Time constraints, large quantities and compacted ordering times. These are three of the factors that work against chefs in any kitchen, but at Birmingham Hippodrome they are part and parcel of every service.
The Circle Restaurant at Birmingham’s leading theatre and arts centre has taken its turn in the spotlight after it was awarded an AA-rosette for its quality offering, despite the aforementioned obstacles.
The restaurant has been rewarded for its use of quality, locally produced ingredients and dedication to seasonal menus that change to suit the audience of each touring production that stops at the theatre.
“The Circle Restaurant is here to provide a fantastic experience,” says catering and events manager Andrew Hogarth. “But we have all the trappings of a theatre. We have to make great-looking, great-tasting food, quite quickly.
“Sometimes we can have a maximum of an hour to serve someone three courses and get them into the theatre. It can be a real challenge.”
On an average the restaurant hosts 90 covers, but during busier productions a second, smaller restaurant can be set up to bolster numbers. But that is far from the total number of diners that can use the theatre at any one time. With a potential audience of 1,800 in the main auditorium and a further 200 in The Patrick Centre theatre, there needs to be more covers.
“Our conference and events space can do gala dinners of up to 200 people,” says Hogarth. “There can be private dining in our function rooms. They can be show-related, with a three-course set menu, like in the Circle Restaurant, through to bowl food for up to 60 (served by a smaller satellite kitchen) people before they then go and watch the show.
“We can have a lot going on at once.”
A major refurbishment of the conferencing areas, the restaurant and kitchens will be followed by an upgrade for the front of house areas in the near future.
For now, the Hippodrome’s expansive atrium supports three bars, one on each level.
They boast 10 contrasting wines by the glass or bottle and champagnes by beverage partner Laurent Perrier.
Draught beers include Czech options Pravha and Staropramen as well as Sharp’s Doom Bar ale from Molson Coors.
Cocktails are available before the show, with a two-for-one Happy Hour scheme introduced from 5.50pm to 6.30pm to encourage guests to arrive at the theatre early.
There are also a number of pop-up stands, including the Laurent Perrier Stand which offers champagne cocktails in the stalls during certain shows.
In terms of retail food outlets, the Deli Bar offers on-the-go options, including a selection of cakes, home-made sandwiches, fresh bean-to-cup coffee, hot chocolate and cold drinks – covering those who may not have time for a sit-down meal.
But for those that do, the restaurant has a service plan to make sure it can deliver the best meal possible.
“In the evening, it’s very rare that we aren’t full,” says Hogarth. “So we try to not have walk-ins where possible. We like to know exactly what we have got booked in – that way we can control our figures and wastage a lot better.
“If we start doing walk-ins, during some quiet matinee performances we might have to gamble on the amount of staff and food needed. So we will maybe do two or three walk-ins of an evening show, but very few in general.”
The restaurant is served by an online booking system and advertising is very much linked to that. Guests booking tickets through the online box office be reminded of the Circle restaurant and all catering offers.
“There is also only one sitting. If you dine here, it is your table for the evening,” adds Hogarth. “That’s a theatre tradition, people like to come back to their table for drinks or dessert during the interval.
“It is one of the major selling points to the restaurant, that guests have their table all night.”
On the night, the menu will be set with three or four options for starter, mains and desserts (or Act I, Act II and Curtain Call as they are known at the Circle).
“We tailor the menu to the show,” adds Hogarth. “For example, for Coppelia there were a number of classical dishes. But when the Addams Family show came here, the menu was based on a lot more family dishes because we had a lot younger audiences. So we had things like slow-cooked ribs, slaws, fries and halloumi burgers.
“We are putting a lot more thinking into targeting audiences and tailoring to very specific audiences coming to whichever show.
“Looking a lot further into the future, at the seasons and shows, it allows us to analyse where and what we can buy in bulk and make last longer and use it better.”
Melissa Menns took over the head chef role at the theatre having spent a career spanning 17 years catering within high-end hotels.
Previously at the Marriott Forest of Arden, a 240-bedroom hotel on the outskirts of Birmingham, Menns served a lot of food, to a lot of different people, every day.
“It was a role that really prepared me for this one,” she says when asked about the pace of service at the Hippodrome.
“We are trying to build a strong team of six chefs to deal with the type of food we are doing and the service that we offer,” explains Menns.
“It has to be very quick to serve 90-95 covers in the two-hour service time which we open before a show. It can be hard to keep up while maintaining a high standard of food.
“My standards are very high as to what I like to present to customers. If it’s not right, i’d rather the customer wait with a sorbet in between dishes so we can make sure the food that they have ordered and paid for is exactly how it should be.”
The changing menus are planned in advance to make sure the appropriate ingredients can be sourced.
“We have moved to using seasonal menus which change completely every three months, and there are certain dishes I will change for every show,” explains Menns.
“I don’t want people to come here twice in that period and have to have the same thing again.
“Normally I will start working on menus as soon as possible, I am already working on our Christmas menus. I do try and keep ahead so I can negotiate with suppliers and know what I am going to be looking to use, and make sure the best produce is seasonally available.”
Tailoring menus for each show allows the chef team to be creative.
For example, the boxing and northern England themes that run through the Billy Elliot stage show appear in the form of Round 1, Round 2 and Knock Out Extras in terms of courses, while dishes such as pot-roasted Shropshire spring lamb are spiced up with gnocchi, roasted beetroot and asparagus salsa.
“For the Sing-a-Long-a Frozen Afternoon Tea, families could tuck into baked Alaskas, shortbread snowflakes and Elsa Blue Jelly.
“Frozen was fun,” says Menns. “It was obviously wintery-themed, but I wanted it to be healthy as well. It was an afternoon tea, so there were cakes and bits, but where I could I would use a fresh blueberry puree for the jelly rather than food colouring.”
The classic Vietnamese-based show Miss Saigon sees Asian influences and flavours incorporated into the menu, with Vietnamese prawn summer rolls with sweet chilli sauce, yellow curry lentil scotch egg with asparagus and new potato salad and toasted sesame seed broccoli added.
“It gives me some inspiration to be innovative,” says Menns. “I will try and incorporate flavours and themes of where the show is based, but not so it overwhelms. So there may be one or two dishes that don’t necessarily follow the theme, as not everybody likes Asian food.”
All menus feature a vegetarian option, while vegan, gluten-free and dairy-free options can be requested. For the Coppelia performance a three-course dairy-free menu was created and included pressing of tea-smoked guinea fowl with pickled kohlrabi
and carrot with truffle salt as well as pan-fried fillet
of bream with warm salad nicoise and crispy
“It makes you think more about what you’re doing,” says Menns. “We offer a gluten-free or dairy-free menu, and mainly it is just adapted from the dishes we do on a normal menu. You don’t want anyone to feel excluded from the restaurant experience.
“Doing this keeps you fresh and current. You have to keep up with what people do want to eat now. Watching trends is so important. You have to try and cater for everybody.”
The Hippodrome catering team know that achieving an AA-rosette is an impressive accomplishment in a restaurant with so many constraints, and they know just how important it is to both keep the award and the standards of the offering high.
“You can’t be complacent with it now,” says Menns. “Customers want to see effort put into the food. It might be just a burger, but you know the meat has been cooked with care and the flavours are intense.
“People know there is better out there and they will pay for it now, too.
“There is more to food at leisure sites than-deep fried and boring.”