Virgin Trains

BY LAURA GELDER

A winning breakfast

Congratulations to Virgin Trains. It was exciting to see this week that they have won the ‘Most Innovative Caterer’ award in the Onboard Retail Category at the annual International Rail Catering Group awards – especially as I met James Martin recently and had the full low down on how he revamped the operator’s First Class menu.

He started by telling me how important it is to do research before designing new menus. “I like to go under cover,” he told me. Although that must have been quite difficult for a man who, until recently, had his face beamed into almost every British living room each weekend as presenter of Saturday Kitchen. Nevertheless, he did do a mystery shop before he started to plan his new menu for Virgin. What struck him most, he said, was the lack of fried eggs and the poor quality of bacon in the full English breakfast. That was largely due to logistics, available equipment and staffing.

Yorkshire-born Martin worked with Antony Worrall Thompson before opening the Hotel and Bistro du Vin as head chef, aged 22, famously changing the menu every day. His TV career began in 1996 and he’s presented countless cooking shows before becoming presenter of BBC’s Saturday Kitchen, attracting more than 3.5m viewers.He has published numerous cook books and columns too and more recently he has worked on onboard catering projects with Thomas Cook Airlines and P&O Cruises.

He likes to be sure he understands the constraints on staff delivering his menus and to test his recipes Martin built a duplicate train kitchen. “It’s easy to insist that all bacon sandwiched has buttered bread,” he says, “but you have to understand the mechanics of how to do that in a tiny, moving kitchen with one chef. You must test and adapt.”

Virgin thought long and hard about the rail audience for the menu too. “We wanted to inject some glamour back into the customer experience,” Alison Watson, customer experience director at Virgin Trains told me. The new menu certainly does that, but is carefully pitched not to alienate passengers who appreciate classic choices. For instance, the gourmet sausage roll comes with a twist – golden sultana brown sauce, a sweeter and more sophisticated taste than HP Sauce.

Martin felt strongly about the vegetarian offering too. “Vegetarians often get overlooked,” he said. “Now, instead of an imitation sausage with some spinach, we serve mushroom rarebit – granary toast topped with flat field mushroom, tomato chutney and mature cheddar.”

He also wanted to reflect the Virgin brand and routes, so his seasonal menu champions local produce, something which works well with Virgin’s very British image, and “dramatically increases the quality of ingredients.” I could feel his enthusiasm when he talked about the producers he has introduced to Virgin Trains such as Laverstoke Park Farm’s black pudding from a biodynamic business close to his Hampshire home. And then there’s the bakery basket, which comes with preserves from Yorkshire-based The Fruity Kitchen, a small company Martin worked with to produce bespoke flavours like raspberry and gin and apricot and orange. The Virgin contract is now worth over 90% of the tiny company’s business.

He recently opened the James Martin Kitchen restaurant at London Stansted Airport where British ingredients are sourced as freshly and locally as possible.