Julianne Forrestal is one of only two women to have reached the highest position possible for a chef in the corporate catering sector in Ireland. Responsible for 500 chefs on the island, she talks to Maev Martin about her first year as Sodexo Ireland’s Executive Craft Chef.
Apart from Audrey Crone, Executive Development Chef at Baxter Storey, Julianne is the only female Executive Craft Chef in a contract catering company in Ireland. “When I started in college there were more males at college entry point,” she says. “Also, people change career paths and when they have family commitments they often fall out of the culinary world and the long hours that go with it. But the landscape is changing – there are a lot more females coming through in the next generation. This is reflected in the media with the recent Masterchef winner, and in operations such as Restaurant Gordon Ramsay where his support team is run by Clare Smyth.” Julianne regards the Sodexo/Ballymaloe masterclass in October and the Catex Contract Caterers Challenge in February as a couple of the highlights from the first year in her new role. “Darina Allen’s cookery programme on RTE 1 inspired me to become a chef so to be hosting a Sodexo masterclass at Ballymaloe was terrific,” she says. The masterclass, organised and co-ordinated by Julianne, was led by chef Rory O’Connell, co-founder of Ballymaloe Cookery School and annual Litfest and Good Food Ireland’s Ambassador for Irish Food. 15 Sodexo chefs were involved in the event on October 30th and Rory and his team of four chefs delivered masterclasses on bread, patés, terrines, and dips, as well as smoking classes on pollock, haddock and salmon. The day before, Rory and Julianne took the chefs foraging in the grounds of Ballymaloe to pick up some homegrown ingredients for the menus at the drinks reception and main event. For the reception there was a bread and butter table, a smoked and cured fish table, a shellfish table, and a wild foraging table – a wooden display with fresh herbs and edible flowers. This was followed by a dinner of spiced pumpkin soup, slow roast shoulder of lamb and garden autumn greens, with a selection of dessert options and cheeses. “Mixologists from Raise the Bar produced cocktails in The Grainstore at Ballymaloe where we worked to capture the ambience of the Litfest by bringing the fine dining experience into an agricultural setting,” says Julianne. “The ethos at Ballymaloe is locally sourced and simple food so the master class was a great learning experience for our craft team as they were working alongside one of the leading voices in Irish food in a setting that nurtures creativity and is sensitive to local provenance.” Sodexo’s team of chefs also won the Contract Caterers Challenge at Catex in its inaugural year, one of Julianne’s first achievements in the new role, and this year she will be sending chef David Fountain to Hotelympia in March. “In addition, Sodexo have appointed another Craft Development Chef in Munster, Glen Mullen, so that shows the growth that we are experiencing in our business and that we expect to continue experiencing in 2016 and beyond,” she says.
Catering for Competition
Sodexo has experienced strong growth and success in the last financial year, including the mobilisation of all Diageo sites in Ireland and the UK. “We’ve also greatly expanded the number of services that we now manage on client sites, in line with Sodexo’s strategy to deliver a comprehensive range of quality of life services to our clients,” says Julianne. “And we have scored in the private schools sector with the winning of the contract for Cistercian College in Roscrea.” The contract catering sector has become extremely competitive in Ireland in recent years with the entry of new players, such as Gather and Gather, to the market. “Our quality of life ethos – nurturing talent and training people to advance in their careers and offer customers a quality service – distinguishes us from the crowd,” says Julianne. “I’m constantly impressed by the care that managers at our different sites put into their staff development. We also have close relationships with Derry Clarke, who has worked with Sodexo for seven years, as well as with Bord Bia and Ballymaloe. Derry works with me to develop the hospitality menus at our sites, we offer his signature dishes in the restaurant, and our staff train in his restaurant. His expertise is extremely helpful to our business.” Another initiative that should help give Sodexo the competitive edge is its involvement in Origin Green. The company invested !21m in the procurement of Irish food in 2015 and 24% of that spend is with verified Bord Bia Origin Green suppliers. A further 10% is with suppliers who are in the process of becoming verified members. “Sodexo were early adopters of Origin Green,” says Julianne. “The Origin Green charter is well established in the food and drink supply sector but they are only establishing it now for the food service sector. Sodexo are carrying out pilot studies around nutrition, our supply chain, and corporate social responsibility, at all of our sites as part of our involvement in Origin Green.”
Health & Wellness for 2016
Julianne has a number of new initiatives planned for 2016, most of which centre around further developing the health and wellness aspect of Sodexo’s food offering. “January is a key rejuvenation time so we will work with our nutritional adviser Dorcas Barry and our ambassador Stephanie Roche to devise a new superfood product range incorporating detox properties,” she says. “Also in January we will examine the health and wellness food offerings on the high street and see what elements we can incorporate into our business. We are working with Bord Bia to see which outlets we will look at.” What is her opinion of the government’s plan to introduce mandatory calorie counts on menus? “It is more challenging to introduce this in restaurants and hotels where dishes change more often than they do in the contract catering sector,” she says. “It isn’t a major challenge for Sodexo as we have a food management system in place already. Also, we have more resources in this area than the average hotel or restaurant, with our full-time dietician and a menu management tool with allergen and calorie calculating properties built into it.”
The recruitment and retention of chefs is much easier in the contract catering sector than it is in restaurants and hotels. “Ambitious people will move from hotel to hotel and from restaurant to restaurant,” says Julianne. “For example, I went to work at Sheen Falls hotel because I wanted to work with a specific pastry chef. While the corporate catering sector does offer a seven day 365 days a year service to some clients, it does tend to be a nine to five, Monday to Friday role so people get more of a work life balance. But what is similar in both sectors is the importance of building the right team and rewarding them to ensure that they stay.” In addition, the type of training that chefs are receiving is, ironically, impacting on the supply of available skills. “The training at college level is encouraging chefs to be more entrepreneurial,.” says Julianne. “For example, Dublin Pop Up company is an operation run by Harry Colley and Cuin Greene, both of whom went straight from college to operating a unique business. However, this is a positive development and one that the industry has to encourage and find a way around when it comes to addressing the shortages that exist.” Julianne is concerned that the training available to chefs post secondary school has created a skills gap that needs to be addressed. “When I started training to be a chef there was no degree available like there is now so my qualification was NTCB 1 and 2 or Fetac level 6,” she says. “Now it has moved to focusing on degree level qualifications and we are missing a training level for the commis chef. Traditionally there was always a day release programme run by Fáilte Ireland/CERT in the colleges but its availability has been reduced significantly. This has a direct impact on people working in our industry who have no qualification but can’t afford to go back to college full time because of personal commitments. Also, there are no night time courses anymore so these factors are ensuring continued shortages of chefs at a specific level in the industry.”