Oxford college catering: behind the scenes

Those of you who watched the most recent series of Masterchef may remember the episode where the contestants went to cook for formal hall at New College, Oxford. I certainly do, largely because it was especially dear to my heart, being an Oxford University graduate (twice) who has had formal hall at New College on several occasions, and who has spent the last three years keeping time by the New College bells, my last two houses no more than a stone's throw away from the magnificent building. I was fascinated to see what went on behind the scenes, as I expected catering for over a hundred hungry students and academics to be far more frenetic and far more difficult than a busy service in a top restaurant. This was proven to be the case, if the amount of sweat pouring down the brows of the hapless contestants was anything to go by. I remember in particular Jackie and Tom being presented with an entire vat of rabbit legs that needed stripping of meat, and desperately attempting to calculate in their heads how long each leg would take and whether that would fit within the impossibly short time limit (it didn't, naturally, which of course made for extra-compelling viewing). Perhaps the entire experience was more stressful than your average Masterchef challenge because of the exacting demands of the clientele; I remember a young, coiffured young man pompously lambasting his starter, because it lacked the promised Oxford chutney element. Of course, it was not pointed out to him that the reason said chutney was not present on his plate was because some of the contestants had accidentally got broken glass in it.

We forget, of course, while those Masterchef contestants are jubilantly celebrating their survival of the formal hall service, that for some people such intense pressure is the norm. It can't be easy to cater to a hall full of demanding students every night. And yes, I do mean demanding. Although for most people the stereotypical student subsists on alcohol and refined carbohydrates, sees anything that doesn't bear the label "Tesco Value" as gourmet, and makes pasta in a kettle to serve with cold Dolmio sauce straight from the sachet (or, if they can't be bothered to do that, just has a pot noodle instead), I know for a fact this isn't true of all, or even most, Oxford students. And I'm willing to bet other universities too, though I've had little experience of them. Actually, I do recall an ex-boyfriend of mine from another university once tried to tell me how good tinned strawberries were. The sight of them nearly made me sick.

Certainly the students in my college, at least, are very interested in food - perhaps not enough to moan about the lack of an Oxford chutney garnish, but certainly enough to care about the quality of the food they get served in hall. It's a brave team of chefs that sets out to serve them every night, that attempts to make sure the Sunday roast isn't too try, the vegetarian dishes occasionally feature something other than chickpeas and mushrooms, the hot chocolate waffle makes a frequent appearance on the menu, the vegetables aren't shrivelled and sad after aeons spent under a heat lamp, the lunch provides enough carbohydrate for hungry rowers (lasagne with a side of baked potato? Yep, that'll do it).

Intrigued by the logistics of all this, I was delighted when our head chef at Merton College, Michael Wender, agreed to take me on a tour of the college kitchens. I had absolutely no idea what to expect, having never seen a college kitchen before, apart from the brief glimpses on Masterchef (and even then I was too distracted by 'Vegetarian Jackie' flapping around and crying, or Sara chucking glass into everything, to really admire the polished contours of the New College catering outfit). I had been told by a friend that the kitchen is much smaller than she expected, considering the amount of people they serve every night. I'd never actually known how many people that is - it always seemed like a lot when I was sitting in a fully-booked Sunday formal hall. There would be three long trestle tables packed with students, plus the raised High Table for the tutors, professors and their guests. Find it hard to imagine? Just think of the Hogwarts Hall scenes in the Harry Potter films - they filmed those at Christ Church, but Merton is really very similar, just smaller.

Michael told me that the largest single meal they have catered for comprised around 220 guests - they had to use both Merton's Hall and the Savile Room, usually reserved for functions like subject dinners (an annual affair where students from each subject have a lovely three-course meal with their tutors - some of them turn into rather raucous occasions, though mine never did; the English students and tutors are a fairly tame bunch). Incidentally, I'm fairly certain the New College dinner featured on Masterchef was not your average formal hall - it was probably what they call a 'guest night', which is a special formal dinner to which students (and tutors, I think) are encouraged to invite guests - the food is usually of a much higher standard, hence the pressure of the challenge. At Merton, a full formal hall usually means around 120 students and 60 High Table guests, a dinner in the Savile room around 50 guests, and a smaller private dinner in the Senior Common Room around 25 guests. Fortunately, Michael said, all three don't tend to happen at the same time. Even without all these dinners, college go through 900 eggs a week during term time. That's some serious mass catering.

I've had my fair share of Merton food, though to be honest I haven't eaten there much in the last couple of years because I've become so obsessed with cooking. In my first year, though, there was nowhere else to eat as I had no kitchen. Lunch and dinner would be spent in hall. This was highly dangerous, particularly when it came to lunch - you would just pay a set amount of money, around £2, and then you could eat as much of everything as you wanted (within reason). There'd be several hot food options, a vegetarian option, a hot soup to start, usually a hot pudding, plus a well-stocked salad bar bursting with bread, cheese, pasta salad and cold meats. I'd always want to try a bit of everything, and I figured I may as well get my money's worth. Needless to say, I put on quite a lot of weight. Dinner was either early supper (a two-course informal meal) or formal hall (three courses, table service, formal dress and gowns required - the typical Oxford experience). Again, it was a recipe for weight gain. I remember one day having braised steak and chocolate sponge for lunch, followed by lasagne and crumble for dinner. Even the stress of an Oxford education couldn't burn off all those calories.

Generally, the food at Merton (see above - beautiful, no?) while I did actually eat there was pretty good. Your average formal hall menu comprised a starter, usually soup (though sometimes a salad, or pâté, or eggs mayonnaise), followed by a meat-oriented main course (braised steak, meat pie, lamb shank), followed by dessert (often something hearty and filling like sponge, pie or crumble, though there was also ice cream and cheesecake). My favourites were the hot chocolate waffle (which achieved a sort of cult status, to the point where it appeared on the menu as "THE Merton hot chocolate waffle"), the crumble, the fish pie (in fact, any dish served for lunch on Fish Friday), and the braised steak with mushrooms. I also had a secret soft spot for the fish and chips, when I used to go to early dinner every night - it always seemed to be fish and chips. Another highlight of each term at Merton was the JCR Formal dinner, which cost £5 and comprised five courses - starter, main, dessert, cheese, chocolates and coffee. This was a recipe for stomach ache, as the menu wasn't always planned too well - if you're eating two courses before and two courses after, you probably don't want to be served a thick wodge of sponge and custard for dessert. However, you couldn't deny the value for money, and the cheeseboard was usually my favourite part (I would be extra careful to save room for it, perhaps leaving a pointless piece of courgette on my plate during the main course - why waste valuable stomach space that could be filled with cheese?)

The food served for special dinners was always rather lovely, and I've certainly been to a few of those in my time - Merton love to throw a special dinner for just about anything. Subject dinners, post-Finals dinners, matriculation dinners, Shrove Tuesday dinners (basically a "Oh, your finals are coming up, so here's some nice food to take your mind off the impending doom and pain" dinner), MCR dinners, graduate welcome dinners, graduate supervisor dinners...I've eaten very well on all these occasions. I had some beautiful fish dishes on High Table; a lovely little goat's cheese and beetroot tart; a delicious passionfruit posset with tropical fruit salad; a really excellent steak with béarnaise sauce. There was also a wonderful Graduate Dinner at the beginning of my second term as a Masters student - we had smoked salmon on dark bread to start with, followed by fillet steak with potato dauphinoise, followed by hot chocolate fondant. Possibly the most delectable gastronomic triumvirate on the planet. It was all perfect - the steak was absolutely as I like it, bright pink in the middle, thinly sliced, delicious. How they managed that on such a large scale, I do not know. I was about to find out on my kitchen tour.

The kitchen is, perhaps, smaller than one would expect, though I didn't really know what to expect. As you walk in, there is a central workstation for food prep and plating up, with large containers of storecupboard ingredients (spices, herbs, seasoning) along the middle. To my right chefs were busy slicing vegetables. I immediately felt dwarfed by an enormous oven to my left. Michael showed me some of the many gadgets interspersed throughout the kitchen, one of which was rather trendy - a water bath, for vacuum-packing meat and cooking it slowly at a low temperature to ensure maximum succulence. I normally associate such contraptions with people like Heston Blumenthal; Michael told me Merton are trialling it at the moment (though I'm not sure students are discerning enough to know the difference - if they're being fed a plentiful supply of meat, chances are they're not that bothered how it was cooked). There was an impressively vast induction hob, cleaner and much more efficient than gas. I was intrigued by a giant griddle: a far cry from my pathetic little cast-iron griddle pan, this beast was enormous, roughly the size of my entire hob at home. I was also shocked by how clean it was - mine is encrusted with year-old remnants of steak and chargrilled courgettes, but this was made from non-stick material so it was beautifully shiny. It's good for cooking things like steak or chicken where you want those lovely chargrill marks, though Michael also showed me a set of metal trivets that can be heated up and used for the same effect. There was also a plancha, a flat, non-stick heat plate good for frying things when you don't want them to stick or take on any colour, like eggs. I've seen one of these before, in a Japanese restaurant in Italy (perhaps the only one) - the chef slapped pieces of meat and vegetables onto it and stir-fried them right there in front of your eyes.

Perhaps the most fascinating gadget was what looked like a sunken metal sink (once, of course, I discovered that it wasn't just a metal sink - nothing particularly fascinating about that). Michael explained to me that this is actually a kind of pressure cooker. The kitchen has two - one holds 140 litres and the other 200. Using these, the kitchens can cook around 300 portions of stew at any one time - you wouldn't think so, from looking at the vats, but they are deceptive. The chefs also use them to make stock. I was really quite surprised by this - I always think that making one's own stock is the preserve of home cooks with a lot of time on their hands, and that even top restaurants sometimes cheat by using the cubes or liquid stuff, so a college is definitely not going to bother. However, Michael assured me that all the stock is home-made in the kitchens using the pressure cooker vats. Sometimes, he said, Merton make 600 litres a week. I found that quite astounding - that is a lot of stock, a lot of animal bones, a lot of time spent on attention to detail. "Have you noticed how the gravy always tastes really good?" he asked. I've clearly discovered the secret to one of my favourite Merton dishes - braised steak.

Next, I was shown round the kitchen stores - fridge, freezer and dry stores. We passed other gadgets on the way, like the ovens (one of them a combi oven, that can be used to steam and cook), complete with temperature probe to check the internal temperatures of cooked or cooking food for safety purposes, and a dishwashing area that looked like one of those baggage X-ray machines at an airport - dirty dishes go in, then reappear through strips of plastic spotlessly clean. Michael told me about Merton's waste disposal system that extracts all the water from kitchen waste and disposes of it as hard pellets, saving a lot of space. The dry stores were rather like an Aladdin's cave of weird and wonderful ingredients (some more weird than others). I'm always slightly fascinated by the scale of mass catering supplies - I counted at least thirty bottles of maple syrup (the chef explained that there were going to be some American guests staying at the college, and they like bacon and maple syrup for breakfast - my mind, accustomed to the £5+ price tag of a supermarket bottle of maple syrup, boggled at the sight of these bottles), as well as giant tins of chopped tomatoes and baked beans, big bottles of fruit purées, and sacks of pulses. There were huge containers of stock in the fridge and freezer, as well as assorted fruits, vegetables and meats. Michael told me about a giant wholesale food market he'd recently been to in Paris, and showed me a big crate of beef tomatoes he'd bought. They were like no tomatoes I've ever seen, squat and bulbous with a gorgeous glossy red colouring and ridged along the sides like little pumpkins. Later I saw one of the chefs working with them; he'd sliced the tops off and was going to stuff them. I was also shown a big box of the fuzziest peaches I've ever seen in my life - if I hadn't examined one further, I would have assumed they were just very mouldy. I can confirm they were not, as Michael gave me one to take home, and it was delicious. He said he was planning to poach them as a dessert.

In the equipment stores I marvelled at a gleaming array of giant stockpots and pans, infinitely cleaner than I would ever have suspected. I've done a little bit of mass catering in the kitchen where we have our Navy drill nights, and just assumed all equipment for large-scale catering is generally tarnished and warped - I thought it was inevitable. Not Merton's pans, though - they were spotless. There were serving plates and dishes of every shape and size, along with slightly more unusual props, like these scallop shells. I did actually have scallops in the shell at Merton fairly recently - I love that they keep a box of shells on hand for such occasions.

The kitchen is divided into sections, with chefs rotating through the sections on a weekly basis (there are seven full-time chefs and two part-time which, if you think about the number of covers, is not very many at all). As you walk into the kitchen, the pastry section is immediately on your right. I was taken aback by how tiny it is, especially considering Merton make most of their own desserts (pastries, sponges, etc). The key clearly lies in the impressive industrial stand mixer that dominates one of the pastry worktops - the kind of thing you would get if my KitchenAid mated with a cement mixer. This is where all the Merton cakes are made - they are rather fond of sponges for pudding, and I suppose it must be quite easy to produce traybaked sponge on a mass scale if you have a beast like that to mix it all up for you. I think a large factor in my putting on weight in first year was the sponge served at most meals - raisin sponge, jam sponge, chocolate sponge with chocolate sauce. Who can resist the allure of a nursery-style thick square of sponge, wobbling slightly and emitting comforting wisps of steam, golden on top and fluffy in the middle, perhaps flecked with raisins or chocolate chips? I definitely couldn't, hence my expanded waistline. Another of my all-time favourite puddings is Merton crumble - my friends often complained it was too stodgy, but that is exactly why I liked it. Isn't the point of crumble to be stodgy? I'm so glad I finally got to see the little corner of the kitchen where that beautiful combination of fruit, butter, flour and sugar was whipped up.

It really was fascinating to see all the work and all the processes that go into producing a meal at Merton. I'd never really considered before how the kitchen managed to produce all those plates of food at any one time, but Michael explained that often they would cook the meal in advance, plate it up, then blast chill it on the plates. The plated food would then go into the oven to reheat, before being brought out and served (on a very hot plate!) I'd never have thought of that before. You can see one of their many ingenious plate-stacking devices below. I wish I could do the same when I have friends over - it would certainly take the stress out of cooking if you could just freeze the entire plate of food and reheat it once the guests arrived.

One question I did have for Michael involved the absence of fish from Merton's menus, especially as a fellow Mertonian and I had been discussing this issue recently, both of us ardent piscivores. They do cook salmon quite a lot, and generic 'fish and chips', but apart from an appearance of tuna that later transpired to be an isolated incident, I have rarely found fish on the menu (apart from on High Table, which is another story - I had a beautiful red snapper fillet there once, as well as a gorgeous sea bream). Michael once sent out an email saying "I read somewhere I am obsessed with meat", so perhaps the carnivorous tastes of the chef were the root of this issue. I thought it might be because fish is difficult to cook for a mass audience, as it doesn't take kindly to overcooking and reheating. Apparently the reason is more simple - fish is just too expensive. Even fish like mackerel? I asked. Michael pointed out that mackerel needs to be eaten very fresh, and by the time it's made it to college it's likely to be a day or so old already. I guess that explains the sad dearth of fish on Merton's menus. My solution to this problem was just to eat at High Table as often as I could, because they always had a fish course, and it was always delicious.

I hope any of my fellow Mertonians who are reading this will find it interesting (and others, of course); I certainly was fascinated to discover the amount of work and planning that goes into college catering, particularly the little logistical things, like freezing the meals on the plates, or making stew in a giant pressure cooker. It's no mean feat to plan menus for three meals a day (or more, if there are special functions going on at the same time), seven days a week, especially with the care that Michael and his team put into the food (this year he's been sending regular emails to the student body highlighting particularly notable dinners and ingredients, such as the strawberries grown 6 miles away from college to be served with cream from a village 10 miles away from college, or the formal hall where Label Rouge free-range duck was to be served). I always imagined chefs in charge of mass catering would have become jaded, bored of food, concerned only with mass producing the same old things, but Michael seemed to cherish a genuine passion for food and a real interest in how to do new and interesting things with it. With such a small team and a tight working space, I'm impressed Merton manage it all, especially when they have to cater to the high standards required of special dinners on top of the normal formal hall, and when they have to deal with the likes of me, being super-critical about all my meals.

Eat your heart out, Masterchef contestants. You only had to do it for one service.