Focus: Eating: Eat Up Your Prosciutto like a Good Boy ; Hospital Mince Will Be a Thing of the Past If Loyd Grossman Has His Way. but Can a Celebrity Really Transform Cooking for the Masses?
Prince, Rose, The Independent (London, England)
hen celebrities Wput their names to a mission to reform British "institutional" food, they can be sure of one thing: they can't fail because they are approaching a situation where matters are unlikely to get any worse.
The catering industry's seemingly impossible tasks are well- known - trying to do away with wonky offerings in swerving buffet cars, with soggy, twice-cooked ready meals at high altitude, and with congealing hospital fish with accompanying greying peas packed in a thermos box.
Last week the television presenter, Loyd Grossman, with a personally appointed team of seven, unveiled plans to revamp hospital food. They were greeted with some cheerful debate, and some derision. John Humphrys, presenter on BBC's Radio 4's programme Today, wondered if Grossman had ever eaten a meal costing 80p, the average price hospital kitchens spend making a meal.
But the fact that the issue had gained any notoriety at all was welcomed by the project. Its founder, the Patients' Association, had alerted the NHS to the dissatisfaction felt by patients for hospital food. The next stage, however, had meant grabbing the attention of politicians for a change in policy and also access to the Treasury purse.
The association could have gone about it the usual way, making many representations along the corridors of the Department of Health. But why bother when the same could be accomplished through the media?
"The most important thing is that more money must be spent on hospital food that patients want, at times when they want it," said Simon Williams, the assistant director of the Patients' Association. "And these days public relations is the most important thing when you want to influence the agenda of politicians." In other words it's the use of celebrity that makes for a fast and effective track to any change in policy.
Personalities have been used to effect change in food culture ever since Marguerite Patten, through her cookery demonstrations, successfully advised wartime housewives on how to make the most of their rations.
Prue Leith fared less well with British Rail in its dying days. She made a similar stab with the royal parks - in the face of advice from park workers who told her that louts in central London would throw her new tearoom cutlery into the Serpentine lake. But now, with the Focus on Food campaign, she has taken on the arduous task of convincing schools to put cooking on the curriculum.
But the employment of a familiar face upfront when you need a change in institutional food culture is just the beginning. After a launch party, with smiles all round, the celebrity must meet the rest of the team. And, with catering, the team can run into thousands, all of whom have been doing it "their way" for some time - sometimes the wrong way and sometimes the only way within the confines of the job.
After rail privatisation, the GNER company recruited the McCoy brothers, respected proprietors of McCoy's Bistro in Staddlebridge, near Northallerton, with a mission to give the food in the buffet cars a facelift. The McCoys approached the task in a practical way: they got on to the trains and attempted to cook.
"You know you've taken on a difficult job when you're hit over the head by a Villeroy and Bosch saucepan as the train takes a bend at 110 mph," said Eugene McCoy. "It's been a huge task. You have to retrain chefs, find the right suppliers, factories, get round all the problems."
The McCoys' work for GNER was feted, and Grossman recruited them for his own mission. However, Eugene McCoy expected difficulties. He said: "Going into another chef's kitchen is the worst thing in the world. The hostility on the faces of the other chefs - they think you are going to pick holes in what they do. …