easy for any of us to connect with. He’s running a business, just like many of us have done or hope to do.
“The margins and the overheads behind this business,” Steve says as we walk back through his kitchen, “are really, really tight. A high percentage of restaurants in England close within their first three years.” He shakes his head.
“You can be a good chef but a crap businessman. It’s not just about cooking good food. Cooking good food is easy. If you had an unlimited budget, I’ll give you the best plate of food you’ve ever had. But tell me you’ve got £2 to spend and I need to cook you three courses… Then that shows real character and how good you are as a chef.”
But Steve isn’t just an operations manager. He still loves cooking great food.
“We had a gala dinner for Mr. Saïd last year,” he says, his eyes bright. “They wanted me to do something very wacky on the theme of innovation. But I thought, ‘I’m in trouble now. I’ve got to come up with something for Mr. Saïd and everybody who’s donated money to the school, and they want to do something different.’” Steve squeezes his temples, reliving the stress. “But that night, I came up with an idea: a reverse-order menu. To really get in people’s head, I wanted to start with a cup of tea and a biscuit, and end with a soup.
“The tea part,” he continues, “was a miso soup served in a teapot. And the teabag part was a wonton of duck confit wrapped with chive. The biscuit was a sesame biscuit. And on the menu itself, in front of them, it just said ‘Tea and biscuit.’ It didn’t describe the dishes.
“Then there was carrot cake as a starter. So I made a savoury carrot cake. Surprisingly, I get so many people talking about this. It’s very similar to carrot cake, but has a bit more spiciness with cumin and coriander, and I toast it, so it’s nice and warm, almost like a crouton in texture. It took about ten recipe changes to get to a recipe I liked. We did it with an herbed cream cheese, pickled carrots, and a savoury granola.
“The main course was the main course. A salmon dish, which I knew Mr. Saïd liked. The dessert was the next one to turn heads. This one was a soup. So it was a cucumber soup, chilled, flavoured with lime and sugar. It’s got fresh mango in it and little bits of yoghurt jelly. Little meringues on it. And then we make a sweetened avocado ice cream.
“It took a lot of effort to make the dishes work. I’d say we spent six months in total getting the dishes to work really, really well.”
Steve must have seen me jump at the duration. “Food is all about the balance, and that takes time,” he says. “If you have something really sweet, you need something sour.”
“What about students’ day-to-day dining?” I ask.
“Well, we’ve got quite a large team, but I produce most of the menus. Look, I have a team of 18. My leadership style is very different to a lot of chefs. I don’t scream and shout at people. If someone does something wrong or right, I tell them straight away.”
“So they have immediate feedback?”
“Exactly. Managing people is probably the hardest job, but it’s what makes our customer experience work. In our kitchen, no one is more important than the next. We can’t do any work if the kitchen porters aren’t there to wash up the dishes or if the store man isn’t available to check inventory and organise the deliveries. So if I’m going to do right by the people who eat our food, I have to do right by the people who make it. I have to make sure that all our staff keep growing and challenging themselves. That’s the only way they’ll have the skills to continuously deliver the best possible products to our customers.
“Cooking the food is easy,” Steve continues. “Making the finances, budget, and retail work is a lot harder to manage, because our margins are so much smaller. We want to give you the biggest portion for the best price, but we still need to make a profit and cover all of our overheads. That’s very, very tricky. We’re always trying to push to do something new, something different, because we want to keep people in here, and not going out to local restaurants. We also have sales targets that we need to achieve.
“Sometimes people don’t realise that when they plan a trip, and all the students go out for the day. That causes us lots of stress, because we could lose like a thousand pounds in sales! But then you have to recover that further down the line, so you have to try different things to do that. We have very strict food policies, and when this happens, we can potentially waste quite a lot of food.
“How could we, Steve, make your job a little easier?” I ask.
“Last year we had great communication with students and staff, and it started by chance. I decided to just send an email called Chef’s Update. Once a week, I’d just send a bullet point list of things that we’re doing that are new. So, we’ve got a noodle bar on Monday, we’re selling bread on Friday—”
“That’s a great idea!” I interject.
“It was literally just bullet points. I didn’t want to overcomplicate it. Really simple. So I started with that, and then I did it every week… But off the back of that, the communication started coming back the other way. People started responding to that email with questions and feedback. I’d go and meet them or just answer their question.
“We want to give you what you want. And we will respond to a question or suggestion. We’re good at that as a team. If you tell me, ‘Steve, I really want to see a Mexican burrito of some kind,’ it’ll be on the menu next week. I’ll get it on there for you.
“For us, communication is key. If I could give any message to students, I’d say, just talk to us. If there’s something you want to have or aren’t happy with, I’d be happy to sit down, talk to you about that, and try and come up with a way to add something or take something away or change something. We’re very, very flexible. Just email me at email@example.com.
“And there are so many ways for us to stay in touch, even outside the emails I send. You know, we ran cookery classes for students and staff last year. We bake our own bread, so we did our own bread cookery classes for small groups. We’ve also brought students and staff to cook for us, so they can understand information and communication transfer in the kitchen. We’ve done cooking and baking challenges with boxes of ingredients in an hour and a half.
“And you know, we also organised the food fair last week,” he adds.
“Oh really? That was a huge success,” I said.
“All of the suppliers that were there were our suppliers. They weren’t random people we invited in. All hot food elements were things we do on a weekly basis and wanted to showcase. I was out there too, running the bread stall. A lot of students asked which company we work for. I realised that we didn’t get the message across.”
Steve waves his hand at the kitchen around us. We’re in the basement of the west wing. No part of the school is more than a five minute walk away. His staff is busy cleaning up, stowing away any cutlery, and mopping the floor.
“We work here,” says Steve. “We’re based here. Every single chef you saw last week wearing chef attire was my team. Your team.”
He makes eye contact with me once more. “And our job,” Steve says, “is to make sure your experience at Saïd Business School is the best one possible.”Back to top of article