Operation Hospital Food with James Martin: The biggest challenge

Monday 25 February 2013, 08:15

Lucy McLennan Lucy McLennan Series Producer

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There is no denying that hospital food can have a pretty poor reputation and often it is well deserved.

So to be able to work on a BBC One series that aims to improve hospital food, and hopefully change the public’s perception of what is served in our hospitals, has been fantastic.

As the series producer, easily the biggest challenge for me was simply finding and convincing a hospital to open its doors to our cameras and presenter, TV chef James Martin.

James Martin and the catering team at Birmingham's Royal Orthopaedic Hospital James and the catering team at Birmingham's Royal Orthopaedic Hospital

Myself and the producer/director Johnny Perks travelled all over the country speaking to countless hospital managers but generally they were pretty guarded.

I think this is a natural reaction; why wouldn’t they be wary of a film crew descending on their hospital and exposing their flaws?

I found honesty was the best policy. Yes, we were looking for problems or weaknesses in their food, but the aim of Operation Hospital Food with James Martin is to improve the meals served and leave the catering in a better state than it was in when we arrived.

When we first visited Birmingham’s Royal Orthopaedic Hospital they were very open about the issues they had with the catering department, in particular the overspend, the levels of food returned uneaten from the wards every day, and the low morale of the kitchen team.

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Once food has gone up to the wards it can’t be served to anybody else, even when it’s untouched

Head chef Tracey and head of facilities Emma were very keen to take part in the project because they had been warned that unless things changed, the catering department faced the prospect of losing their jobs and an external company being brought in to provide the patients’ meals.

The kitchen team did have concerns with allowing us in, as they didn’t know how James was going to react to them or what changes he would implement, but after a few tense moments they came to realise that he was on their side and his changes were for the better.

Filming in small and noisy working hospital kitchens presented plenty of technical challenges for the crew, but it was the British weather that nearly scuppered one of the big moments of the series.

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James asks some of the country's top chefs for a hand

James had invited a group of top class chefs to his home to ask them to join him in his mission.

To set the scene, we put together an outdoor summer garden but after spending most of the day setting up, the proverbial heavens opened! Good old British summer time!

The day was a wash out, but fortunately the chefs took it in good humour. You can enjoy watching them in episode two cooking huddled under golf umbrellas - and they still ate the soggy pizzas they'd all been preparing in the rain.

Throughout the series we faced many challenges but we built up a fantastic relationship with all the staff at the Royal Orthopaedic Hospital, which made it much easier - especially the early morning starts!

James became very close to everyone we worked with at the hospital. As you’ll see, there were a few difficult situations as emotions ran high, but they always ended positively.

James even treated the team to a day out go-karting to help boost morale, which you don't see in the series.

Everyone got stuck in with the racing especially James and Gaz who were determined to beat each other; I’m still not sure who actually won as they both claim they had the fastest lap!

The highlight has to be being able to play an admittedly small part in transforming hospital food around the country.

At some point we are all going to have a loved one spend time in hospital.  So if the work we have done on Operation Hospital Food makes their stay even a little easier, then the hard work was definitely worth it.

Lucy McLennan the series producer of Operation Hospital Food with James Martin.

Series two of Operation Hospital Food with James Martin begins on Monday, 25 Feburary at 9.15am on BBC One and BBC One HD. For further programme times, please see the episode guide.

Hospital food: The chef that hopes to improve standards: Read the BBC Food feature

BBC Food: Recipes from Operation Hospital Food with James Martin: Try one of the exclusive recipes from the series

Comments made by writers on the BBC TV blog are their own opinions and not necessarily those of the BBC.

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  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    I watched the first episode on the iPlayer and have read the above comments. Kathy, I wouldn't say James Martin had the patience of a saint. Like anyone else, he must get tired and frustrated with situations and other people's behaviour. He also must know what he's doing or he wouldn't be where he is. However, I think he did show a marked difference in attitude between conversing wiith the catering staff and with the manangement. For example, he didn't throw down a folder on the desk of the manager in charge of costing but he thought it appropriate behaviour in the kitchen. This is a shame and only serves to propagate that attitude towards hands on staff, when it appeared to me that management were more to blame for their lack of direction.
    And if you are wondering, I do actually like JM. He could stir my custard any time but I don't think I'd go as far as tweeting him.

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    I watched the recording of this programme yesterday evening .
    Shortly afterwards on the news I watched with horror a family of small boys in Syria sitting totally frightened and hungry in a cave while they waited for their mother to return with food
    This emphasised for me how disgraceful the waste of food shown on the programme was and the shameful attitude of the staff to this.

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    I work in a hospital which cooks all the meals in house. We have meal co-ordinators on each ward , so every morning the menus are given out the night before for the lunch, supper and breakfast the next day . Every morning a nursing assistant goes round every patient to go through the menu. There are two menus a normal and a diet menu for those patients that are diabetic, enriched , thickened etc. If a patient is on a low fat or low potassium diet for instance there menu comes straight from the dietician. The menus are then collected by the kitchen staff. The patient also has a white board above every bed that also states what diet they are on and if they need help with eating, and there food is brought down on different coloured trays so the staff know the patient needs help with eating. The meal co-ordinator at meal times goes round and checks that all patients have a meal and if not we go and get it from the hospital kitchen !! I am sick of hospitals and staff being told we do a bad job maybe james would like to visit our hospital? West Suffolk Hospital to see how it can be done right !!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    Great programme, but has it ever been explained why the NHS has to pay for patients food. Most of them would be feeding them selves at home, so why can't the food be paid for?
    My husband broke his hip last year spent 5 days in Chesterfield Hospital I had to take food in the whole time, he is used to all home cooking but he could have afforded to pay for his meals so why are they free?

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    Just watched this programme for first time. Unbelievable! So shameful and sad that there is so much disfunction in the NHS. Is there any chance this programme can be shown to the Health ministry? Even David Cameron? The lack of leadership and pride in work, attitude, all these things can be fixed for free! seeing the chef take the sample soups around the ward to try was so important. A
    She could see her work being appreciated, see the patients she was helping, raise her self esteem and make her own job so much more meaningful and important. it's all about communication as much as money. I will be watching more of this programme, keep it up guys, all of you working in kitchens out there in hospitals, think of the patients, they only have your meals to look forward to some days. Everybody needs a thank you now and again, it's free!

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    It would appear that the situation has probably been caused by NHS forcing the price of the food per day to £3.85. Whilst it is feasible to bring in at this price, what will happen is when this is achieved the management will then ask for a further reduction. Also if welsh hospitals all go for local meat what happens if we have another national foot and mouth crisis, any contingency plan? Fixing today is easy, protecting the future is the hard part. Never mind though BBC and James will be well clear by then.

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    I have just watched this programme for the first time and I am appalled at the lethargy that exists from top management down to the kitchen. How can management report that the kitchen services will be outsourced when there is no real initiative to improve the services and staff are left to motivate themselves! Leadership comes from the top and that’s where James and his colleagues have filled the gap. One of the things highlighted on today’s programme was the severe lack of organisation demonstrated by the simple initiative of trying to get the wards to let the kitchen know what the patients had chosen from the menu by 8am, a complete failure! It was clear the hospital administrator severely lacked enthusiasm and know how to implement such a simple process, sadly and I mean sadly, this seems to be normal where staff have been demotivated through years of red tape and change that has not born fruit. Something as simple as this could be so easily computerised, the menu could be displayed (and printed if required) in the ward office and staff simply enter the numbers and in turn the screen in the kitchen would show the total amounts ordered by the deadline, of course the deadline could be changed in exceptional circumstances, very little computing power would be required, I am sure a company who develop web based systems could produce a ‘Menu’ based system within a few days or at the very most a week and maybe some would do this ‘free’for James & Co. Why hasn't the NHS already got something as fundamental and as simple as this in place, it would as James reports save so much money and go some way towards making the kitchen more operational, more efficient and reduce waste.
    Good luck to James and colleagues

  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    I'm really enjoying this programme. Well done to James and the other chefs he now has onboard for tackling this issue.
    In 2007 I was in Scunthorpe General Hospital. After coming out of ITU, I was encouraged to eat as I'd lost a lot of weight. Although there was a choice of food, I was left with very little to eat or, most days, nothing, as I'm allergic to fish and onions. Every meal that wasn't fish had onions in it. The only thing I was sent by the kitchen was a jacket potato, always with butter and sometimes with cheese on it. This was for lunch AND dinner every single day. When I asked if I could have something else, the ward sister checked with the chef and was told that if I provided a recipe for each day, he would cook it. I told them that I could eat ANYTHING as long as it wasn't fish or didn't have onions, but the chef stuck to his guns. As I didn't have any recipe's to hand and was feeling very ill, I ended up with jacket potato for two weeks, until I was well enough to be taken up to the staff canteen where I enjoyed a proper meal of chicken and mushroom pie (with no onions), chips and vegetables. If they could have it, why couldn't I?

    So, James, you keep going. It's about time someone took them to task and I'll back you all the way. Many, many thanks.

  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    Comment 20 Attention Phil Jeffrey! & James Martin.

    Glad I have watched programme 2, something dear to my own heart, when James Martin had to phone the wards @ Birmingham Hospital re how many patients they had for meal purposes, the staff did not appear to know exactly how many of their patients were diabetic. More importantly (as I am a type 2 diabetic) they and the chefs need to know the difference between TYPE 1 DIABETICS and TYPE 2 DIABETICS food & drink requirements.

    Type 1 diabetics make no insulin whatsoever and can have sugar in their food (not on a regular basis or in any great amounts as that too can cause further complications) as they inject their own Insulin usually before eating.Type 2 diabetics make some insulin, but not enough and every type 2 diabetic is different in the amount of insulin their body provides, so "SUGAR IS THE ENEMY", they cannot or should not have any added sugar with their food or drinks!

    Not only do a lot of medical staff not always have adequate knowledge, but because there are two different types of diabetics, chefs in all establishments often do not know or understand what the requirements are ! James Martin needs to spread the Gospel especially amongst his newly recruited expert chefs ! and of course very importantly amongst ALL HOSPITAL STAFF!

  • rate this

    Comment number 30.

    Managed to catch the 2nd programme this morning. I trained at catering college for 4 years and noticed that were some fundamental problems with the kitchen. I can't believe that a kitchen of that size didn't have recipe cards, didn't seem to understand the basics of kitchen management. I also watched some of the programme about Scarborough and would thank James and the other chefs for getting involved rather than worrying about their own gross profit etc. It's just a shame other hospitals didn't get involved, I see there were none willing to get involved in the North West - Shame on you!

  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

    I'm concerned about a comment that James made on today programme, he said that that many hospitals were contacted re this series and that only a few were willing to take part and they are, (then listed the hospitals) As a NHS Catering Manager in Dorset I did talk to the production team about taking part and gave all the details on how we provide our service (freshly cooked food on the day and in the main from local suppliers). They never got back to me to say thanks but no thanks or to take part, This may be seen that the production team had a hidden agenda on the type of catering services that some hospitals offer, Is this for the effect of turning it around? I not concerned that we did not take part but that the information given to viewers may lead them to think that as catering managers we don't care.
    Also today it was said that a Hospital in Wales had a budget of £3.85 per patient per day, this would be a dream for all of the catering managers that I know, my budget is £2.68.
    If the BBC is committed to improving Hospital Food (which I fully Support) then they need to look at how they portray Hospital Food in it other programmes / sit-com's etc, I have said in the part that my biggest problem as a Hospital Caterer is the pre-thought's of patient's expecting the food to be bad, and the BBC have in the past supported this thought by making a joke of Hospital food.

  • rate this

    Comment number 32.

    Post 30, Cookie, This may not be the case of your local hospital not willing to take part but that they did not meet the BBC agenda. If your concerned about the type of catering service provided at your local hospital, give the catering manager a call. I'm sure they will be please to talk things through with you (I would) or visit the Hospital Caterers Association web site and see how involved they are in good practices.

  • rate this

    Comment number 33.

    Today was the first time I have seen this programme and have found it interesting to see that the NHS is run very much like a local authority. My experiance is that you are given a budget and you spend it, if you dont, you get less the following year hence there is no incentive to make savings. The only way authorities seem to be driven these days is to reduce overheads, and the way to achieve this is less staff. The attitude at the moment with all our services is 'if you can buy it in cheaper, why are we doing it ourselves?' even if the quality suffers! I understand James frustrations with regards to purchasing local produce at a cost effective price, why wouldnt anybody with an ounce of common sense do this? I will tell you why as I deal with the same issue everyday, its called PROCUREMENT Rules! These rules are put in place and monitored by those who dont buy anything so do not understand the daily issues we have to deal with trying to provide a good quality service. We must purchase from suppliers who have been vetted, quality checked, carry the necessary accrediatations and more importantly been through a fair tendering process which would need to be tendered through OJEU (Europe) as the values would likely be over £150,000. So James calling his mate on a farm and purchasing the Lamb for £2 kg cheaper would not be allowed as this would break the all important procurement rule. I hope James provides a balanced view on this in the progammes to be aired. It is not always those delivering the services that are at fault as they are made to do as they are told. The problem lies those futher up the management food chain who make the rules that need to take a good look at themselves and use some of James common sense!
    Diatribe over, good programme though!

  • rate this

    Comment number 34.

    years ago around 1987 i worked as a college student in north tees hospital i had to help with clerical duties. one of my duties was to had out sheets with the following days menu dinner breakfast tea etc patients who could read and write used a black pen and put a line in boxes like the lottery and if they could not read or write then i used to do the sheet for them asking them what they wanted. they were then sent down to the kitchen office who had a machine to read these sheets to collate the meals for that day and then when they got their meal the sheet was on their tray therefore there was no mistakes what they ordered and also there were boxes to state diabetic etc. this was a great idea and sounds like after todays programme in wales they have a simular system which as you rightly say it will prevent waste.
    I wish you all the luck in this venture i agree with what you are doing private patients get better food in some private hospitals but ok they pay for it but why cant nhs patients have the same service though and the food will make people feel better soon.

  • rate this

    Comment number 35.

    I am really enjoying this programme and it confirms my long-held view that out-of-touch managers could be replaced by one or two old-fashioned ward matrons working with those patients, that care, who understand the patients' needs and may be able to get things organised on their behalfs.

    I feel very sorry for the kitchen staff who have had almost no decent leadership or communication with the wider hospital. They shouldn't be treated as scapegoats. They have clearly not received proper training. It is quite clear that with a complete lack of care from the top, the staff were demoralised, the patients were getting lousy nutrition and the budget was haemmorrhaging.

  • rate this

    Comment number 36.

    Why, oh why is a subject so important as hospital food not shown on prime time television?????
    Yesterday (Monday 25/2/2013) at 8.30 pm a Panorama programme about Afghanistan was shown. Surely the information contained in James Martin’s programme aired at 9.15 AM is far more important and informative to the people of the UK?
    This programme “Operation Hospital Food – James Martin” must be aired to ALL in the UK at a prime time in order to gain as much support for James Martin and his colleagues for their efforts, because most of us at one time or another will be in a UK hospital!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 37.

    Having been involved in a serious road accident in June of last year I can comment on the standard of hospital food both here and abroad. Abroad all the food was prepacked and microwaved and served in the actual containers and was worse than awful. Whilst the food here was better it was not up to the standard of food I was used to at home because I am diabetic and have to be careful what I eat. I found that the menus that came round contained a lot of food that whilst being marked as being suitable for diabetics was not. I asked to see a dietician on several occasions to no avail.

    I am type 2 diabetic and am allowed sugar it is the amount of sugar that is the problem and also the amount of fat. When I was diagnosed I saw a specialist diabetic dietary team and was advised to avoid things like tinned tuna, change to a low fat spread and avoid all diabetic specific food and cut out plain white or plain brown bread and go for granary breads.

    Reason for this is in a lot of cases it is the fat that needs to be reduced not always the sugar.

    There is a NHS funded programme that covers the dietary needs of diabetics and is called DESMOND. I personally would have thought that hospital dieticians as a matter of course should go on this course..

  • rate this

    Comment number 38.

    John Robles Comment 29

    I am type 2 diabetic and find your comment to be out dated. A Type 2 diabetic can have sugar and added sugar it is the amount that has to be controlled. Not all low sugar foods are suitable for diabetics I have found that in some cases a sugar option is often not a healthy for a diabetic than the normal one one because of other ingredients in it

  • rate this

    Comment number 39.

    Just watched the second episode and again very interesting and raising even more questions such as procurement. I assume that all the hospitals involved have their own kitchens and can appreciate how Sarah # 23 must feel given that her hospital is working well. However I wonder if even more problems arise when the hospital is using the cook and chill method as where I was. For instance, patients are no longer allowed to have toast unless deemed on a special diet. I was eventually permitted as on a gluten free diet but it took four days before the kitchen was able to provide any gluten free bread. By then relatives had bought some in for me but it was all so needlessly complicated. I am a huge supporter of the NHS and given that I was a nurse and more recently a patient understand a lot of the complexities but there is so much that could be simplified....ie fresh soup....easy and nutritious but brilliant!!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 40.


    Having seen the first two episodes of this programme I believe this programme should have been put out on prime time TV viewing. I am dismayed at the incompetence of people working in the NHS especially the Managers further up the tree who obviously have no concept of running a business, especially when using public money, and not providing the public with a satisfactory service, whether this be patients meals, or other services, obviously they have not been on the receiving end themselves. No wonder the Country is in the mess we are, when Mangers can't manage, and that includes all Public Services.


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