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 41.

    Please come to Pinderfields in Wakefield James. The wasteage of food is horrific! Unopened yoghurts still in date. Unopened sandwiches Icecreams. All thrown away because they have been on the ward and could not be kept.

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    Comment number 42.

    I have spent time in Pinderfields, Dewsbury and Pontefract, and found the food to be 'intersting' I think there was a prize for correctly identifying some of it! When I was in Pontefract I lost a stone in 3 weeks, great diet, but not really recommended, while in Dewsbury I had their packet soups (yum) and food that was brought in, I basically did not eat for 3 days. I am not a fussy eater, just like to be able to identify the food both by taste, texture and sight. This programme now explains what is going wrong in certain institutions, it is criminal to see the wastage. We as tax payers ultimately pay for it, and I would much sooner pay the same, for better quality food with less wastage. Well done James for highlighting it and how to make things better. Maybe the governemnt should sit up and take notice?

  • rate this

    Comment number 43.

    NOWHERE TO GET HOT FOOD IN HOSPITALS AFTER TEA TIME HELP!! As a paramedic and ex-nurse emergency service colleagues are denied hot meals in London after tea time. we are not permitted to consume food on ambulances and so busy we don't get a break in 12 hour shift and therefore can only eat junk food at petrol garages chocolate machines which are often broken in A/E departments or kebab shops. could you help please? day staff get facilities but night staff don't. we are health conscious too. hungryman

  • rate this

    Comment number 44.

    great program ,just one question and that is why are the chefs and cooks and staff that work in the kitchen don't were nets or hats so there hair is tucked in to prevent loose hair getting in the food this is what I was told you must do for health and safety even James Martin should no that working in a hospital so why is everyone not doing this have the rules changed I would like to see people cooking my food wearing hats and nets to cover there hair it healthier and cleaner so come on James put your hat on and the rest of the hospital staff as some were them and other hospitals don't .

  • rate this

    Comment number 45.

    I have just watched this programme and I think what James is trying and hopefully succeeding to do is fabulous and long overdue. Well done! Please please please can someone come down to Brighton and improve the food at the Royal Sussex County Hospital and others in this area as it is inedible! In the last few years myself, my father and my sister wherein hospital, and although we were looked after very well, the food was awful. My poor Dad was at the Royal Sussex and then at Haywards Heath for a month (I live in Brighton) and I had to take him food as the hospital food was unseasoned, flavourless lukewarm, and to tell the truth, would not serve it to the dog. Please come and help thanks

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    Comment number 46.

    why are the staff and James not wearing hat or nets to cover there hair in the kitchen so no loose hair gets in the food health and safety please can you tell me if the rules have changed as this I thought is a must when working with food and in
    a hospital .

  • rate this

    Comment number 47.

    i was amazed and shocked to see how bad the birmingham staff were by just making up recipes - back in 2004 i was in the harlow hospital and the food their was amazing very tasty no compaints and a good menu that was given out the night before. But ! my dad was in the same hospital earlier this month and the food has gone down hill he said it was tasteless and bland, i was shocked as my time theire it was perfect

  • rate this

    Comment number 48.

    I was an army hospital cook from 1976-79, what I'm watching in this series seems antiquated from what we done nearly 40 years ago, each morning a member of ward staff would go round with the menu the patient would fill out a card for each meal by number against the part of the menu MEAT 3 POTATO 1& 3 and so on the cards would come down to the kitchen by mid-day (none of this phoning up or not each morning, the numbers would be totalled and given to the department heads and prep carried out, the larder dept. would make and freeze several 100 individual steak/chicken pies these would be taken out as ordered and once a week the numbers used would be replenished, the initial work load was very busy but as we had the same menu each day with 7 hot meals plus a curry of the day, 5 salads and 6 snacks it could take 4 weeks to work through the whole menu before you had the same dish twice for lunch, and dinner soup of the day, roast meat of the day 5 other hot meals 5 salads and 6 snacks, once the freezers were stocked with the items that could be pre-made it just meant cooking the fresh meats potatoes veg sweets on a day to day and restocking, each meal was plated on heated plates with a heated dish underneath and sent fresh to the ward, so 1 patient 1 meal the only waste was for those who had been discharged overnight, though most of these were given to admissions also all those who were able came down to the patients restaurant to eat there, which was next to the staff restaurant and all meals were cooked in the same kitchen with some crossover of dishes, I still have a copy of a ward menu, and if the army could do this in the 70's why can the NHS not do something like it now saving time and money

  • rate this

    Comment number 49.

    Why,oh why is this programme not being aired at prime time in the evenings?! The whole nation has a stake in the NHS and the nutrition of recovering patients should be considered as important as other parts of people's care surely? This shows what can be done and that the will is there to make changes. Airing this show at prime evening time would make many more people sit up and take notice and maybe we could all start lobbying & pressurising our MP's to implement these changes at all NHS hospitals. Love the programme, Go James!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 50.

    Comment 33 DR1

    I have just watched programme 3, DR1 raises the effect of EU Procurement rules which prevents or deters sourcing suppliers who can provide good healthy meat and vegetables at cheaper prices locally. Another very good reason why we the British Public should be given a proper IN or OUT referendum on the EU, they are costing us a fortune and this is a prime example.

    Programme 3 also highlights the 'COMMON DENOMINATOR' in all the Hospitals taking part, and that is "They are all throwing money down the drain" to quote a comment by one of the chefs! It is encouraging to see all the hospitals that have allowed James Martin and the other professional chefs to review their practices and procedures. As for the hospitals that have refused to take part, one can only assume they are either frightened of being shown up or think they already have the best cost effective systems in place! The BBC should name and shame these hospitals and send the list to our Prime Minister because their 'managements' think they know better. it is us the public who have the right to demand that they be reviewed, as it is us who pay their wages, and as patients are on the receiving end of their misdemeanours when they occur.
    On a final note COMMENT 38 Lenkel re type 2 diabetics, it is generally known that type 2 diabetics can have some added sugar, but as all type 2 diabetics generate different levels of insulin, as a rule of thumb they should have no food to which sugar has been added, 'AS THIS DEFINITELY RAISES' their HbA1c blood glucose levels (ie their average over the last 2 to 3 months). An occasional treat to include food sweetened with sugar will do no lasting harm, but regular intakes of sweetened food for a type 2 diabetic is a NO NO! As a lot of chefs both in restaurants in the private sector and in the public sectors and particularly hospitals are not always privy to this important information it is essential managers take note and include such material information in their training. A simple procedure would be to include a simple Q and A on patients menus with a tick box facility to indicate if they are diabetic and what type?

  • rate this

    Comment number 51.

    Why, oh why is this amazing programme hidden away at 9.30 in the morning. This is our money being wasted: £27,000 overspend in one hospital, 150 hospitals in Wales alone 27 x 150 = scary!!! This programme should be on prime time!!!!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 52.

    This is the real world cannot believe how much wasage not only good food but the tax payers money the management of all hospitals should be over hauled to see how much control they have lost basic management is not being adhered to costing and budget are fundemental to any succsesful business at least breaking even if not making a profit the government should be implimenting this not the BBC Dave the Dictator should hang his head in shame

  • rate this

    Comment number 53.

    Everyone you speak to, always complains about hospital food. So there must be something wrong somewhere. The fact you have a chef the calibre of James Martin and his fellow chefs offering to help and giving their time for free is absolutely tremendous. All hospitals should embrace this with open arms, Or do they have something to hide? I have been a chef for over 40 year in all types of catering from top end restaurants to works canteens so I know a bit about it. But I would gladly welcome any help from these guys not to take it would be gross stupidity well done James and the boys

  • rate this

    Comment number 54.

    James Martin and his friends going into hospitals and attempting to improve hospital food has to be applauded. However the attitude that James is displaying towards some of the low paid kitchen staff are not. I wonder how he would react if someone came into his kitchen and started to throw things about. To suggest that patients will get "nothing" if the wards do not inform him of the number of meals required is nothing short of appalling.
    Surely it is the responsibility of the catering department to contact the various wards and find out the requirements of meals and allow the wards to carry out the duties of attending to the medical requirements of patients in their care
    The chefs in charge of these kitchens have a very difficult job working within tight financial constraints and do not have the luxury of being able to go wherever they like to source all the food products they require. Suppliers to kitchens in hospitals, schools etc. have to go through a very tough tendering system and have to demonstrate they are always reliable and able to supply and deliver all the products required, at a fair price and at all times. To suggest that a chef can telephone some farmer 20 miles away and have him bring in one item, have it there at a certain time is just not workable. I know from experience that the odd item supplied may be slightly more expensive than one on offer in a local farm shop. I also know that on the odd occasion the approved supplier must deliver, on time, and even if it incurs a financial loss, certain items in order to comply with the terms of the contract.
    It is inevitable that at times a one off item can be bought more cheaply than buying from your approved supplier but in general over a period of time that same supplier will always be best.
    However, James Martin is a chef I greatly admire for his culinary skills and I sincerely hope his efforts to improve the quality of hospital meals is a resounding success.

  • rate this

    Comment number 55.

    As an ex-nurse who left the NHS many years ago. I fully understand the up hill struggle James had ahead of him. A few years ago my husband was seriously ill, and due to some of the medication he required he suffered a loss of appetite. Hospital food did nothing to tempt him to eat. As I had to work full-time, I would make meals of cold pasta salads etc. and take them to the hospital during my lunch hour, I knew that he was at least getting some for of nourishment, he had lost over 2 stone in 3 weeks partial due to his illness and partial due to the lack of appetising food. Thank god for people like James Martin!

  • rate this

    Comment number 56.

    I was in hospital in Dunfirmline 4 years ago and the first thing I was given to eat was asparagus soup made I imagine from powder. It was absolutely disgusting. Most of the food was. The tea was served in plastic mugs which tainted it, the toast was spread with cheap margerine which tasted horrible. I was starting to think I had acquired a taste bud problem until I got home and discovered they were fine, it was the food that was awful.

    A couple of weeks later I was back in, this time at Kirkcaldy, and the food was no better.

    Was in for 1 night last year back at Dunfirmline in the new bit, and at least there were china mugs and we could make tea & coffee when we pleased.

    I am used to eating mostly home cooked food made from basic ingredients with lightly cooked veggies and even looking at some of the meals shown made me feel ill - roast port with overcooked broccoli, boild potatoes and a horrible thick gravy full of browning. At home it would be small potatoes in their skins, more than one green vegetable and gravy made with the meat juices and no browning.

    James, this is vital work. At least the staff have changed tack and are co-operating - given their jobs are on the line I found it totally mystifying that they didn't want to use a recipe book, and also that they hadn't already been trying to get numbers and restore a menu system. But leaving the dessert out all night - unbelievable. Such a basic food safety error, it's scary what else wasn't put on the program.

    Very true as well that menus need recosting on a regular basis.

  • rate this

    Comment number 57.

    Sigh... If only I could edit my previous comment!

  • rate this

    Comment number 58.

    I so wish a campaign like this had started years ago, and am so pleased it is underway now!

    My darling Nanna had a stroke, approx 26/27 years ago at the age of 72. She was the loveliest person, herself a caring, wonderful nurse, for many years. She lived in Berkshire, but all of her family were living away, my parents in S Wales, my Uncle in the North of England. I had recently moved to Surrey to find work and was living in B&B.

    I visited her each day, and was appalled at what was happening. She was completely immobile on one side of her body, yet I would arrive to find in front of her something like a jacket potato and a sausage (whole). How she was expected to cut and eat this with one hand I have absolutely no idea. I tried to time my visits to coincide with mealtimes so I could help her eat (as the nurses were too busy). On many occasions I took in snacks on my way home from work to try to tempt her. If I had been living in suitable accommodation, I could have cooked for her myself, but as I was in B&B, did not have the facilities.

    When Nanna went into hospital after her stroke, she was quite a large lady. When she died a few months later, the post-mortem described her as an extremely thin individual. I truly and honestly believe she died as much from starvation as from the result of her stroke.

    Similarly, a year or so later, my Grandad was admitted to hospital. Similar scenario as above! He was there for several months, then transferred to a nursing home, where it was announced he was suffering from severe malnutrition. Just appalling.

    If this campaign stops this from happening to other people, then I am absolutely wholeheartedly behind it. I just can't watch it without getting tearful, remembering my lovely grandparents, and knowing they are not the only ones. Even when you are seriously ill, one of the last things to go is your appetite. For you then to get some horrible, tasteless slop plopped in front of you is just abysmal, and not encouraging for anyone to head for recovery. We all know that cooking fresh food is cheaper and healthier than eating ready-made.

    Well done James and your Team(s) - may the fight continue . . .

  • rate this

    Comment number 59.

    "However the attitude that James is displaying towards some of the low paid kitchen staff are not. I wonder how he would react if someone came into his kitchen and started to throw things about."

    That is not how he started out. This is what happened when one of the staff was apparently refusing point-blank to work to a recipe. It seemed that James cared more about their jobs than they did.

  • rate this

    Comment number 60.

    I am sorry but the hygiene and standards in the Birmingham kitchen were rubbish, no hair coverings, wearing watches and jewellery, colour coded knives used incorrectly. Yellow is for cooked meat not bake well tarts. The admin lady just allowed to wander round the kitchen no hat or anything. As for sourcing from a farmers market, do they not have to audit their suppliers to make sure all health and safety rules sure covered. And before you ask I work in a kitchen in a nursing home so know what I am talking about


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