Rescue mission at River Cottage


River Cottage, the events venue and cookery school located within the rural landscape of Park Farm, Axminster, is a site that Space Catering Equipment knows well.

Six years ago it completed a major kitchen installation at the premises, providing River Cottage with a commercial facility to serve participants on its catering courses and those wanting to enjoy a night’s dining amidst picturesque surroundings.

So when it received a call asking it to help the business get back on its feet after a blaze tore through the converted barn that housed the kitchen it had fitted, it was only too happy to oblige.

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Within hours of the fire occurring during the evening of February 7th, River Cottage had declared its intention to get its events and training classes back on schedule in “next to no time” and confirmed it was making plans for alternative arrangements.

Space’s project manager, Dave Griffin, had been in touch with River Cottage after news of the incident emerged and on February 15th he got a call from front of house manager Steve Lamb to say it planned to construct a large marquee structure on adjacent farmland to the barn and return the business to normality as soon as possible.

Griffin drove down to Axminster that afternoon to discuss the plans and soon received one of the more unusual briefs he has ever been given by a client.

He says: “They explained to me what they were trying to achieve, didn’t really have too much in the way of plans, showed me the field out the back and said, ‘that’s where it is going’. We knew the kitchen area was going to be six metres by nine metres with a loose brief of what they wanted to do in that space.”

Armed with that information, Griffin returned to Space’s Gloucester HQ and spent the rest of that week developing the design and equipment content with his team. After consulting with River Cottage, Space got the green light to commence work and the project whirled into action.

“We finalised on Monday 20th for the drawing and the equipment content, we ordered it on Tuesday 21st, had it delivered to us on Wednesday 22nd, and then transported it all down to Park Farm on the 23rd,” he reveals. “We installed it in the marquee, which was being constructed around us the same day, went back and finished off on the 24th, and they went live that evening! It was all incredibly fast,” he adds.

Although Space did everything it could to meet River Cottage’s equipment preferences, the choice of kit was naturally shaped by what was available, as the major priority was getting the temporary kitchen operational as fast as possible so that River Cottage could begin serving customers again.

“They had some ideals but ultimately it was what was readily available and what we could get together,” explains Griffin. “We had some stock in our warehouse that we were able to design in and then for other stuff we had to go to suppliers and ask for overnight deliveries and fast responses. It was no good specifying a bespoke cooking range that was going to take six weeks to come from France because that wouldn’t have met the objective.”

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Just to make the job that little bit more difficult, Space also had one other important factor to bear in mind when selecting equipment: the kit needed to be bought with the intention of re-housing it in the permanent kitchen that will is eventually to be rebuilt on the site destroyed by the fire. “There is an acceptance that not all of it will go back, but they didn’t want it just to be a one-off purchase, they wanted to be able to reuse that kit on the farm and not waste money,” says Griffin.

The kitchen that burnt down had contained quite a strong Lincat presence and River Cottage was keen to use the Lincoln-based manufacturer’s equipment in the temporary facility.

Space managed to source a Lincat six-burner range and four-burner range, while Electrolux was the only manufacturer it could find that had an available LPG combination oven to account for the fact that the site runs on bottled gas. Electrolux was also able to deliver the 10-grid combi oven overnight, which meant there were no disruptions to the schedule.

Undercounter and upright refrigeration units were supplied directly by Foster although Space designed the units into the lay-out, took receipt of them and positioned them on site.

Warewashing requirements, meanwhile, were met by Classeq, which supplied a Hydro 857 pass-through dishwasher capable of holding 18 plates at a time. With a cycle time of 1.5 or 3 minutes, it can wash a maximum of 40 racks or 720 plates per hour, which is ideal for a busy events kitchen. Space also installed Classeq’s Duo 3 with a fully insulated double-skinned cabinet and full coverage filter system.

Additionally, a 22-litre planetary mixing machine from ChefQuip and a Robot-Coupe R301 processor were supplied to meet the venue’s food preparation needs, while a Victor plaintop hot cupboard was installed on the site as well. The rest of the project consisted of sinks and tabling work, with Space using fabrication specialist CED to support it with delivering that.

Although Griffin says the value of the project was only around £30,000, it is a job that looks set to live long in the memory: “I think it’s just the fact that we broke the mould with this project. It wasn’t a four to six-week project, it was a matter of days. From the day we took the brief to the day they began serving food was just over a week.”

Griffin insists the need to complete the job in super quick time fostered a real community spirit among contractors working on the site, although it did encounter one obstacle where it required some assistance of a more unconventional kind.

“Trying to transport heavy equipment over a muddy field is not the easiest thing to do!” he says. “Fortunately they had a tractor with forks on it, so we were able to fork the equipment from one side to the other and it was not an issue.”

The kitchen that Space has installed may only be a stopgap measure for River Cottage, but with the equipment set to be transferred to its permanent home at some stage in the future, the legacy of the dealer’s efforts is poised to be visible for a long time to come.

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View from the kitchen

When the barn fire at River Cottage destroyed the commercial kitchen, there was not too much time for the company’s management team to dwell on what it had lost.

Within a couple of days of the incident, all thoughts had turned to establishing a temporary event space and getting a fully functional commercial kitchen in place serving meals for customers keen to experience its popular banquets.

Gill Meller, head chef at River Cottage, says it soon became clear that the most practical approach would be to create a lay-out that mirrored the original events kitchen in order to speed up the time that his team was back cooking again.

“We had worked with Space Catering Equipment previously, so it made sense for us to get in contact with them as they had done a good job with the original kitchen in the barn,” he explains. “We basically went with a floorplan that wasn’t dissimilar to the original — the floor space was roughly the same size and we tried to mimic the lay-out of the kitchen as best as possible, so when we took it on it was a fairly smooth transition and we could almost site things in the spaces they were in the other kitchen.”

Replicating the original set-up also meant that River Cottage’s team of full-time chefs and kitchen hands wouldn’t lose time adjusting to any new equipment that confronted them, and ensured the kitchen could continue delivering the same sort of menu as before the fire.

Given that River Cottage only intends to be working from the temporary facility for a maximum of nine months and none of the kit from the old kitchen could be salvaged after the fire, one of the main considerations was getting the temporary structure designed in such a way that the bulk of the equipment can be re-sited and reused.

Meller says that although the temporary kitchen was designed and constructed in little more than a week, plenty of forward thinking was done at the planning stage in order to ensure that any equipment it brought in would eventually fit into the permanent kitchen.

“There will have to be some slight alterations, but nothing too dramatic because of the nature of the design,” he says. “We obviously didn’t want to be purchasing things twice as it were.”

Initial preparation work for the barn restoration has now begun and Meller is hopeful the team could be working from their new home before Christmas. “The end of the year would be the ideal scenario in the sense that through a long winter it would possibly be preferable to be back indoors, but it is a fantastic set-up here so we are not too worried if it is not ready by then.”

Spec sheet

Equipment from the following brands was used during the installation of the temporary events kitchen at River Cottage:

CED Fabrication
ChefQuip Planetary mixer
Classeq Dishwashers
Electrolux LPG combination oven
Foster Undercounter and upright refrigeration
Lincat Six-burner and four-burner ranges
Robot-Coupe Food processor

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Andrew Seymour

The author Andrew Seymour

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