When ‘a little bit of this, a little bit of that’ won’t do

A busy year: Chef Richard Hughes at the Assembly House. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

A busy year: Chef Richard Hughes at the Assembly House. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY - Credit: Copyright: Archant 2017

Opinion: Chef-restaurateur Richard Hughes reflects on a busy year at The Assembly House in Norwich.

Time flies when you're having fun.

Can it really be 12 months since I closed the doors of my beloved restaurant The Lavender House in Brundall to concentrate all my (not inconsiderable) efforts on The Assembly House in Norwich?

They say you can't teach an old dog new tricks but I think it's fair to say I've been on a bit of a steep learning curve since making the move from one listed building to another.

The difference between employing four and 64 staff has been a challenge in itself, with the newly-created Human Resources department now having its own cabinet drawer with the heading 'Richard' - sometimes you just have to accept that not everyone sees things the way you do, which was never an issue with an incredibly small and loyal team who were all singing from the same song sheet.

And I didn't really factor in to the equation that I'd have to change the way I cook after 40 years on the stove. Spontaneity and on-the-hoof creativity are no longer feasible when you're serving 800 people a day. The kitchen is now all about order, systems and forward planning – these days, it's all about making sure we are prepared as if we're going into battle. Menus are created months in advance, dishes are costed to give the best value to the customer, our team is put together based on their capability to deliver what we're promising and each dish we send out is analysed and inspected weeks before it ends up on a customer's plate.

Simply keeping up with the allergen and dietary sheets ahead of service is a job in itself – my old recipe book with its 'a little bit of this and a little bit of that' instructions is now pretty much defunct.

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At a recent event for 94 people, the organisers gave us a list of 23 different dietary requirements. The logistics of cooking that are fraught with difficulty and incredibly time-consuming. The military plan to get each dish to the right person, many of whom are probably slightly inebriated, are even more challenging.

I'm not one to dismiss a diner's requirements. Having a two-year-old grandson with severe cows' milk and soya intolerances puts it into sharp focus.

Working at the NNUH, I see the efforts that are taken by the dietary cooks, one wonders how long it will be before we employ the same sort of skill set here at the House.

We took the decision very early on the embrace the changes in eating habits. An afternoon tea with no dairy, sugar, yeast or gluten? Given notice, we will produce it. It won't be the same as your 'we eat everything' companion, but will get you fed and watered, in some style in the most beautiful surroundings!