Behind the scenes at Morrisons development kitchen in Bradford
PUBLISHED: 00:34 18 April 2013 | UPDATED: 11:14 24 October 2015
Words by Annie Stirk Photography by Andy Bulmer
Since the ‘Horsegate’ scandal galloped its way through our foodie consciousness, local butchers and unaffected supermarkets have seen an upturn in customers seeking fresh, locally sourced meat.
Stuart Baker, manager of award-winning butcher Lishman’s of Ilkley, says he’s seen a ‘definite increase in interest’ with ‘many new faces through the doors’, while Rob Smith, managing director at catering butcher Sykes House Farm in Wetherby, confirms inquiries are growing with customers questioning why other suppliers’ meat is so cheap.
‘People are coming to us because they trust our sourcing and we have an obvious supply chain,’ he added.
Hinchliffe’s Farm Shop in Netherton, Huddersfield, has reported an increase in beef sales of more than 10 per cent, with beef burgers rocketing by 72 per cent. Award-winning head butcher Craig Midwood believes this is because ‘customers old and new want to know what has gone into what they are buying’.
Yorkshire-based Morrisons supermarket, which has tested more than 300 of its products and found no horsemeat, has also seen an 18 per cent increase in the sale of fresh meat from its butchers counters.
‘Fifty per cent of our fresh products are made and produced in-house,’ says Neil Nugent, executive chef of product development. ‘And we have due diligence right up the supply chain so there’s no chance any horsemeat can get in.’
And he should know what he’s talking about because all of the 7,000 new products introduced by Morrisons since October last year have been created and developed at the ‘M Kitchen’ in Bradford by Neil and his team of eight chefs.
‘My job is to analyse and taste everything we create in-house from ready meals to oils and vinegars, and even tea and coffee,’ he explains. ‘It’s a brilliant job for someone who loves food as much as I do,’ he adds. Neil trained at Rochdale Technical College and worked as head chef on a private yacht before opening Pool Court with Jeff Baker in Leeds, where they notched up a Michelin star in their first year.
He then took his talent to London and France, working in Boulestin in Covent Garden, Bibendum in South Kensington, Moulin de Mougins with three Michelin star chef Roger Verge and at George Blanc.
He still has close connections with the restaurant world as a partner in the highly acclaimed J Bakers Bistro in York, but now relishes the challenge of developing supermarket foods that will appeal to millions.
‘It’s constantly stimulating, and every day I get to taste something completely different,’ he says. ‘That said, you can be the best chef in the world and make a great meal for four, but it’s quite a different story when you’re creating a meal for 11 million people.’
Every one of his team has had manufacturing as well as restaurant experience. His head chef Graham Mairs has worked with renowned three Michelin star chefs, while chef Richard Jones used to head up Bettys’ Cookery School in Harrogate.
‘Our chefs come up with the first benchmark recipe for a product, then our manufacturers (we have 17 in total) come in and taste it with us,’ says Neil.
‘Once we’re all happy with it, we brief them and send them off to make the bespoke recipe.’
Making sure the product is consistent requires a great deal of skill.
‘We want to ensure our customers get what they pay for, every time they buy a product,’ says Neil.
‘Even when a product is finally signed off, it’s put in a model store at the kitchen so the team can see whether it looks right on the shelf and, more importantly, check that it fits.’
The development chefs have to keep a close eye on food trends to ensure what they are creating will tickle customers’ taste buds.
‘We need a clear picture of what our customers want so we can make things quite far in advance,’ says Neil. ‘By February, for example, we were already planning what kind of Christmas pudding or turkey stuffing will be big this year.’
It can sometimes be tricky to translate popular restaurant food into a mass-market product though.
‘Mexican food is a real favourite at the moment but traditionally uses lots of strong seasonings,’ says Neil. ‘The skill is getting a flavour, an essence of this into the dish and introducing it to customers without overwhelming them.’
Reducing fat, salt and sugar in foods is also taken seriously, as is maintaining value for money.
‘It’s all very well concocting a brilliant recipe but if no one can afford to buy it, it’s no good,’ says Neil.
His toughest challenge, however, is defining the difference between Morrisons’ products and those of its nearest competitors.
Put simply: ‘How do we make our shepherd’s pie taste better than anyone else’s?’ Neil believes fresh products will always win out: ‘People love our fresh specialists – and even more so now. We have our own fish supplier in Grimsby, for example, and all our fish is delivered from sea to store within 48 hours.’
In the wake of the horsemeat scandal, fresh, locally-sourced products have gained exponentially in importance.
‘We have our own farms and breed our own cattle, working with the same 3,000 UK farmers for many years,’ says Neil .
‘We have full traceability of our meat, to the extent that you can trace it back to the field,’ he added.
Morrisons, which sells 100 per cent fresh British meat in all its stores, has joined forces with the Prince of Wales to develop a blueprint for profitable, sustainable British farming at its 1,000-acre Dumfries House farm in Ayrshire, where it breeds traditional shorthorn cattle and runs a butchery school.
‘The horsemeat scandal has been a real shock to the whole industry,’ says Neil. ‘But at least now there are measures and more food tests being put in place to ensure it never happens again.’