Catering for a vast range of dietary requirements, 2 vegetable burgers sitting on a wooden board

Catering for a vast range of dietary requirements

Vegan to Paleo, Gluten free to Flexitarian, the world of dietary preferences is increasing with 1 in 8 British people being Vegetarian or Vegan and a further 21% identifying as Flexitarian. We wondered how these changing trends affect the Chefs on the front line of the catering industry, in particular, those providing meals to the most vulnerable, those in schools, care homes and hospitals. 

While allergens are and will continue to be the main and most important consideration in any kitchen the changes in trends and the choices that are available must have an impact on the work Chefs do, so we jumped at the chance to speak to Blue Arrow Chef Valerie to find out what it is really like trying to cater for so many alternative diets and preferences.   

Where do you currently work? 

I am an agency Chef for Blue Arrow, I work in a 6th form school

How long have you been a Chef? 

I have been a Chef pretty much my whole life, so 38 years. 

How does the dramatic increase in diet variations affect you as a Chef?

As a Chef we are more concerned with allergens than dietary preferences. Those who have a dietary preference whether it be vegetarian, paleo, vegan or an another, they will tend to select something suitable for themselves from the menu on offer rather than us trying to cater all potential choices ahead of time. 

I counted 16 different dietary preferences that I knew about, I am sure there are more! How do you keep on top of all new dietary requirements? 

Blue Arrow keep us well informed of any changes to legislation or safety standards but you learn most things on the job. You learn the most from your different experiences, work places and customers. The internet is an excellent source of information, if food is your passion then you will take the time to research and stay informed. 

How do you build a menu that is suitable for multiple dietary preferences?

In a general setting, it is impossible to create a menu that covers all bases so we always prioritise allergens first as the main area we cater for without fail, then the main dietary preferences being Vegetarian and Vegan are considered. I think where you are in the country may have more to do with what preference is catered for. As an example, I dont find very many menus cater for a vegan preference where I am however if you go somewhere such as Brighton you will find Vegan menus or certainly Vegan options in most restaurants. 

How do dietary requirements change when you work in a hospital or career home compared to a normal commercial kitchen? 

In a care home, the main thing that would change is the texture more than the type of food. If we are catering for customers with Alzheimer’s or Dementia then food can be pureed and set in molds so it resembles familiar foods, this way it can contain all of the additional nutrients needed. Much of the food we serve in a care home contains higher fat content than you would see on other menus, we tend to use cream and butter more prominently to help with weight gain. Anyone who has a dietary preference will be catered for individually in these types of settings. This is vastly different to most other catering environments where the customer is in control of their own food choices from the options available. 

Which dietary preference is the hardest to cater for? 

Dietary preferences are not really difficult to cater for, allergens are. Nut allergies are extremely difficult to protect against. In the school I currently work in there is a complete ban on any nut products being on the premises at all due to the severe allergies of a couple of students

What advice would you give to a new Chef just entering the trade? 

One thing to remember is that as an Agency Chef you are rarely responsible for creating the menu, often a menu runs on a four-week cycle seasonally. Agency Chefs step into a role and run the existing set up so the considerations for what is and is not included on the menu is rarely your responsibility. What you are responsible for is ensuring that you protect against allergies at all times. The allergen information must always be correct and clearly communicated to the customer. 

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