Interview with an Innovator

Bartlett mitchell’s Pete Redman: ‘Chefs need to stop cooking just for Instagram’

The contract caterer’s chef director tells Food Spark why being authentic is so important, how he tries to lead by example, and why plant-based is just a buzzword

20 March 2020
ingredientsplant-basedsustainabilityvegan
Pete Redman bartlett mitchell

Redman on paper – CV

  • Previously worked in catering events for the likes of legendary French chef Albert Roux, as well as for the restaurants of hotels such as the Landmark and Danesfield House.
  • At the age of 21, Redman worked as a chef for the Sultan of Oman before later joining Compass Group’s Eurest as senior sous chef and then Baxterstorey as executive head chef.
  • He joined bartlett mitchell in 2012 and has been chef director since 2015.

In today’s fast-paced world of social media and instant gratification, it’s arguably more difficult than ever before for young chefs to get the grounding they once had. Which is why Pete Redman, chef director at contract catering firm bartlett mitchell, is so keen to see young chefs get back to basics and move away from this trend of cooking simply for recognition on Instagram.

Redman, who has worked at bartlett mitchell for more than seven years, cut his teeth into the world of professional cooking largely the old-fashioned way before social media was even invented. For him, it’s always been about the love of food and the simplicity of working with fresh ingredients every day, as he once experienced while working for the Sultan of Oman.       

“I worked at the hunting lodge of one of the Sultan’s mansions, which I absolutely loved,” Redman tells Food Spark. “His general would go out and shoot birds, and the table would be full of these dead animals which you had to cook and present to them. There would be all these illustrious guests and at 21 years old I had to figure out how to cook these things. It was a really good grounding and good training for me.”

More recently, Redman has spent just shy of a decade helping to build bartlett mitchell into one of the country’s biggest catering businesses, ensuring it stays ahead of the curve of many industry trends. But while he believes the company has often led the way when it comes to food trends like sustainability and veganism, Redman says his role is simply to inspire his growing team of cooks to take the initiative and become leaders themselves.

Here, Redman explains how he tries to inspire his team of chefs every single day and why the biggest food trend is actually about getting back to the very foundations of cooking.

I've no idea where my love of food actually comes from. I wish I had a cliché story about cooking scones with my grandmother, but for me it was about the energy of the kitchen, the highly organised chaos of service and my competitive nature. I have always been around food though. He can't cook and never has done, but my dad is a massive foodie and I remember going to Paris with him as a kid when he would smash back oysters and mussels. My mum loves to cook too.

I enjoy the pressure and the challenge of being a chef. In my first week at catering college I got a roasting like no other by my lecturer. I absolutely loved it - it was a wake-up call and I strangely enjoyed the fact I could handle it. I realise as I get older it might seem a bit misguided. But at the time I had a goal and used to get a buzz out of trying to work harder, faster or longer and have more cuts or burns then the other cook I worked with. I think a lot of young chefs go through this phase, but time and experience teaches you to work smarter.

I get obsessive about things. I probably have one of the biggest cookbook collections and I read them constantly. I love the knowledge and I try to memorise them all. The hunger to constantly learn throughout our life is a great gift. 

One of the first things that inspired me to be a chef was Restaurant magazine. They had one edition, which I believe was the world's most influential chefs, and I had never heard of any of them. I was from a generation of the likes of Gordon Ramsay and Jamie Oliver, so I'd never heard of people like Fernand Point, Fredy Girardet and Marc Veyrat. However, I started doing my research and because I'm obsessive, I wanted to know every detail thing about them. I bought all their books and then studied and memorised them all. I don't like not knowing something.

I get inspiration from every chef I work with… as they will constantly do something that makes me think in a different way. This could be one of our teams or a competitor. I'll just see something simple - like the way they spoon a dish, for example - and it will just make sense to me and I will just go on a tangent from there.

I sometimes just stare at Instagram for inspiration, but it's a double-edged sword. For me, we need to stop cooking just for Instagram - some of the ugliest food is often the most delicious. I'm not just trying to make people happy with what they see. It has to look good but it's the taste that matters most. Don't bother about trying to make an Instagram post out of it - be a real cook instead.

The younger generation often haven't had the grounding of hard kitchens or a good mentor. Every chef should have Charlie Trotter's collection - I don't cook from those books but they need to understand where things start. I was reading one of his books from 1996 the other day and he was cooking with quinoa and orzo even back then. He was so far ahead that people didn't know what it was back then and now my mum has quinoa in her cupboard. The younger guys pay too much attention to Instagram and they don't know how to do it - they just know how to make it look good.

I’m not excited by any crazy new ingredients, for me it’s about delivering something authentic. For example, everyone has hummus, but no one has really good hummus because it’s all generic. It’s accepted as the only product, but if you go to Jerusalem then you will eat some that will just blow your mind. Adam Byatt gave me some couscous recently to try - there was nothing else in it – just couscous, water and salt and it tasted better than any I've ever had in my life because it was the genuine item.

The most important part of my job is how I inspire the rest of the team. It's my goal and vision but the chefs are the ones who go away and come up with the ideas and deliver every single day. We've got over 100 kitchens, so no one cares about what I can do. It's how I inspire other people by challenging them to use products more authentically, to get micro-seasonal or just cook with more passion.

As a business we use a lot of technology. Every team member is connected to us through an app called Yapster, which is like a combination of Instagram and WhatsApp. If we do an event on food waste, for example, then I can post a picture, a video and documents to go along side it. The whole company has access to it and anyone can direct message me. Training is hugely important to us too and we do three-to-four different training classes a month to inspire the team and get them going. One of these is always with Adam Byatt from Trinity, who in my opinion is one of the best chefs in UK. Our team members always come away buzzing.

Leading by example is critical. At 10.30 last night I was dragging cages of rubbish down Oxford Street and I didn't want to be that guy who goes home early and leaves the team to finish up because I'm more senior. I'm not any better than anyone else. When you set an example and never ask anyone to do something you wouldn't do yourself, you build loyalty and a band of chefs who just want to do the same thing. I don't do elitism.

We've always been ahead of the curve with regards to sustainability and everyone is trying to catch us up. We've been the most sustainable caterer for years and long had three stars from the Sustainable Restaurant Association. This year we also achieved the Planet Mark. We are passionate about sustainable eating and aim to be industry leaders.

Bartlett mitchell

I'm a chef and wasting food is just bad for the environment. We measure our food waste and it is reported to the board every month. We implemented Chefs Eye in a few of our kitchens, which photographically measures food waste. We were also way ahead on the single use plastics issue and have our own coffee brand Perkee which comes from a women-run co-operative in Nicaragua. It's about what we can give back and not only good for the business but good for the world too.

Plant-based is great but we need to be very specific about what it means. At the minute it's just a buzzword. You can say plant-based, and that's great, but what plant is it? What is inside it? What does it taste like? Everyone is just naturally going towards it and it could be full of trans fats or palm oil or just not taste nice. I need to know what's in the food I'm eating and more importantly have confidence in the food we are serving our customers.

Having said that, veganism is big for us and has been for a long time. I remember writing a blog five years ago comparing carrots to caviar when we were looking at a plant-first trend, but it wasn't until someone came up with this buzzword that it became such a big thing. We implemented a new menu structure this month focused on this area. For the industry the last option on the menu has always been vegetarian, but as a business we've switched that so that the first item you see on the menu is always the vegetarian option. Vegetarianism has come last and been the lower price point for so long, but that's idiotic to me. 

For me the biggest food trend is for people to get back to what really matters. What I mean by that is the seasonality of products, the sourcing of ingredients, and a more thoughtful way of cooking food. People are also very aware of the environment now, which is amazing as this gives me more hope for the future.

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