Big interview: David Richards of Four Seasons Health Care

Big interview: David Richards of Four Seasons Health Care

People person

David Richards has seen the catering industry from every angle, through a career which saw him start as a lowly commis chef at The Savoy, and spanned restaurants, pubs and outside catering before eventually settling in the care sector. His 45 years’ experience, plus a natural empathy and desire to please, make him ideal for his current role.

A ‘people person’, Dave’s naturally skilled at bringing the best out of the chefs he works with and getting them to see life through the eyes of the residents they are catering for.

“I just love to please people and that surely is the most important thing within catering, isn’t it? You’re wanting to have happy, smiling faces at the end of the service, and people saying to you, ‘lovely meal’ – and really that’s the only accolade that you’re going to get in a care home.”

Dave first went to work as a chef in the care sector through an agency. “I remember the second or third time they sent me out to a care home talking to people my parents’ age. The thing was, you didn’t get tips, but a carer might come to you and say, ‘So-and-so never normally has two portions of cranachan’ or whatever it might be, and I loved that.

“I really enjoyed being able to enrich people’s lives. When you’re working in a hotel or a restaurant the vindication of you doing your job correctly is by a lot more people coming back through the door; the thing you get with care homes is people maintaining weight, and being able to talk to them and finding out
that they actually do enjoy what you’re providing. Because it punctuates their day, doesn’t it, and it’s vitally important – for a lot of people in care it will be one of the few things that they actually have to look forward to in their life.”

It was while working for the agency (and also running his outside catering company) that Dave got involved in training. “BUPA and the Royal National Institute for the Blind asked me if I would be interested in doing some training for them on a self employed basis, then Westminster Healthcare (which became Barchester Healthcare) came to me too.” Around this time he also went to work for the Granby Rose Care Home in Harrogate, providing relief and holiday chef cover, and the private facility was bought by Four Seasons Health Care a few years later.

He was asked to do some training work for the company in Lancashire and Yorkshire which he did on a self employed basis until a more structured, full time job was offered around six years ago. Dave reckons that about 80% of his role now is training, but he also carries out a kitchen audit at each of the homes he visits to make sure the food offering is correct and kitchen management is up to speed, and he’s often asked by the Resident Experience teams to look at the food service operation as a whole.

“When the food leaves the kitchen, presentation will be of a certain standard because the chefs have time and effort and professionalism invested in that product. I like to think our carers are the same, but it’s not always the case so it’s vital that they understand what’s important. Being from a hotel background myself I abhor tables that are laid incorrectly. Of course a lot of people don’t eat at a table any more, they will eat off a tray watching the television – which is fine if you’re 20, but if you’re 70 or even 90 years of age you probably want to be sitting at a table with a few friends and you want that table to look as it should do – preferably with a cloth, a linen napkin and condiments, etc.

“It’s a whole experience, and making sure the tables are laid correctly and the music is of the right type for the resident group (which is not necessarily Vera Lynn!) is very, very important because eating, nutrition, etc is improved by making sure that the food you’re serving is served as well as it possibly can be, and also to maintain dignity, which is what we’re trying to do with our client group.”

A ‘Big Thing’ for Dave is food safety – not just in terms of hygiene in the kitchen but more to do with texture modification for those who have some degree of dysphagia. This is where he can get – in his own words – “a bit preachy”.

“Texture modification, with fortification where necessary, and the presentation of those dishes to make the food look as good as it possibly can is an area that I’ve become very interested in and get rather evangelical about,” he says. “It’s a large part of the training I do: they’re the areas of greatest concern and the areas that
a lot of chefs have less knowledge and understanding of. Most of our chefs have superb cooking skills, I’m not going to teach them a lot there, but when I talk about IDDSI levels they don’t necessarily know much about that.

“One of the first things I say in a training session is the most important thing about food in the care sector is safety. It can be tasty and nutritious but if it’s not of the right consistency and you don’t have the right equipment to texture modify food then you’re possibly impacting upon the welfare of the residents within your care – and even potentially putting people’s lives at risk. So that’s the thing I concentrate on, making sure the consistency’s right in the first place and that it’s going to be maintained at the right consistency; then we can look at presenting that in the lovely colourful ways that we’re now able to do with the latest innovations coming through from the industry.”

Here Dave talks excitedly about a new thickening agent he’s been working on with one of FSHC’s key suppliers, Brakes, that can be used hot or cold. “Texture modifying a main meal is not that difficult once you have the understanding and preferably a Robot Coupe Blixer,” he says, “but snacks and cold bites can be a bit trickier.” Together with Danny Silcock, Sector Development Chef at Brakes, Jamie Clews, Sector Chef for Healthcare at Robot Coupe and his own boss, Christine Hamilton, FSHC Executive Chef/Food Safety Manager, Dave has helped create a portfolio of dishes that showcase just what can be achieved with the new powder and demonstrated these to approximately 97% of the group’s care homes through training sessions involving regional managers, home managers and at least one if not two chefs from every operation.

Examples include a texture modified biscuit which is combined with coffee and piped into a shot glass with cream on top (“If someone said to me, ‘you’re never going to eat a biscuit with a coffee again in your life’ I’d be bereft,”) a savoury cheese scone and a plate of vibrant coloured salad including cucumber, cherry tomatoes, beetroot, etc.

“What we’re trying to do is give the resident who’s on texture modified food exactly the same quality of product, that looks as good and as similar as possible to a normal diet: that for me is a challenge worth mastering.”

One of the most important tools of the trade in achieving this objective is the Robot Coupe Blixer, according to Dave. He has one himself which he uses during training sessions. “Whenever I went into a home I’d say, ‘this is what you really need to buy’, and then I’d demonstrate how much better it is than the piece of equipment they already had. Pretty much all of our outlets have them now, which is a lot of money’s worth, but at the end of the day what’s the price of a life? That’s what I would say to people.”

Indeed it’s this ‘holding someone’s life in your hands’ aspect of care catering that makes it such a special and worthwhile job in Dave’s book. “I hate the term ‘journey’, but working in a care home can actually be a destination, not part of a journey in terms of a career. It needs to be held in greater esteem than it has been; there’s still the lingering perception that people who haven’t got much talent will go and work in a care home because it’s easy. Well we need to dispel that myth because it’s something to be rightly proud of – delivering great food and great service and pleasing people who have very few other outlets in life. And yes, in some cases making the difference between life and death.

“I think there’s a tremendous amount that one can gain from this side of the industry, but I wasn’t aware of that when I started out in care catering.”

Dave believes that retention rates in the sector would be better if career paths were easier to follow through the right training and development. “I think the new NVQ Level 2 Award in Professional Cookery in Health and Social Care is a great move in the right direction to give people a proper career pathway and for it not to be seen as a poor relation to hotels, restaurants, pubs, banqueting, etc. I feel that once it’s more embedded within the catering industry people will realise that this is a great part of the business to be involved with and not second best. It is different to working for Jamie, or Gordon, or whoever, and the pressures are different; but the importance of what you’re doing is increased by the fact that the people you’re catering for are in a more vulnerable state.”

He says that he and Christine are “in discussion with the powers that be” as regards the Level 2 Award and is hopeful that it will be something they can offer their teams.

Besides training another facet of Dave’s role is menu development, and part of his job is to ensure each chef is offering the right sort of regional cuisine. “We don’t have a corporate menu, because it depends on where you live,” he explains. “If you live in Scotland you will probably want to have cullen skink at least once a week, because that’s what you’ve grown up with, and there are some things you wouldn’t find in England, like stovies.

But these dishes are made differently in different parts of Scotland, so the recipes will vary depending on whether the home is in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen or Stonehaven, for example. A steak pie in Scotland would always be made with puff pastry and you would have it on New Year’s Day and sometimes on Sunday instead of a roast. And in some of our Leeds/Bradford homes, and certain parts of London, where a large proportion of residents are Asian, we have a specific Asian menu for both lunch and dinner.

“It’s so important to respect these cultural differences: it’s about trying to make our residents’ lives as normal and akin to what they are used to as possible, and we have the ability to do that, to meet those needs.”

Dave obviously does a lot of cooking ‘on the job’, so does he still enjoy cooking at home, I wondered? “Oh I love it, yes,” he says without hesitation. “If I’m home on a Friday I’ll usually cook and I nearly always cook on Saturday if we don’t go out. When we go away on holiday I’ll cook as often
as we eat out, actually. I just like creating (creating a mess, my wife would say, although I don’t think I’m that bad…)

Dave’s favourite food is fish and shellfish such as scallops and langoustines and he favours a full-flavoured cuisine. “I love Asian food, Indian, Bangladeshi; I’ve recently been turned on greatly by Turkish and north African dishes, tagines and so on, probably as a result of going round the country as I do and experiencing the wonderfully aromatic flavours our chefs bring out.”

Looking ahead to what he might want from a care home himself, Dave says: “Would I be difficult to please? Probably! It’s not an easy job to get right and I think the vast majority of providers do a really good job in the tough financial circumstances
we find ourselves facing now. So hopefully something very caring with lovely people.”

Which is exactly what this lovely man deserves!

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