Creating a nutritious, low-cost menu using local produce was the challenge for guest editor James Martin, who took on a project aiming to improve the food at Scarborough General Hospital
At the best of times, catering en masse is a tricky enough prospect, but cooking good-quality food for large numbers when the recipients are hospital in-patients is probably the hardest challenge of all. And that is just what James Martin set himself earlier this year when he embarked on a mission to transform the standard of food at Scarborough General Hospital in North Yorkshire.
Food love affair
Alarmed doesn’t touch on James’ initial reaction when he ventured into the bowels of the hospital kitchen that feeds around 6300 patients a week. Faced with 26-year-old saucepans, a menu unchanged for nine years and, probably his toughest critic of all, long-serving catering manager Pat Bell (pictured above, to the far left) he had his work cut out. Getting Pat on side, who had given the hospital kitchen 21 years’ service, was vital if the project was to work.
‘It wasn’t great to start with,’ admits James. ‘Because the team had been doing this for more than 20 years, change wasn’t necessarily at the forefront of their minds. A big part of it, for me, was about changing people’s attitudes towards food, making them fall in love with it again.’
And one thing he struggled to believe was that any of the hospital chefs or patients could really love the numerous amounts of packaged, processed and frozen foods used daily.
‘It infuriated me,’ says James. ‘Packet soups were on the menu, but making your own is easier, and cheaper.’ Ultimately, James showed that if the hospital used produce from local farms, the huge buying power of the NHS could help keep many farmers in business. Fast forward a few months and fresh soups are on the new menu.
And Pat concedes: ‘The first time we served homemade tomato soup, the patients were asking for seconds!’
James faced several unexpected issues including finding food that could tolerate the long wait between leaving the kitchen and being served on the wards, the intense reheating process and, of course, the money. If his desired new menu was to cost more, he had to find an income stream to cover this. The hospital restaurant, serving paying visitors and staff, was where his answer lay, if profits from there could return to the hospital kitchen.
Now with a modern makeover and renamed Pat’s Place, the restaurant also has a new menu and business is booming. Pat says: ‘We’ve seen staff eating in the restaurant that we haven’t seen for years! The best thing has been meeting people from all over the country who’ve visited Pat’s Place since the programme aired.’
James’ menus are now a permanent fixture at the hospital and, so far, those tough critics – the patients – are giving positive feedback. Comments include, ‘Wonderfully prepared and creative food.’ And James’ most popular dishes? Good old British grub: slow-roasted pork, Yorkshire glazed sausage and sticky toffee pudding (‘but with a thicker sauce than James’ recipe,’ laughs Pat).
But has the project worked? ‘Yes,’ says James, ‘the team believe in the ethos of it and it’s working.’ Pat agrees: ‘The catering department has never been busier and we’ve received a Good Egg award for using free range eggs.’ But one thing hasn’t changed: Pat still doesn’t do anything on a Saturday until she’s watched Saturday Kitchen.
‘I was always a fan,’ she says, ‘but we treated James like a regular member of staff, which is why it worked.’