Interview with an Innovator

Oakman Inns’ Ross Pike: ‘We want our pizzaiolos to be figureheads of the pizza world’

The pub group’s chef director talks about dealing with food waste, meat-free meals and the benefits of having a development kitchen.

8 March 2019
chefsitalianfood wasteMediterraneanplant-basedpizzapubs

Pike on Paper - CV

  • Worked in a variety of five-star hotels and Michelin-starred restaurants, before entering the world of contract catering
  • Used his experiences to launch recipe website The British Larder with partner Madalene Bonvini-Hamel, turning its popularity into a cookbook as well as a pub of the same name
  • Joined Oakman Inns in 2015 as chef director

Creating a development kitchen can be a serious investment for a business, but Ross Pike, chef director of Oakman Inns, is already reaping the benefits of his new facility. Completed last June, it’s situated above the pub group’s Beech House in Amersham and is used partly to train staff in the menu and partly as an area to test new dishes, away from the sometimes frenetic environment of a live kitchen. 

“From an opening point of view, we train all the new kitchen teams going in, which is really important and it’s hugely changed our consistency when we open,” he explains. “We have a very small window to impress new customers. If you get it wrong day one, that can impact us for quite a long time. So I wanted to make sure our teams were more than ready when they went into a kitchen.”

According to Pike, this prep time has not only helped improve the consistency of cooking at the Oakman venues, but also staff retention. With no punters to worry about, the focus is entirely on the training. “We were probably losing 50% of our opening teams. What we were having to do was take on huge teams because we knew that we’re going to lose people. Now I feel pretty confident that 90% of the opening team are going to stay,” he says.

With almost all Oakman kitchens possessing a Jestic Wood Stone wood-fired pizza oven and a Josper grill for steak, in addition to more typical equipment, there’s plenty for new chefs to learn – especially considering the raft of vegan options coming to the menu in April and Pike’s ambitious pizza programme, as he tells Food Spark.

 

We’re doing quite a big pizza redevelopment project at the moment. We had quite lot of head chefs that weren’t comfortable making pizza… Probably 75% of them were happy to leave it to the pizza chef. So what we had was very inconsistent dough in all our establishments.

I’ve taken on a pizza specialist who’s going to help me roll this out. So what we’re going to do is bring the head chef, the pizzaiolo [pizza maker] and the sous chefs from each site one by one into this training kitchen and spend a whole day making dough and teaching what goes into it. I’ve also done training videos in English, Romanian and Polish to basically follow that training programme and be very rigid on how we make our dough. Dough is a living thing and we’re putting in a lot of temperature controls… What that’s going to give me is a controlled dough every time, whether I make it in the winter or in the summer.

When all the pizzaiolos are trained, we want them to be figureheads of that pizza world. I’m going to be putting them into the National Pizza Awards competition – I really want to go for it this year. There’s going to be quite a bit of money spent on getting our pizza right, but once we’re happy with it, we’re going to scream and shout about it.

Pizza is probably 20% of our food business at the moment. We think people this year are probably going to downsize a little bit: if they were going out twice a week, they might go once a week; if they are still going out twice a week, their actual spend per head will come down. Pizza on our menu is the go-to start point. We’ve got a pizza on there for £6, and it’s the cheapest main course on the menu… Sometimes we are looked upon as quite expensive, so we’re making sure that entry price is amazing.

We are still trying to keep the traditional, cooking everything from scratch. And that is a little bit harder in casual dining. You are fast-paced, people want food quickly, all day.

When Brexit first came about, Peter [Borg-Neal, Oakman Inns CEO] said to me, whatever you do, do not cut quality… because that’s what everyone else will do and customers will start to notice that.

We take our head chefs away every year. Last year we took them all to Naples… We saw where we get our mozzarella from, we actually went out to the fields and picked tomatoes where our tomatoes come from. This year, we’re hopefully going out to see where our flour comes from for our pizzas, and we’re going to go and see where our prosciutto comes from as well.

We are a Mediterranean-based menu, so we always take them to a Mediterranean location where we think the food is great, just to reignite a fire in them. From that, we have a bit of a brainstorm session. What did we see? What did we like? And we talk about what we didn’t like as well. It moulds what we do going forward.

Sometimes we’ve jumped and put something on the menu, but then it’s bombed out. Then I’ve waited a year and put it back on and it’s sold fantastically. So we do look at what’s coming, we see the wave, and if it continues to go, we jump on it.

Every week I’ll get sales reports from all the business, which is broken down into each section of the menu. I’m constantly looking at what sales are going through, so quite quickly it’ll come up if a dish isn’t selling.

All our suppliers feed into Kitchen Cut [a commercial restaurant platform]. So when we devise a dish, it then spits out all the allergens linked to that dish. It’s very robust. We put the onus a little bit on the supplier to tell us what’s in all the ingredients… We then do gluten testing in our sites. Every three months we’ll have someone come in, order the gluten-free dishes on the menu, then take them away and get them lab tested. With the pizza ovens and flour flying around in our kitchen, we’re always aware that there are cross-contamination issues, but we are pretty robust.

From a customer point of view, all our sites have got front-of-house iPads. So if a customer comes in, they can basically list their allergies, go into the iPad – either themselves or with the front-of-house staff – and that breaks down the dishes they can and can’t have. We’re soon going to be loading this onto our websites, so even before people come to our sites they can go online and plan their meals.

We’d love to offer gluten-free pizza – probably 50% of our sites are now starting to get really high gluten-free take-up – but we don’t want to take the risk. We don’t want to put the customer at risk. Because we cook all our pizzas on the stone in the pizza oven, there’s always going to be flour in that space. So we’ve made sure that there are a lot of gluten-free dishes on our core menu. From starters, to main course, to nibbles and breakfast, there are GF [gluten-free] or GFA [gluten-free alternative] options.

The next menu we’re introducing a no-beef burger, the Moving Mountains B12 Burger.

We also work very closely with Vegetarian Express, which is a supplier. I’ve known Will [Matier, business development director at Vegetarian Express] a long time. He’s helped us really develop. So on the next menu, he’s working really closely with a company called The Vegetarian Butcher. We’re bringing their no-chicken product into our menu. There’s a no-pollo pizza going on, a no-chicken pasta and a few other dishes where we’re using that as well.

Even our grill section has got a vegan dish: a ras el hanout cauliflower steak. We try to drop in vegan dishes everywhere.

We’ve been very conscious not to have a separate gluten-free menu and a separate vegan menu. We put [the gluten-free and vegan dishes] into the menu. Because what Harriet [Harper, menu change project manager at Oakman] said is, I hate going to a competitor and saying, can I see what vegan dishes there are, and you get this small vegan menu and you feel left out.

We look at the trends that are going to be hitting us and whether we’re missing something, particularly in terms of Mediterranean and Italian food. At the moment I think our starter section is missing arancini, but rice is quite a delicate product and it’s got quite a short shelf life, so I need to develop something that can be made quickly and very precisely.

We’ve always got to develop dishes for that pinch point, on that Friday night or Saturday night or Sunday lunch, when we know the kitchens are going to be pushed.

Our biggest sellers are burger, fish and chips and Sunday roast. It’s the key classics. Our bolognese and our pollo e panna are also very strong.

After pizza, my next project is looking at if I can cut down food waste in our business. And also looking at where our food waste goes. We’re currently building a big garden on one of our sites. At the Akeman Inn, we’re taking on a gardener, and part of that project is he’s also going to be looking at sustainability in the business.

We’ve just planted 25 apples trees [in the Akeman Inn garden] – they’re all heritage, they’re local to that Aylesbury area. We’ve put 15 damson trees in, which are an Aylesbury variety of damson.

We’re going to be growing 60% under canopy – we’re actually putting the greenhouses in at the moment – and 40% is going to be in soil. When we get a little bit later in the year, we’re going to be growing all key aspects of our core menu.

One of the things we’re actually going to trial on the site is composting all our coffee waste and all our food waste into a tumbling system… Pretty much 95% of our food waste can go into that system, and I’m currently looking at tumbling machines that can fit into other sites.

We’ve got a very good food waste company that picks all our food waste up... That is what we see as the best route at the moment, but we want to look at trying to turn some of our food waste into compost. We then need to look at whether we’ve got the space and the power implementation for that, and whether it’s better for a big company to take the food waste away and make it into a product, or if it’s best that we do it ourselves in certain sites.

One of the things I want to try and do on the next menu is regionalise our pasta dishes, because we don’t do that at the moment.

I could go to 10 different places in Italy and eat 10 different ragu. And it could pretty much have every animal possible in it: rabbit, chicken livers, pork, beef, lamb, venison, partridge, pheasant. We put beef in ours at the moment. Do we start challenging the customer base with a venison and pork ragu, but actually say, ‘This is from Chianti?’ That’s kind of where I want to go on the next menu.

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