Transforming a traditional kosher catering company into a cutting edge food business is just the latest challenge chef David Swann has set himself
When David Swann was brought in to Sobell catering, he found a company behind the times. Following a steep cultural learning curve, Sobell has become Food Story, and no less than a revelation in kosher events cooking:
Where were you working before Food Story?
I worked with Marks and Spencer and Rhubarb food design. Previous to that I worked for Gordon Ramsay and spent a lot of time with Heston Blumenthal, where I learned the quality aspect, the thought process, the science. Really diverse, broad experience.
What was Food Story like when you arrived?
The food couldn’t have got any worse. We had a lot of clients booked with menus in place that were pretty much roast chicken breast with stir-fried veg and rice. From working in three-Michelin star restaurants and to come here, the thought of serving rubbish to 300 people was painful.
So what did you do?
Slowly but surely we introduced new menus to what was a Middle Eastern theme and we introduced seasonal menus, spring, summer, autumn, winter and learning what our clients want and working alongside food trends in the restaurant scene around the world.
What is your approach to the food?
We bring restaurant food into events. Rather than a piece of meat, potato and sauce and beans tied with a chive, we just push the boundaries and people are enjoying that.
Give us an example …
We’ll serve a sushi platter after 10 canapes. Fresh sushi. Recently a main course was a duo of lamb, which was cutlets of lamb, a pulled shoulder wrapped up in a pastry parcel spiced with our own Middle Eastern spice blend with fondant potato, lamb jus, fresh peas, chocolate fondant. Our challenge was gluten-free for the dietary requirements, served with coconut and a yuzu gel.
We have Asian-influenced dishes, bone broth, roast rib of beef, with pulled short rib of beef, rice, tenderstem broccoli, garlic and chilli; all very popular with our clients.
And what are the restrictions of kosher like?
We’re a meaty kitchen which means there’s no dairy: no butter, no cream. That makes life difficult when you can’t cook with butter. We’re not allowed fillet steak, so we’re restricted. You’re not allowed to use the first forequarter of the beast and not the back part. You can’t have any of the fillet, the good parts!
So what does it mean working offsite?
We have to kosher kitchens, so we send our porters along to clean and one of the shomers [an overseer of kosher principles] has to supervise the cleaning, cover certain areas, clean the ovens and remove non-kosher items.
It sounds like a lot of effort …
We say we’re more kosher than kosher. With Israel, our kosher and their kosher are two different things. Ours is through the roof and they are 30% unsurpervised – it’s as if as long as you are not feeding people lobster and pork belly you’re kosher [in Israel].
How far has Food Story come?
When I started here they were doing spring rolls from the freezer, it was so bad it pained me to be in the building. Now our canapés are individual dishes, they take two or three days to prepare, there’s a lot of hard work that goes into them.
We were at 25% [when we first took over], now we’re at 70% and with more money and investment and staff we’ll be through the roof.
There’s not many kosher restaurants in the mainstream in London?
There’s no benchmarks, so we don’t have Jewish restaurants to talk about and we toyed with the idea ourselves and we’re still talking about doing something, somewhere. We might try a pop-up and look to see if there’s interest in a fulltime restaurant.
What would be your last meal on earth?
This is tough – it would probably be a good steak and chips with béarnaise, probably washed down with red wine and a side of Guinness.
What’s your favourite London restaurant?
It’s too tough! I’m torn between Zuma and Barrafina.
Q and A by Charles Howgego