The skills you need to serve nutritious, healthy and exciting food

Serving healthy and exciting food

David isn’t a man to boast about his achievements, and yet he’s great at driving, motivating and connecting people, all to get the best out of themselves and the food they serve. As Food innovation & Sustainability Director at Sodexo, he’s passionate about serving healthy and exciting school meals. On top of that, he also started the National Craft Forum Network for chefs to connect and share information and as an easy way to bring ideas together. Finally, he’s also Vice President of The Craft Guild of Chefs, where he’s involved in the most prestigious cooking competitions of the UK, the National and Young National Chef of the Year. With all of that on his plate, he knows a fair bit about striving for top quality!

David Mulcahy

David Mulcahy has been Food innovation & Sustainability Director at Sodexo UK for 18 years, focusing on schools and universities. Sodexo provides catering, facilities management, employee benefits and personal home services to 100 million consumers daily in 56 countries. David manages a team of development chefs, nutritionists and development managers to make sure that every part of the food offering across the segment is up to par.

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It’s a team effort

Being responsible for the food that’s served at schools on a daily basis isn’t something to be taken lightly. Menus need to be healthy, nutritious, exciting and of consistent quality. The most important ingredient to get there? “Training”, David says firmly. “That’s why we invest in structured training programmes. Not just for chefs, but for front-of-house teams, managers, everyone.” As well as boosting their skill level, Sodexo is very keen on collaboration, both inside and outside of the team. Various programmes and methods are in place to ensure ideas are being shared and issues are easily addressed and tackled. From intensive training to the Craft Forum to their Golden Habits App, a simple, on-site daily check for operators. Moreover, when new dishes enter the menu -consisting of a collection of dishes chefs and schools can pick from-, roadshows are organised, so everyone is able to see how to best prepare the dish, optimising both taste and presentation.

The quality of creating memorable meals
At Sodexo, creating memorable meals is incredibly important. “We talk about that a lot,” David says. “A young person goes through schooling for five, six, seven years, and when they leave, we want them to be able to look and point back and go ‘I remember some great times at school.’ With many of those times being around the food they had.” So, depending on the school or university (there are different possibilities, eating moments and demands across the diverse variety of schools involved) teams get creative to serve something that fits the moment, the students and the environment. And that’s not just about putting up an exciting menu, David says. It’s also about having a responsibility to create awareness about food. “At lunchtime, you’re the advocate on the counter. So, rather than a dish being a list of ingredients and allergens, make sure you know the story around that dish,” David stresses.

Because in the end, it’s not just about the dish, it’s the whole process that counts.

David Mulcahy

A subtle nudge
That awareness stretches to sustainability as well, David adds. “We work with the WWF, for instance, to create plant-based dishes that would normally be associated with meat. You know, you need somebody to pick something up that happens to be plant-based and go, ‘Wow, I wouldn’t have known! This is delicious.’ When talking about young people, health and nutrition in particular are so much more important. It’s our job to provide healthy, nutritious food, not their job to choose it. We think about how we can make healthy dishes trendy, street food style. For the students it’s just one more choice, because we don’t want to pressure them into it. We just nudge them, subtly. Putting healthier options on the first counter instead of the last, for instance, will get them more attention, so they will be picked more often. Menu language can also be a nudge. If katsu is trending, all ‘katsu’ dishes will prompt a positive reaction. So if we put a vegan burger with katsu sauce on the menu, we call it a mashed katsu burger, or dirty falafel. It’s fun to play around with”, David says with a smile.

The process of moving forward
None of the processes David talks about are straightforward, especially when it comes to sustainable practices. Whether it’s about the responsible sourcing of ingredients (David is an advocate for British and seasonal produce), creating products from food waste like carrot pesto or helping clients with audits to optimise their energy management. “You’re constantly looking at what you’re doing, measuring it, documenting it, and then using the information you have gathered to move forward.” A big part comes down to good communication and working together. ”No one is going to solve the sustainability issue on their own”, David says. “Collaboration is key. From my point of view, it’s even the most important part of the job”, he adds. “Understanding what people’s needs are and working together to get there. Start by taking the right ingredients, work from a place of skill and knowledge, and continuously try to make it better. Because in the end, it’s not just about the dish, it’s the whole process that counts.”

Do the simple things really well
So, when we get to the root of it, what is the most important ingredient of quality food? David takes a second to think and says: “I believe we owe our perception of quality to our environment, our upbringing, and our background. A dish can be perceived as too high-quality, just because it doesn’t fit the place it is served.” It shows both the careful approach, and the passion David has for the matter. “I just think it all starts with doing simple things really well”, David says. He smiles. “Sometimes, there’s nothing better than a carrot, cooked in a way that brings out the sweetness and deliciousness and umami that a carrot can have. If it’s done from a place of skill and knowledge, it may seem easy.

But if you’re thinking fresh, simple, seasonal, well sourced, those are the basics of good quality. Once you’ve got those basic tools, those basic ingredients, you then apply your skill level and then you can create something.” It’s the same essence David looks for in the National Chef of the Year competition: true quality comes from hard work, continuous adjustment and looking at every single bit of the process to find a way to add value. “The best chefs are like a sponge”, says David, “constantly wanting to soak up knowledge, looking to improve and experiment. If you get bored, don’t get stuck in a rut! Don’t let anyone or anything take your passion.”

TIP!

“If you can work closely with a vendor partner, do so! A good supplier has significant expertise which will add real value to your business. They are there to advise, guide and present exciting innovative options for menu development and great customer experience. Make your supplier a part of your team.”