Cover photo credit: The Urban Canteen, by Paul Coonan
The best thing about working in nutrition education is the people I encounter – their perspectives about food, nutrition and health are often wide-ranging and extremely interesting. As everyone eats, we all have different relationships with food. Apart from the textbook materials which we cover ranging from the roles of nutrients, I often challenge learners to think about the reasons why we think about food in a certain way and what influences our food choices, as we know a big part of this is also socially and culturally shaped by many factors. Talking about food is great, but cooking and serving it is actually much harder work.
A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of meeting Paul Coonan through the Royal Society of Public Health Award in Nutrition. Paul is the chef manager at William Grants and Sons, the independent distillers company in Richmond, London, which owns brands from the Glenfiddich whiskies to Hendricks Gin. I spoke with Paul last week to ask about his work, and how he saw a unique opportunity for chefs and catering staff to learn about nutrition.
Georgine: How long have you been here at William Grants and Sons?
Paul: I actually work for Baxter Storey, the hospitality company which has a contract with William Grants and Sons. I have been with Baxter Storey for around 12 years. Our previous client was an advertising agency. The opportunity came up with a new contract at William Grants and Sons three years ago and I have been here since.
Georgine: Could you describe your current role?
Paul: We are a team of two. I am the chef manager, and I work with one other colleague in the kitchen. We prepare the kind of ‘typical’ breakfast and lunch items which you see in these multi-deck fridges. The fun part though, is to prepare the food items which go with product launches, events and pairing canapés with cocktails. Tonight, we are launching the new ‘Winter Storm’ whisky so I have prepared something with more oriental flavours. I have prepared several types of Sushi with Steamed Edamame Beans & Sea Salt, along with Coconut, Pistachio and Matcha Balls with a Raw Cacao dipping Sauce and Exotic Fruit Platters.
Georgine: That sounds very creative! Sounds like a fun night. Could you tell me how your typical day is like?
Paul: I usually work from 6am to 2:30pm, and then run home afterwards. Every day seems to be slightly different. For example last week, the auditors came in to go through all our records and compliance with health and safety procedures. I’m pleased to say last year we scored 97.1% and hope we will continue our high marks this year!
Georgine: What a busy role – and good luck! How do you like your work?
Paul: Having worked in the hospitality industry, I have met so many people and this is definitely one of the best things about it. Now as a chef manager, I am responsible for the books for the contract. So I need to ensure a certain percentage gross profit which goes back to Baxter Storey. This can be done via our buying power and the management fee we incur. This is a challenging role, more so than being a head chef or catering manager, as I am in the kitchen all day with a “hands on” role with the food offer but then need to get to grips with the administration side of the contract in the office. But by having this role here, it gives us more flexibility and creativity over the types of food and offers we’d like to serve at the restaurant here.
Georgine: How did you come across the nutrition course where we met?
Paul: I have always been interested in nutrition. Being athletic and a marathon runner means I have to take care in what I eat to maximise my performance. I was expecting many more catering professionals at the nutrition course so was really surprised that I was the only chef there. There has been so much confusion over what we should be eating, and what not, so I wanted to go on the course to learn about the truth behind these headlines. It frustrates me as well, to see how so many food bloggers nowadays suggest recipes which ask for these novel ingredients, that cost a fortune to get, but you only require a small amount of, such as fresh herbs to “sprinkle over the top” or “the seeds from 1 cardamom pod” or “a cinnamon stick” placed in the stew. None of these things will truly enhance the dish as they are required in such small quantities but can make a huge difference to the cost of one meal. We should be focusing on core ingredients that can be versatile, used over several dishes and that really make a difference to a dish in flavour and nutritionally i.e. seeds, nuts, chickpeas, kale, spinach etc. These items can be used in hot dishes, salads, side dishes, smoothies, breakfasts, lunches, dinners. This way we minimise waste, cost, time in cooking and sourcing the ingredients in the first instance.
Georgine: That’s very important indeed. How do you see nutrition relevant in your everyday work here?
Paul: Some colleagues might come in who have special dietary requirements, or perhaps they have certain weight goals to achieve. Also, I have actually just started a food blog called The Urban Canteen to showcase how cooking healthier meals can be achievable using everyday ingredients. I do attract some comments on how to treat this or that dietary condition, but I always refer these users to see a registered nutritionist or dietitian. When it comes to eating healthily, I think the most important thing is to be adventurous in cooking. Experiment with ingredients, have fun, there is no right and wrong. It may not taste the way you want it this time but you’ll know what ‘not’ to do next time. Above all when it comes to “eating healthy”, it should be something that you can sustain and that you want to incorporate into your life long term, not a “fad” where you have to cut things out completely.