School caterers are ‘art’ your service, say Brookwood

For the love of food! Sue Parfett discusses the relationship between food and art...

We at Brookwood have often said that each meal service is like a theatrical event; performing arts, if you like. To some, cooking is a science, it was considered “domestic science” when I was at school.  However, caterers often have to display artistic aptitudes in order to ensure they feed pupils’ minds as well as bodies. The science is well documented these days; nutrition providing for current, as well as future, health energy and even mental wellbeing. Food preparation is also significantly a science, even without going to the extent of Heston Blumenthal. Catering as an art is more obvious in some cases than in others. A love of food by some people is very similar to the love of art and both feature hugely in the day-to-day lives of pupils and teachers alike.  

Food and art have a lengthy and intricate relationship stretching back centuries – for example, in literature, painting, even the development of European modernism, such as in Dalí’s Lobster Telephone and René Magritte’s The Son of Man. Similarly, food itself is more and more being considered an art form in its own right. Food writers and critics can get carried away referring to the “theatricality” of service, and discuss the mixture of flavours in food using metaphors borrowed from music: “symphonies” of sweetness, “harmonies” of texture, and so on.

We have to encourage our catering teams to be extremely aware of food presentation. The analogy, I think, is a useful one: chefs should take the same pride in their work as any artist does, and the same meticulous care and attention to detail should be taken in food preparation as an artist or writer would on brushstrokes and sentence structures. All are involved in the creation of an aesthetic experience, and the work created by artists and chefs can elicit complex and intriguing responses. 

Similarly, we celebrate the same level of creativity in our chefs as any good artist. Both are looking at ways of attracting, and even intriguing, their audience. The phrase “eating with our eyes” says it all. The more I consider it, the more I realise the need to look for artistic skills in a chef seems relevant for a modern catering service.

René Magritte’s The Son of Man

This way of thinking about food manifests itself in a number of ways; where presentation is as important as the variety of the food we serve. We have become much more interested in the theatrical element of food service: I remember one event at a large boarding school where canapés were served in the style of a circus, adding an additional layer to our service which creates an experience beyond simply the taste of the food. In addition, it is fascinating to see the draw of “live performance” to our customers: the queue will always be longer for food which is prepared in front of customers than the queue for exactly the same item ready-made. People quite understandably enjoy this element of food immensely, and it goes to show how closely connected food service is to theatre.

On a more mundane (but nevertheless important) level, too, food and art are linked: at a number of our schools which specialise in theatre and dance. The food we cook has to meet specific nutritional standards in order to support the performers’ bodies in their work. High protein and carbohydrate diets are vital to the heavy demands of performance, and we take pride in the small but incredibly important way we cater to their very specific needs, and help them reach their artistic goals. Yet again, food and art are intrinsically linked in ways which might not be immediately obvious.

Finally, if we treat our catering teams as culinary artists we may get to see more people looking at it as a rewarding career on many levels, and their meal appreciated as much as any fabulous work of art. 

Sue Parfett is Founding Partner of Brookwood, independent school caterer part of CH&Co Group.