Andrew Walker, Executive Chef, Compass Group discusses venue food’s impact on our mental health.
What’s your approach to brain food?
“As mental health rises higher up the social agenda, people are certainly starting to think about not just their hearts, not just about salt and saturated fats, but about the absolutely positive impact eating the right kind of foods can make on your personal mental wellbeing.
Menus can be designed to be good for our bodies and our brains, and there is increasing levels of research to support this.
The Feeding Minds Mental Health Foundation Report states that, ‘the body of evidence linking diet with mental health is growing at a rapid pace.’
We already know that food has a larger impact than the initial sensory experience. It can play a role in productivity, mood, concentration – all things we need to consider in the events world when we feed large numbers of people.
For me, good food is simply good karma. Knowing that what you’re eating has come from a good place and that simply by eating it, you’re actually doing something positive.
Having great messages and information about the food we eat gives people a sense of understanding and control about what they’re putting in their bodies. People want to know what’s going on inside them! And that’s what adds to great karma.
We can also help delegates feel good about themselves if they know that we care about food wastage and provenance as much as they do. Whether cooking at home or for a large-scale event, the green credentials and principles behind it have to be real.
Peoples thoughts in relation to all things green are macro and micro. Micro that they grow their own herbs or have a tub of parsley on the windowsill, macro that they know where our parsley is sourced.”
What are the ways in which the menu can help delegates feel good post-event?
“People understand the difference in the kinds of foods they eat at home and in the workplace and are now making choices based on ethics rather than just based on whether something is healthy or not.
Knowing their food is sourced locally, ethically, that waste is minimised – it may be that people can enjoy their meal and relish their experience more with this knowledge. We have used Menu Maps in the past, which show where your food has come from to create your menu.
By offering information about suppliers, the event can be used as a platform to create links with suppliers who have provided food that night, we call it a ‘menu in-depth’.
It provides real support and recognition for the community by showcasing their product and creating a full circle experience and a reality around what we’re doing.”
The mindful food experience – where does it start?
“The reality of experiential dining is knowing how to create feelings in the moment, understanding the difference between a padded table that curiously creates a feeling of comfort and calmness, and the harsh feeling of wood underneath your elbows.
It’s about tables not being overly cluttered, the right room temperature, music, the right levels of lighting, and a friendly approach to service, communication without pomposity and formality, but maintaining a real sense of professionalism.
All these important details provide the perfect backdrop for a mindful food experience.”
How well do venue chefs look after their own mental and nutritional wellbeing?
“The job of both a chef and an event organiser are demanding. They have a lot in common due to their work schedules and high-pressure environments. This can lead to all day grazing, snacking at night, eating the wrong thing, too much caffeine – unhealthy habits.
Food should be a priority in our own working day as well as a priority at our events.
On the event side, it is helpful in my experience for both parties to have trust in one another’s abilities. The event organiser can worry about one less thing if they are able to put their full trust and confidence into their chef or caterer. Knowing that they have the ability to achieve what you have asked for. Having this assurance means the food aspect of the event isn’t a concern for the organiser.
Similarly, we need to look after our own better. If we want people to deliver great service and deliver great food, we need them to feel great about themselves.
This starts with looking after their own nutrition - fried chicken in the early hours of the morning is a chef’s guilty secret that needs to stop.”
How much significance can the food served at an event have in regard to mental health?
“The food choices and the menu can stand for something and can reinforce a message, they can help illustrate a story or make a point. But they can also be a detriment to the event if they are not considered properly.
By curating menus that are designed to provide slow-release energy for delegates who have a long day of meetings means we understand that nourishing them properly is a duty of care.
We want them to get the best out of their events and we know there are links between diet and concentration levels. Lime Venue Portfolio has venues which have achieved ‘Food for the Brain’ accreditation which focuses on exactly that link - the importance of nutrition in mental health.”
What are your own recommendations for eating with consideration for mental health?
“Food is historically a social event. If you link happiness with food - the sitting down, the talking, the sharing, the laughing - that can only lead to wellbeing of a certain kind.
Christmas dinner isn’t defined by turkey or bread sauce, it’s defined by the people, the friends and family and loved ones who are sat around the table.
Having great food at events facilitates this positive interaction and social inclusion.
Andrew Walker was talking to Lime Venue Portfolio, the UK’s largest collection of diverse venues, all operated by Compass Group UK & Ireland.