The Jesus College chef and the feeding of the 900

Busy kitchens are demanding places. Tom Stewart relishes the challenge of being in charge of catering at Jesus College. Your reputation, he says, depends on upholding the standards you’ve set your team. It’s all about good food, freshly prepared, and wherever possible locally sourced.

Tom Stewart in the Jesus College kitchens (Nick Saffell)

I learnt everything I know from the chefs I’ve worked for. There’s nothing like learning on the job. If you’re keen to gain new skills, you need to ask questions and watch. When I started my second job, I spent two weeks chopping herbs until I got it perfect. Chives had to be cut to be exactly the same length and tarragon into precise half centimetre squares.

When I was at school doing GCSEs I was very unsure about what to do next. With a bit of a nudge from my parents, I signed up for a vocational training in hospitality at Cambridge Regional College. I quickly discovered that I had an aptitude for cooking. It was something I could put my energy into.

Commercial kitchens can be a volatile environment. There is a fair amount of shouting and screaming. It’s a product of the passion that goes into the job which becomes your life. You’re judged on your last meal, which is probably why chefs are so bad at taking criticism. Reputations can be made with hard work and determination, but can be destroyed much quicker.

Two years ago I was appointed as head chef at Jesus College. Before that I’d worked for hotels and restaurants in and around Cambridge. Working for a College is quite different but standards are just as high. Jesus College is an excellent employer. One of my chefs has been in his job for 29 years — a phenomenal record in an industry known for a rapid turnover of staff.

Sometimes we’re catering for as many as 900 people in a single day. I head a team of 11 chefs. Our day is divided into two shifts. The first shift starts at 7am and the second shift ends at 9pm — later depending on the number of courses being served. The meals we prepare range from a simple breakfast of coffee and croissants to eight-course tasting menus for formal dinners in the dining hall.

The dining hall at Jesus College was built in the 16th century. Apart from the main kitchen close to the dining room, we have a number of satellite kitchens around the College. It’s a question of planning and logistics to keep everything running and meals served on time. Getting food cooked and delivered to various points around the College involves a lot of running around.

We believe in freshly prepared food using the best ingredients. Wherever possible we use local suppliers — for meat, fish and vegetables, for example. We strive to produce the same high standard of ingredients and preparation for students eating day to day as for grand dinners attended by VIPs. It’s my role to make sure everything is as good as it can be.

Students want to know where their food comes from and how it’s been produced. They are absolutely right: it matters what we eat. Food miles, animal welfare and food waste are of increasing concern. All our waste goes to a local facility that recycles it into compost.

Tom Stewart at Jesus College (Nick Saffell)

My enthusiasm for food came from my parents. I was brought up in a village about 12 miles from Cambridge. Every night we sat down to a freshly prepared meal. Most of all I remember the Sunday roast and Friday night fish and chips. I was always hungry and I got to appreciate what it’s like to eat good food.

My girlfriend Angela is Italian. We met when we were working in the same Cambridge hotel. We clashed at first! She’s a good cook and her mother is even better. We often visit her family in Calabria, southern Italy. Her mum will be busy making ravioli and preparing the freshly caught fish for the second or sometimes third courses! Just over a year ago, Angela and I had a little boy. His first taste of solid food was a homemade vegetable puree. He’ll grow up speaking Italian and English, and enjoying cuisines from both cultures.

Our kitchen at home is full of equipment. My latest acquisition was a present from my girlfriend. It’s a water bath, and cooks foods sous vide, which allows you to slow cook meat. The meat is sealed inside a vacuum packed bag to retain the juices. Last night I used the stove to make Lancashire hot pot, Savoy cabbage with bacon, topped off with boulangere potatoes, all washed down with a glass of Spanish red wine.

White chocolate and white asparagus might not sound obvious choices but they work brilliantly together as flavours in ice cream. You never stop learning in the food and catering industry. I love trying out new tastes and experimenting with unusual combinations. Pork and shellfish make great partners in a dish. Maple-glazed cuts of meat such as duck breast or lamb sweetbreads work brilliantly thanks to the combination of salts and sugars.

We often plan College dinner menus around themes. The most unusual was a menu for a dinner that preceded a talk on toxoplasmosis given by one of the College Fellows. We devised a menu that reflected the regions and products affected by the disease. The printed menu card gave brief information about the links between the dishes and the disease.

Television has played a big role in raising standards. Over the last ten years, British cuisine has been transformed. We now have some of the best chefs in the world. The best meals I’ve had have been at Midsummer House in Cambridge and Gordon Ramsay’s restaurant at Royal Hospital Road in London. On both occasions, the food and service were outstanding.

My role comes with formidable responsibilities. My team and I work incredibly hard to make sure that we are always working ahead of ourselves. By spreading the workload we can take a bit of the pressure off at peak periods. The key to success in kitchens is to be organised and to plan each day from start to finish; it’s all a matter of timing. This doesn’t mean there are no stressful moments or close shaves.

But I feel incredibly lucky to have a job that I love. Being part of a vibrant and varied community, and preparing meals for some of the brightest minds in the country, is fantastic. They deserve the best food we can give them.

This profile is part of our This Cambridge Life series.