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Forced rhubarb + innovation in food

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Forced rhubarb + innovation in food

Simon Boyle

Innovation in the hospitality sector is about more than Michelin starred restaurant food. It’s about developing interesting ingredients and creating entirely new products across the whole industry, as well as the industry being more open-minded when it comes to career opportunities and encouraging young people to enter this exciting and fast moving world of hospitality.

Forced rhubarb

Spring is finally coming. I went to Borough Market this week to start preparing for a special meal I’m cooking for the Royal Academy of Culinary Arts Take 3 Colleges dinner to be held at the RAC Club on 19 April. The spring vibrancy of the market is visible, with wild garlic, baby carrots and new potatoes making an appearance. The dry and miserable root vegetables that have been kept in supermarket distribution centres all winter are being replaced with fresher produce too. Seeing this makes it an inspiring time of year to get out into the garden to rake up the grass and dig over the vegetable patch, while it’s time to think about getting some seeds going in the window sills too. For example, check out these stunning rainbow carrots.

Forced rhubarb is an absolute favourite of mine at this time of year. Rhubarb is usually grown in the garden and has green stems with shades of pink. It’s a bit dingy looking and also quite sour. Not many people know rhubarb is actually a vegetable, although we essentially use it as a fruit in puddings such as crumbles. 

Unlike normal rhubarb, forced rhubarb has a vibrant, almost fuchsia-pink colour and is naturally sweeter. It’s initially grown in the ground outside, which toughens the roots. Then it’s placed in dark forcing sheds that are heated to make the rhubarb grow fast in search of light. Forced rhubarb is grown by candle light – which is just enough light to make it grow, but the shoots don’t harden and the taste doesn’t become sour. I love the fact forced rhubarb comes from an area in Yorkshire known as the Rhubarb Triangle. 


It makes me really happy when I see bright pink forced rhubarb. We’ve gone through the winter eating fruit and vegetables that haven’t ripened naturally – from pomegranates to bananas that have been on cargo ships for a month. And now we finally have a wonderful ingredient from the UK that is a pleasure to eat and cook with. Soon we will have asparagus, spring onions and peas among many other things too.

I make a really simple rhubarb custard tart using forced rhubarb. I poach the rhubarb and turn the liquid into a jelly. I make a very thin, sweet shortcrust pastry, fill it with custard and add the rhubarb with its own jelly. It’s magnificent and I love serving it at Brigade and having it to brighten up a Sunday afternoon at home. 

Careers in the hospitality sector

Spring is full of fresh ingredients and forced rhubarb is a true British innovation in food, but inventiveness in the food industry should be addressed from all angles. 

The hospitality sector is being challenged massively at the moment. No-one really knows what effect Brexit is going to have – although everyone has an opinion! Many restaurants are having trouble recruiting staff, due to EU workers feeling uncertain about the possibility of building a future in the UK, and because of a skills shortage. The UK has found itself in a position where it hasn’t trained or nurtured enough young people to come into the industry. Often with low salaries and poor employment packages, the incentive isn’t always there either.

Despite this, the food scene is as busy and dynamic as ever. Increasing numbers of people are eating out, spending money and expecting great food. They love quality and variety. We’ve got a growing market, but not enough people to fill it.

Last week was National Apprenticeship Week. I attended events and was mentoring throughout the week – since that’s what we built Brigade to do. I also attended The Fresh Careers Fair to help guide people. Every hospitality and catering company you can imagine was there, wanting to sign people up, and there were lots of university graduates and school students visiting.

Fresh Careers Fair 2.jpg

Since I work in the world of vulnerable adults, I think there’s a whole lot more we could be doing to inspire people to work in hospitality through the Department of Work and Pensions and Job Centres, but also through hostels and organisations such as The Prince’s Trust. The world of hospitality should be opened up to more people from all walks of life – there are some brilliant jobs and opportunities out there. Hospitality companies also need to be more open-minded about how they recruit, while making a commitment to pay fairly.

Consultancy to innovate

The food industry doesn’t just mean restaurants or cafés. One of the avenues I went down a number of years ago was to work for Unilever as their head retail development chef. I’ve always been a social entrepreneur at heart and through Unilever, I’ve seen how high-profit businesses also play their part. The people of Unilever are very active in developing countries on projects around soap, clean water and products that keep malaria away. Even in the food industry, I’ve been to parts of Africa where products such as Knorr stock cubes are sold by the individual stock cube. This makes it easier for people in villages to afford to make soups and casseroles that will feed their family and therefore Unilever is able to support whole communities. 

At Unilever, I had to come up with new ideas, challenge the research and development teams and help the marketing teams come up with new products and brands. I became a Culinary Ambassador for them and nowadays I’ve taken this forward in the consultancy side of my business through product architecture. That’s where a brand can see an opportunity and they give me free scope to develop what the product could be. Often it means designing something that we’re not currently capable of making, so I work with development and factory teams to find a way of producing a product. Recently I’ve been working with Magnum, Ben & Jerry’s, Elephant Tea and Wall’s ice cream. Check out my range of tea based on emotional need states.

It just shows that once you have some skills – and for me it’s cooking – there are so many innovative directions you can take them in. I hope more people – whatever their background – will become excited by ingredients and our country’s thriving food scene. At the same time, I’d like to see fair employers in the hospitality industry open up opportunities to everyone. 

Here's my forced rhubarb custard tart recipe.


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