Undoubtedly one of the biggest horse racing meetings in the world, The Festival presented by Magners, Cheltenham, has been one of the cornerstones of bringing ‘a day at the races’ into the general public’s consciousness.
Welcoming up to 265,00 spectators across four days, The Festival is amongst the most watched and attended in the racing calendar. Hearing the roar of the crowd as the horses start their journey to fame and fortune is spine-tingling – I am fortunate enough to have been there to witness it and it really is special.
During the past couple of years, sports and leisure venues have been catering industry leaders in pushing the level of what can be achieved during a live event and Cheltenham is right there at the forefront.
From the 12th to the 15th of March this year, more than 11,000 guests will be fed eachday across hospitality outlets of different guises, including traditional plated foods, buffets, grazing stations and street food.
There are 35 kitchens on-site during the festival, with up to 400 chefs on Gold Cup Day and a catering team back-of-house of up to 4,000.
The man with the unenviable task of overseeing catering at the festival is Tom Parry, regional executive chef for the Jockey Club Catering at Cheltenham Racecourse.
“We start planning the menus in the June the year before,” he says. “In August we look at the recipes and in September we can start selling the hospitality packages and presenting to clients.
“I have been working with the meat supplier since August, and he has been purchasing from Ludlow Market, where all the farms all the way down to Devon bring their cattle. He has been purchasing our lamb, beef and pork since August last year.”
Since racing finished on New Year’s Day, Cheltenham Racecourse has been undergoing its transformation with some 35 temporary kitchens and hospitality structures being built in time for The Festival.
But while numbers are huge, dining at The Festival is centred around South-West-sourced foods, including the 100% sustainable smoked salmon from the Severn and Wye and cured meats from Trealy Farm in Monmouthshire.
Some 70% of the fruit and vegetables are sourced within the Cotswolds region, while 100% of the cheese is produced within 50 miles of Cheltenham.
“It’s about giving them true food and local,” says Parry. ““Jockey Club Catering provide a number of retail units on site. For example, Quevega’s offers traditional tapas and Tommy Shack’s burgers are all homemade as well.”
The emphasis on provenance and locale is not the only trend that The Festival’s catering follows.
“A big part of my role is looking around at the trends and seeing what is happening,” explains Parry. “I have already been looking ahead for possible trends for 2020.
“The Japanese influence is in full flight, especially within street food. Australasia is also coming to the forefront with Asian flavours, freshness and lots of seafood at the centre.
“On plated foods, it is a lot of amalgamation of flavours,” he adds. “For instance, in desserts, people are looking for layers of flavour. It’s visual as well as the amalgamation of flavours.”
Food production begins in February, with the festival site becoming a 24-hour operation. Delivery schedules are a challenge, arriving and continue during the hours of 9pm to 8.30am on the festival days.
“There is no movement on-site until 9pm because there are still a lot of clients around, using Final Flight, which is an after-hours experience,” says Parry.
“There’s no vehicle movement allowed on-site while customers are still around and it shuts again early morning as police close the roads – so the night teams are really busy.
“The suppliers that we have are really good. We forecast the volumes for them, so they are stockholding, then we draw the products that we need to the areas.
“It’s all about the planning. If you don’t have the right planning, you are just trying to catch up all the time.”
If potentially catering for 120,000 people, each with different tastes, wasn’t challenging enough, the desire to offer a world-class service means that menus change every day within a large number of the hospitality areas.
“All plated dishes change every day in hospitality,” says Parry. “The restaurants have a full selection of five starters, five mains, five desserts, with two different Dishes of the Day each day in each section. So, there is a massive choice.”
So, how do you even begin to organise that structure?
“I treat every kitchen as a separate business and then move on to the next restaurant. I hand that kitchen over to each head chef in that area,” says Parry. “We are basically running 65 individual businesses.
“I do all the menu plans myself. Once we have the vision, I have a team of 10 full-time chefs on-site that work together on recipes, and we make sure we are happy with what is on the plate and whether it is achievable.”
Storage is a huge part of the operation.
“On a core plated menu, we could do 7,000 a day of one dish,” says Parry. “So, every kitchen has its own refrigeration and we also have four artic containers which we have craned in. I have a team of 10 in dispatch who facilitate to all the kitchens to make sure they have everything they need throughout the festival. We act like a shop.”
In the five years since joining the Jockey Club Catering team at Cheltenham – previously he was with Sodexo at Ascot Racecourse – Parry believes there has been a big shift in how dining at the races is viewed.
“It has been a massive swing,” he says. “When I first got here, guests were eating very old-style food. But working with the clients we have now pushed the boundaries and introduced new concepts and designs. The expectations have grown, too, and customers are very educated on food; people are more adventurous now.
“They have changed the way they eat and they come for both experiences: the food and the racing.
“I’m glad they do come for the food!”
NEW FOR 2019: THE HORSE & GROOM
In 2019, The Festival will introduce The Horse & Groom pub concept.
Named in honour of its sporting roots, this newest addition to hospitality at The Festival will offer a relaxed, informal experience, from sampling a flight of beer and choosing your drinks at the bar to enjoying a trip to the themed food offering carts.
“It is gastro pub-style hospitality but using the best ingredients to make the pub dishes,” says Parry. “This is where I would go. There is flexibility, there is craft beer and a micro-brewery in there, too.
“It’s a large open space. They’ve thought of every angle.”
Located overlooking the final two fences of the racecourse, The Horse & Groom offers a full array of dishes from breakfast to casual lunch, which guests choose to have at any point during the five-hour racing period, followed by afternoon tea.
WATCH OUT FOR:
The 40-day-aged ribeye steak.
The foot-long homemade sausage rolls.
THE PACKAGE INCLUDES:
Coffee and breakfast bites on arrival Three-course à la carte pub lunch Best of British savoury afternoon tea Complimentary bar including house wines, spirits, beers and soft drinks
LOOK OUT FOR: NEW AND OLD
“We just had six guéridon trollies made to offer in-room/tableside carving of Chateaubriand steak,” says Parry. “We are introducing some old-school ways of doing things at a couple of the high-end restaurants. We tested it out at one of the race meetings and the customers absolutely loved it.”
Chez Roux is one of the most prestigious restaurants at Cheltenham during The Festival, hosted by the world-renowned, Michelin-star chef Albert Roux, his son Michel Roux Jr and granddaughter Emily.
This fine-dining experience offers the very best cuisine, with stunning dishes to savour whilst watching the best jump racing in the world. Situated on the third floor of the Chez Roux boxes, the best views can be enjoyed from the balcony as the horses thunder up the hill on their way to victory.
“We have increased capacity there, too, to meet demand, to a 500-seater restaurant,” says Parry. “The Roux family create the menus and work with myself on purchasing the best produce and goods for the bespoke designed recipes. I do all the purchasing and see what is available before tailoring the menus around that.”
This package includes: Morning coffee and biscuits Moët champagne reception Canapés Exquisite four-course menu Afternoon tea Albert Roux-recommended wines, beers, spirits and soft drinks Racing tipster to highlight top runners and riders
MOST POPULAR: CHAMPIONS WALK RESTAURANT
The Champions Walk Restaurant is opposite the horse walk, offering fabulous views of the horses as they move between the Parade Ring and the course. All dishes are served as grazing and bowl food, with the menu inspired by the best of local Cotswolds produce.
“A lot of people are moving away from sit-down plated, and towards more relaxed dining,” says Parry. “During the racing, it is only 20 minutes between each race, so people don’t want to be tied to their seat. This gives us a flexibility.
“It is bowl food experience, they have the flexibility to graze whenever they want – lunch offer and grazing stations available all day for customers who prefer that style.”
This package includes: Morning coffee and biscuits Champagne reception Charcuterie selection Four bowl taster menu Pudding club / dessert table Cheese table Afternoon tea Complimentary bar inc. fine wine, beers, spirits and soft drinks (excludes champagne)
THE THEATRE@ THE FESTIVAL
Situated on the third floor of the premium course-facing suites, The Theatre@ The Festival offers a very innovative sporting hospitality, combining a Pan Asian Theatre experience and the very finest of backdrops.
The offer is a premium but casual environment, relaxation and attention to detail are the order of the day, along with exquisite dining influenced from the continent of Asia to the foothills of Cleeve Hill.
“We are keeping the same principles with nice clean Japanese and Asian foods,” says Parry. “Guests started booking that while sat at the table in there last year.”
WATCH OUT FOR:
Guests can choose between more private booths or the open restaurant with chef’s table-style viewing of the theatre kitchen.
This package includes: Artisan tea and coffee on arrival with breakfast bites Pre-lunch cocktails and champagne Three-course pan Asian lunch Afternoon sweet and savoury tea Complimentary bar including beers, wines, spirits and soft drinks