Spring 09 - Moving on

12/04/2013 11:04
Food giant Unilever has opened up greater opportunities for staging competitions, new product development and chef networking at its new site in Leatherhead.

At the heart of Unilever’s new home in Leatherhead lies its state of the art development kitchen, which is a far cry from its innovation centre at Crawley in West Sussex where the food giant resided for so many years.

The whole concept of the kitchen from the initial plans to its first commission in December 2008 was two years. That first visit was made by Sodexo, and since then another giant in the contract catering world, Elior, has staged its Chef of the Year competition there – the first competition ever to be held in the kitchen.

The company’s aim is for the kitchen to be the focal point for customers and visitors from all over the world. Glass panelled in the centre of the reception area, its chefs are constantly under the spotlight but they have first class facilities to focus their attention on.

Executive chef and culinary controller Ray Lorimer heads the team of chefs, which is all sector specific: hotel and leisure, Nick Parnell; B&I Shane O’Connor; pubs, bars and restaurants, Paul Hawkins; education Tim Franklin in Hayes; and central craft development, competitions and exhibitions, Paul Wright. Wright, who has been with the business for 11 years, also acts as kitchen manager.

In addition, it’s the first time the kitchen has had a technical assistant in the shape of Marek Markowski, an ex Polish army chef, and he acknowledges the kitchen as “a goldfish bowl but we love it”.

The development kitchen isn’t as long or divided into sections as it was at Crawley and Wright explains that it’s a kitchen designed by chefs for chefs. “Ray has had a lot of input into the project.”

Electrolux was a key partner in its setting up and a lot of its equipment has been used. He says the biggest issue in the industry is waste.

“We are working with Electrolux on a study that involves recipes with all the information that is needed. Now we have to put how much it costs and how much electricity it uses. It’s about providing as much information as possible.”

The emphasis on the kitchen and in fact the whole building is about being eco friendly. The ground source heat pump system cuts energy bills by 40%; solar panels on the roof pre heat water even in winter; movement sensors ensure lights are only on when a space is occupied. It also offers staff as many facilities as possible on site – from vending and eating areas, a shop, cash machines, occupational therapy, even a gym and a nail bar.

The development kitchen is full on every day, five days a week. There are eight work stations that allows 16 people to work, and all the pods are moveable. Wright says they are on wheels and can be unplugged. “We could have 60 in the theatre, do banqueting for 40 people or even have a chefs table.”

Ceiling mounted cameras record the kitchen and the results are beamed on to TV screens. There is also a professional kitchen channel. “It’s only for Unilever at the moment but we are working on a web link for this. Rather than bringing in school caterers for instance, we can beam it to their schools,” he says.

But he adds it won’t be used solely as a kitchen. “The kitchen will be used for supporting and growing our customers’ businesses. Everything has to be very relevant. There has to be an objective for the kitchen to be used.”

Wright and Lorimer control its timetable. There is also another smaller kitchen where home economist Sue Batty works. The latter’s kitchen contains domestic equipment for consumer tests, and has a separate room with two way mirrors and a meeting room that can be used for confidential meetings far away from the openness of the main food development and cooking area.

Wright says the company is very much involved with its customers’ NPD chefs and also gets involved in the activities of bodies such as the Craft Guild of Chefs and universities.

“We sponsor the Scottish Chef of the Year and the Young Scottish Chef of the Year focusing on Scottish ingredients such as venison and lamb. We are also involved with college students. We are planning to work with a number – Thames Valley University, Glenrothes, Blackburn, Portsmouth, Westminster Kingsway and Sheffield, presenting to NVQ 1 and 2 students.”

He adds that the company is also working with Westminster on stocks. The reasoning behind this is that while students learn how to make it from scratch, convenience products are still needed.

Wright says it’s about giving them a good understanding about its Knorr branded stocks – “fresh stock made from scratch versus convenience”. “Fewer people are making stock from scratch because of money restraints,” he adds. Part of Wright’s work plan also includes masterclasses. “It’s not just food solutions any more; it’s about offering personal care, retail, and more,” he says.

Copyright 2019 Craft Guild of Chefs

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