Head Chef of Cambridge University college on veg-led evolution

Photo courtesy of Sidney Sussex College, University of Cambridge

Stephen Mather, Head Chef at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, explains how a student-led approach means more plant-based options

The biggest challenge we face is being situated right opposite Cambridge’s busiest branch of Sainsbury’s. That means we have to be absolutely sure that we are serving our students precisely what they want.

That’s why at the start of every term we sit down with the governing body of students and I say to them: ‘This isn’t my café; you’re spending your money, so you need to tell me what it is you want us to serve.’ That is a very important meeting as it helps establish a relationship with the students.

There’s no question that over the 12 years that I have been here, we have seen the food we serve change dramatically. Back in 2005 when I started, we probably had one or two people who had to be gluten-free and a handful of vegetarians. Now, 30% of the students are eating vegetarian dishes and we’ve changed the menu to reflect that.

As well as grab-and-go for lunch, we do three main dishes for lunch and dinner — one meat, one fish and one veg and the sales of those (about 550 covers a day) are split almost exactly a third, a third, a third, except on days like Fridays when we do sustainable fish and chips.

The most popular vegetable-based dishes tend to be the Asian-style broths and stir fries — our customers seem to like a bit of a kick of flavour. A good sweet potato and spinach curry is always popular too, along with classics like cauliflower cheese. We are using a lot more lentils and nuts than we used to.

With those three main dishes we always put the vegetarian one at the top of the menu — whether that’s online or on the chalkboard in the cafeteria, because that’s what the students have asked for and because we want to upsell that more than anything else. We also do Meat Free Monday every week during term-time and that’s always popular.

I think that we have a responsibility to educate them about how to eat — they’re not just here to do a degree but to get a wider education that’ll help them live well for their whole life, and if we can play our part in that then that’s great.

We’re trying to encourage them to eat a balanced healthy diet, but if they want to eat a full English, and a can of Coke then they can. However, if you look at our most popular items, I think we have helped make a positive change as the top five are: bottled water, fruit, fresh locally sourced vegetables, meat and fish.

All of our main dishes are priced the same, £2.36, because we think they all have the same value. While a portion of salmon or chicken might cost us £1.20 to purchase, we are also spending on lovely fresh local, seasonal vegetables as well as nuts and seeds to make delicious vegetable-based dishes.

We also have soups, salads and sandwiches. When we re-designed the cafeteria we decided that the first thing the students should see was a salad bar. All of the soups and about a third of the sandwiches are vegetarian.

Very soon the kitchen will undergo a multi-million pound refurb and when we do that we’ll be increasing the number of main dishes on the menu from three to 12. I think half of those will be veg-based to reflect the growing demand — but we will have to gauge how sales go.

In terms of the meat we do serve, we are serving less red meat that we used to. Most of the chicken we serve is free-range and the pork is outdoor-reared. But if you asked the students what mattered most to them, the majority would say that they wanted value for money, while about a third would say that animal welfare was important. If we could put the price up by just 50p we could do so much more — but we have to be competitive as we are just one of 33 colleges where they can eat and there’s all the high street places too. That is a real challenge.

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