A love of food and the ability to cook food that people love to eat is a match made in heaven but is it enough when you are on a tight food budget?
We spoke with Clive Levett, a Blue Arrow Head Chef to find out how you can possibly continue to make great food when you are cutting your costs at every turn.
Can you tell me a little bit about your job first of all?
I work a couple of different positions for Blue Arrow, sometimes I work as a Head Chef and sometimes as a Chef Manager in different environments like prisons and care homes.
Do you control the food budgets in these roles?
Yes, in either role I can be responsible for the budget. In some environments we have more flexibility over waste control and ingredient quantities than we do in others which all contributes to the budgeting. Sometimes they have a strict wastage policy we have to follow and set weights and measures we must stick to for all ingredients so in those cases it is more difficult to be creative with the budget.
How do you work out a kitchen budget?
You are usually provided with a budget that you are allowed to spend sometimes over a period of time and sometimes your budget is given on a per head basis if it is for an event or function.
Do you use any budgeting tools or software?
No, I like to use good old pen and paper to work out the budgets because I do it when I am doing a menu plan so it's just easier for me that way.
How do you save money on a food budget and not compromise quality or taste?
It is best to cut your costs on non-food items first. For example, disposables such as paper plates, cutlery, cups and things like that are some of the most expensive items. If you can stay away from disposables, you can make some great savings before you have even started working out the food side of things.
How do you minimise kitchen waste to save you buying more ingredients?
You need to maximise the usability of the food. Under health and hygiene regulations you can cook food and reheat food once, so cook something on day 1 that would also make a good base for a different dish on day 2. For example, the left over from a beef stew on Monday can be the base for a great beef curry on the Tuesday.
When you are planning the menu, think of other dishes that can be used in this way to minimise waste and maximise the yield from your ingredients.
What are the best ingredients to switch out when you are on a tight budget?
It is not really a case of switching out ingredients, it is more about using less of the expensive ingredients such as meat and bulking the dishes out with other ingredients like vegetables, pulses, and lentils.
Perhaps use just half of the meat that is called for in the recipe and double up on vegetables, use herbs and spices to add a great flavour hit.
Can you share any of your secret Chef tricks?
As a Chef on a budget, cornflour is your best friend. It is an excellent thickener for sauces and gravy’s making casseroles appear thick, hearty and comforting.
Always have a tin of tomatoes on hand, these are excellent for bulking out dishes and adding in that something a little extra.
Should I buy ingredients in bulk?
There is nothing wrong with buying in bulk but it does make budgeting a little harder to know what you have, what you need and when. You do also need to consider that food can spoil quickly, especially in summer. Even frozen food can suffer from being in the freezer too long, so it is best to buy little and often, fresh is always best where ever possible.
Should I order frozen ingredients to help stretch the budget?
Frozen ingredients are a great option for cutting costs providing you are using them up and they are not held in the freezer too long. Frozen vegetables are often pre-prepared and so it can save a huge amount of time for kitchen staff, labour is pretty expensive and if you are really watching your costs then there is a saving to be made on gas and electricity usage because frozen vegetables tend to cook faster.
Do better quality ingredients stretch further?
No, you can’t get the same portions from an expensive ingredient as you can from a cheaper ingredient. The only thing that is generally affected is the taste, but a good Chef can make a dish made entirely from cheaper ingredients taste great with the right flavours, herb and spices. We call this the ‘Chef Touch’.
What are your 3 top tips for stretching your budget?
- Bulk out dishes with plenty of vegetables allowing you to cut down on meat.
- Reduce the portion size so the dish stretches further.
- Use cheaper ingredients, utilize frozen vegetables where possible.
If I am new to food ordering and budgeting, what advice could you give me?
Make use of any past receipts you can get your hands on so you can see what quantities have been ordered before and where from. This way you can learn from those who did it before you even if they are not there. Start out by just buying enough ingredients for your next few dishes and top up what you need until you get a feel for the quantities and order frequencies.
Cut your wastage as much as possible by turning one dish into another like I said before and you will do just fine, trust in your ability to cook good food.
Can good herbs and spices make lower quality ingredients taste expensive?
They don’t make it taste expensive, but they do make the quality of the ingredients less important.
When a dish is full of flavour you can tell that someone has taken time and care to make the dish worth eating. Even the cheapest ingredients put together in the right way and complimented with the right herbs and spices can leave people coming back for more.
Herbs and spices are the one part of your budget you should never cut.
What are your favourite herbs and spices?
Jerk seasoning really packs some flavour in.
Turmeric is both versatile and colourful so it’s a great addition to a dish.
Oregano is a popular herb for most palettes, it will really make an Italian dish taste authentic.
Chilli flakes, curry powder and Cumin are all excellent choices too.
Who are your favourite suppliers?
For frozen food and dry goods Brakes are a good supplier. They are one of the biggest suppliers and they provide good quality ingredients.
I use local butchers as much as I can because you can get some great ingredients at relatively low costs. Buying local also cuts down on the time the ingredients spend in transport and how much there are handled.
Supermarkets like Asda and Tesco are still an excellent choice even in a commercial kitchen, the ingredients are good and they deliver reliably.