The fastest service in town

At Sunday's Grand Prix at Silverstone, 30,000 people will sit down to Britain's biggest lunch party. And if there's as much as a teaspoon missing they'll be calling for the head of Della Wolfe. By Ann Treneman
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
Della Wolfe is very calm as she announces that there will be a few extra people dropping round for Sunday lunch this week. "We've just had 200 more confirmed," she says, almost as an aside. None of her colleagues even raises an eyebrow: it takes more than 200 extra "chicken supremas" to frighten these hardened catering professionals.

Welcome to Silverstone - home this Sunday to the British Grand Prix and, not so incidentally, the largest sit-down lunch in Britain. The former is run with great fanfare and roaring of engines by the British Racing Drivers' Club and the latter like a military operation by Della and her colleagues at the catering company Gilmour and Pether and its parent company Gardner Merchant Leisure.

About 90,000 people will jam into Silverstone to see the race and almost all of them will buy something to nibble on. But about 30,000 expect a bit more than a nibble: these are the corporate hospitality guests who at noon will unfold a linen napkin and tuck into a three-course meal that has taken nine months to plan and will take a very prompt two hours to eat.

"We absolutely have to be finished by the time the Grand Prix starts at 2pm," says marketing director Tony Barnard. This is no Wimbledon where the on-court action can become nothing more than an animated backdrop to the party. People who come here love cars first and food second. Silverstone sets the prices for the day and with the average hospitality per person coming in at pounds 575 it does not seem unreasonable that they should get both.

"This is the coalface," says Gardner Merchant senior operations director Bob Reeves as we sit in an office which, like a lot of things at Silverstone, is in a temporary building. "Della is it."

She has 35 huge refrigerated trucks at her disposal and 2,000 staff on hire for the day. The gates open at 5am on Sunday and by 8am everyone should be on station at the striped and beflowered marquees that encircle the site. By then the traffic - both human and otherwise - is jammed solid and the very idea of a late delivery is laughable. Two years ago one coachload of staff got close enough to see the site at 7am but took another two hours to reach it. Even the air is awhir: on Sunday the Silverstone landing strip becomes the world's busiest airport, which at its peak has a helicopter taking off or landing every 9.5 seconds.

It all seems too macho to even think about marinated vegetables and creme anglaise but somebody has to. Or, more precisely, somebody had to last autumn when a series of "menu workshops" produced a list of core items. Almost all the food is served cold at the Grand Prix and this year's mainstay is "chicken suprema". "On the day, that is 16,000 to 17,000 portions of chicken," says Bob, adding thoughtfully, "That's a lot of extra legs." There is also a ton of salmon and some 200 sides of beef. The former is Scottish but what about the latter? Bob looks aghast. "British, of course."

Large food orders are placed at least three months in advance, though the fruit and veg man was still lurking at the start of this week. At half a lettuce per person, we are talking at least a landscape of the stuff. By mid-week the wine had been delivered - crates and crates of it - and later on half a ton of strawberries and 4,000 pints of milk will arrive. Oh, and don't forget the 30,000 after-dinner mints or the clingfilm. "Here's wow factor for you," says Della. "Last year we used 30 miles of clingfilm. I'm a little worried the chefs had time to figure that out actually." That's enough clingfilm to roll around the circuit 10 times.

All of the food must be in top cling-form by Sunday as the biggest logistical headache of the day is not food but staff. How do you get 2,000 people from around the country to the 850-acre site just off the A43 in rural Northamptonshire? With a lot of petrol, a lot of special coaches and at least 80 two-way radios. No one sitting in Della's office blinks at the idea of 200 extra "chicken supremas" but they do jump at the words "major M1 traffic jam" . To avoid a crisis about 800 staff are put up in nearby dormitories overnight (segregated by sex and patrolled by monitors).

Then there is the uniform. The theme - basic black and white - is no problem but the skirts can be. "They must be knee-length. This year our threat is that we have a number of very attractive nylon A-line skirts they can borrow if theirs is too short," says Della with a big smile. "The other problem is porters who wear white socks."

The staff have to eat on the day as well and their canteen is housed in yet another marquee, right next to a cavernous dry store tent that holds more biscuits than any one group of people could possibly eat at one sitting. The food here is not as fancy but it is top quality. "We really do look after that. This only works if there is great team spirit," says Della.

"I always judge the tempo of the event by the radio traffic," says Bob. "My goal is for there to be almost no traffic. If there is a crisis it will be something like six teaspoons missing or one missing peppermill. It won't be anything major in terms of numbers but it is major if you are the one on the receiving end and are sitting there without a teaspoon. Our whole reputation rests on the teaspoon. We are not paid to forget teaspoons."

But what will he eat? He looks startled. "Probably nothing." Nor will he get to watch the race. Della will also miss the action as she oversees teaspoons, creme anglaise and the small matter of the biggest catering event in the world. And what will she eat? "Honest answer? Six Mars bars. Chocolate is the best"n

Comments