Twice a year, Robinson College’s catering team creates new dishes for its conference guests, focusing on locally-sourced seasonal ingredients. Head Chef Gary Dougan talks about working with the region’s leading food suppliers and what’s new this year.

Seasonality plays a key role when our menus are being developed and for maximum inspiration I like to produce these dishes when we are actually in those seasons to get a good feel for the ingredients available, as well as looking for new ideas. Of course popularity also plays a part in the menu choices as our customers would expect to see dishes that always work well.

This year our Spring and Summer conference menus include ingredients such as asparagus, basil, watercress, strawberries, peaches and sweet honey cress. We’re also including English charcuterie - prosciutto, chorizo and salami - hot on the heels of our European counterparts for quality. Using as much local produce as possible is essential, not only to support our economies but also do our part for the environment. This season we are featuring Suffolk lamb, Denham venison, Shropshire chicken, seafood from the British Isles, Fenland fruit and vegetables and wobbly bottom goats cheese from Hitchin!

When it comes to sourcing suppliers, the majority of people we work with are ‘consortium nominated’ which has a huge advantage in enabling us to achieve the best price, quality and service for the College as well as the rest of the University. In addition we use College-nominated local suppliers for which we undertake our own audits. It goes without saying that we openly encourage all our suppliers to source as much home-grown produce as practically possible in line with our food ethics policy.

It is vital that we build and maintain excellent working relationships with our suppliers so they get to know our requirements and our quality criteria. Over the years we have established a strong bond with many including: Andrews Butchers from Cambridge who supply all our East Anglian meat; Denham Estate for our fallow venison; Charnwood Fayre in Loughborough for all our poultry; Hilary’s of Cambridge for all our fruit and vegetables; Foodwell from Waterbeach for all our Maris Piper potatoes; M&J Seafood and Sam Cole for our fish; and Cheese+ from Papworth for our specialist cheese and chilled products. Other local suppliers include Powters of Newmarket and Infusions for Chefs and Thomas Ridley, both from Bury St Edmunds.

Our kitchen brigade produces over 4000 meals a week so it is essential that we operate as an effective team. Assisting me is my Deputy Head Chef, a third Chef, two Pastry Chefs and four Stove Chefs and together, we are responsible for the catering for all the conferences delegates, students, members of the College Fellowship and staff throughout the year.

After 23 years as Head Chef at Robinson the thing I have enjoyed the most is menu compilation, having a concept or an idea and matching flavours together. I also appreciate the day-to-day involvement with the Chefs, Food Service and Conference office teams who together work very closely which I think can be unusual in our industry but enables us to deliver a first-class operation for all our customers.

Every day is a challenge but a very rewarding and exciting one. Robinson College has an excellent reputation for all its Conference facilities and I am so grateful and lucky to be part of it.