There’s a growing number of teenagers from overseas coming to study in UK schools, many in readiness for progressing to the likes of Cambridge and Oxford Universities. Morag Wilson visits Abbey College in Cambridge to see how it’s leading the caterer, Harrison, to offer very different cuisine to that seen in most British schools.
While it’s not uncommon to find noodles on a school menu or a chicken katsu curry, it is quite another thing to see yakinuka chicken, black bean fish fillet, grilled chicken bulgogi and chicken rendang on the menu, every day of the week.
But Abbey College Cambridge isn’t like other schools. Founded in 1994, this sixth form college is one of the best for international students in the UK. Three-quarters of the pupil roll are from Asia, around 10-15% are from Russia, and the rest from Europe and beyond. In total, the school has 400 pupils from over 40 countries. They come here to get great GCSEs and A Levels with the very real aim of making it into the UK’s best universities.
And while of course these students have come to the UK to experience a global education and mix with people from all over the world, they are still children, likely away from home for the very first time, and in need of some home comforts. What better way to do that than through food.
When Abbey College moved to a new single, purpose-built campus in July 2016, it brought in a new caterer, Harrison, to feed these young minds and bodies.
Harrison is probably one of the best choices for the college. Not only is it no stranger to independent school catering contracts, but it is proficient in business contracts too, and this site certainly requires a blend of both.
Mark Stower, director of food and service at Harrison, was involved in the tender process for the Abbey College contract and used his experience of catering within Japanese banks to show that the company could deliver authentic food.
“We cook everything from scratch and it’s an authentic offer, we’re not making a Thai green curry from a bottle, and that makes a massive difference because the client trusts us more.
“When you have a new catering company come in it can be difficult, but you have a much better working relationship with clients when they know exactly what you can deliver.”
It was hugely important to the college that their new caterer would be able to provide authentic Asian cuisine and thereby create a home from home for the students. For instance, breakfast cereals aren’t common in Asian countries, so offering a bowl of Cornflakes isn’t going to be the most satisfying meal in the morning.
TUCO’s Catering for International Students research from 2014 provides really interesting insight into the attitudes of young adults studying overseas. A recurrent theme was the limited availability of world foods in university outlets and their desire to have a greater range of cuisines to choose from. Two-thirds of students said they would be likely or very likely to buy their home foods if they were available in university restaurants and 84% said they wanted to eat a mix of foods from home and elsewhere.
While this was research conducted among undergraduates, it is certainly useful when looking at what to offer sixth form students. At Abbey College, Harrison have made a concerted effort to provide authentic Asian dishes, as well as other cuisines, to cater to as many people as possible.
“When we first opened everyone had a different opinion on what the offer should be; here there are Russian, Chinese and Japanese students, so it’s about making sure that we get the offer right,” says Mark. “Yes, they do want Chinese and Japanese food, but also like anyone who goes abroad to learn, you don’t always want home food, you want food of where you are too. We have to provide a balance but most of all, make it authentic.”
A full English breakfast, for instance, has become the most popular food item at breakfast time, even though the kitchen does provide a Japanese breakfast of salted salmon on sticky rice with chopped nori seaweed. Porridge is popular too.
At lunch and dinner service, there’s a self-service salad bar, plus three hot food options – one vegetarian/vegan dish, one hot main and one Asian hot dish – as well as a coffee bar serving hot drinks, sandwiches and homemade cakes.
The main dishes always sell well but to increase the appeal of the vegetarian dishes, the chefs plate them up so that the presentation entices selection. A bowl of fried tofu with shiitake mushrooms and udon noodles with a miso broth is just one example of how the team make veggie dishes much more special.
There is also a spice station, situated in the centre of the dining area, which allows students to customise their dish with chillies, peppers and sauces and increase the heat to their taste – they get through a lot of soy sauce.
“We have specialist suppliers that get us the right produce and sauces that we need,” says Mark. “We don’t use an English soy sauce, we make sure it’s as authentic as possible and a recognisable brand.”
The kitchen staff, however, including the head chef, are not Asian themselves, which is where Harrison’s skill comes in and they have spent a lot of time researching. And some of their best knowledge comes from their own staff.
“We’re really lucky because we have a group schools contract in Ealing where there are a lot of Asian ladies and they have been a great source for telling us how to do certain dishes properly!” says Mark. “We work with them a lot and have produced a workbook that we then send out to other units. So, while the recipes are produced centrally, they are authentic Indian dishes and many of them are regional dishes.
“Listening to them about the influences of different regions has been fascinating. For instance, the cuisine on the India/China border is so different from anywhere else.”
Some of Mark’s biggest lessons in international cookery have come from his school catering staff, who have shown simple hints and tricks to simplify the dishes for other kitchens to follow, for instance using four or five main spices rather than ordering in more than dozen.
“The research is the most important thing,” he adds.
Abbey College is not an isolated school for Harrison. It has another school contract that has a Japanese intake, while the caterer has London state school contracts that are entirely vegetarian with a focus on Indian cuisine.
“Because of the students that independents are now attracting from abroad there is more of an influence of foods from around the world,” notes Mark. “It’s not cottage pie and liver and bacon anymore!
“We have to produce menus bespoke to each school so that we get the offer right. Because ultimately, we don’t want children turning up and not eating the food. There’s nothing more demoralising for you, and it’s not good for the child.”
It was a challenge Harrison faced at the Japanese school, as well. They were tasked to offer authentic Japanese food on a Tuesday and Saturday night, so Mark spent two or three weeks working with the chef to ensure that the kitchen had recipes that were clear and easy to understand and follow. Now that they have earned the trust of the school to create these dishes to 100% authenticity, Mark hopes that they can offer Japanese cuisine over more days.
“Working in partnership is so important with that school because it is so steeped in history and they are methodical in how they work, so we needed to gain their trust. And now that we have that we can work together on different projects with them.”
For instance, the school had always brought their hospitality in from elsewhere, but now Harrison do it. It’s the same at Abbey College. While Harrison were instrumental in getting the kitchen and dining area at the new site set up and decorated, they were only providing three meals a day. Now, they do so much more.
From theme days (the college recently held an Australian theme day with Asian Australian food on the menu and held ‘critter challenges’ while the students were queuing, getting them to try protein-rich mealworms and maggots) to hospitality events including barbecues and evening bowl food, Harrison will deliver on the request.
Harrison will also provide catering to a second campus about two miles away from the main teaching site, for instance on a Saturday movie night they will deliver sourdough pizzas in takeaway boxes, all cooked from scratch with veg-packed sauces and plenty of flavour.
“It gives you a sense of pride when you can say that we have overdelivered on what we said we’d do in the tender,” says Mark. “But also, you can look around and see that our staff are happy. If you have staff who are motivated, who are trained well and they are doing something different on a daily basis, then you’re going to have happy students and a happy client. And you only get that if you’re doing interesting food.”
It certainly is interesting food and Harrison can be sure that they are providing a pastoral support for these teenagers who are a long way from home, all through good food.