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More than beans on toast

The food at Pembroke is so good that rumours have long circulated about a Michelin-starred chef hiding in the kitchens. But what really goes on? Our College Recorder investigates.

When most of us are still dreaming under our duvets, Pembroke’s kitchen is one of the first areas of the College to wake up. Members of staff start arriving first thing in the morning to clean up from the night before and get the servery set up for the day.

Breakfast is then available from 8am, when around 100 bleary-eyed students (including several packs of hungry rowers) descend on the mounds of toast, pastries, eggs and bacon, and pancakes. Alongside the more traditional breakfast options, Pembroke’s catering team are characteristically innovative when it comes to breakfast. George mans a ‘street food’ bar, where you can order Thai crepes stuffed with coconut, and custom-designed omelettes that are made fresh in front of your eyes. It’s a hint of the variety on offer at weekend brunch, a firm favourite with Pembroke students that has acquired legendary status across the University.

Meanwhile, baguettes and paninis have to be prepared and taken over to the café for sale during the day. Everything is made in-house, so there is never a quiet moment for the chefs. In the pastry kitchen it is already time to start on the pastries for tomorrow morning, as well as thinking about the day’s cold sweets. Kinga has a special talent for sweet stuff: she makes a mean millionaire shortbread and her Christmas gingerbread house made the local paper. ‘I was staying two, three hours late every day to finish it,’ says the Polish-born Kinga, as she nonchalantly blasts some crème brûlées with a blow-torch, ‘but I didn’t mind because I was just enjoying myself so much. I was like a little kid!’

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Downstairs, Dorota is busy placing orders and sifting through invoices. Biting into an apple, she smiles: ‘I’ve done this job long enough now that I know what some of the chefs will need before they ask me, which speeds up the process.’ Next to her Savio, the College Butler, furiously edits a spreadsheet and suppliers rush by with deliveries. Debora clanks past; she is responsible for anything silver that is used by the Fellows. It all has to be counted out, separately washed and polished, and then counted back in. For almost the whole day she is in the silver room, a dingy space with two imposing locked vaults that smells strongly of the pink-coloured polish.

Back upstairs, Piotr slathers hot dogs in tomato salsa while Clare roasts big trays of beef. Amidst the hissing of onions in the pan, the steam rising from the huge saucepans of boiling stock and the sound of chopping knives hitting the counter, it would be easy to miss Raja as he passes through. Raja is responsible for the wine cellars – vast, musty caverns full of bottles that run underneath the College. He also serves the lunch, makes occasional trips to Sainsbury’s when stocks run low and is generally happy to help wherever he can. ‘He’s basically my go-to man,’ declares David Harwood, the College’s Catering Manager.

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David has overall responsibility for the catering provided at Pembroke and spends most of his time trying to think how the College can stay at the cutting edge of the industry. When new legislation was introduced at the start of the year concerning allergen labelling, he quickly introduced ‘Simply Pembroke’ – a selection of allergen-free food prepared in a separate area of the kitchen. Now his thoughts are fixed on a re-design of the server area and a new set of fork buffet menus.

He’s keen to show off the spreadsheet he has designed to work out the menus for each term, and it truly is a work of art: 500 dishes, each categorised and – at the click of a button – arranged into menus that maximise variety and minimise repetition. Each day there’s street food, something ethnic, something comforting and two options that are completely free of allergens. Add to this the side dishes, the salad bar, pasta, jacket potatoes, sandwiches and sweets, and you’ll see what the chefs have to contend with each morning.

With 300 people about to arrive to enjoy it all, the chefs have another task on their hands. A fork-buffet for four people has been booked and it is fiddly: fish terrine, vegetable risotto, scones, a dessert topped with handmade strawberry crisps. ‘At least it’s not as stressful as working in a restaurant,’ says George as he carefully slices portions of terrine. ‘There you have no idea how many people to expect, and then they start coming in ordering and you get given tickets. It gets really busy really quickly and everyone is shouting.’

Kinga, who used to work at Cambridge restaurant Côte, agrees: ‘In a restaurant you are trying to make a starter one minute and then you’re needed to do a sauce for a dessert. It’ll be really busy, then suddenly really quiet. At least here we know how many people are booked in for a function.’

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For evening dinners and Formal Hall (a candlelit, served affair), spaces are booked in advance and the menus are designed ahead of time by Head Chef Sebastian Little. The team expect around 100 to dine every night. Evening cafeteria, or ‘trough’ as the students call it, is less predictable. On a busy day in term time, a further 200 will come through for dinner. And then there are the Fellows to feed. Add that to breakfast, lunch and special functions and all told it’s a little shy of 1,000 covers per day.

Of all 1,000 meals prepared and served each day, the chefs rarely receive compliments. ‘We only tend to hear from people more if they’ve got a complaint,’ one sighs. They do remember the odd kind word: the student who stopped by to say how much he loved the vegetarian curry last term, the wedding couples who write to say they enjoyed the canapés. After a tiring morning in the kitchens, this is the resolution I leave with: to pop my head in more often and tell our Chefs just how spectacular – and appreciated – they really are.

For more about the catering provision Pembroke provides for students, see the College website.

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