John Benson-Smith is a well-recognised figure in the hospitality industry.

A consultant chef, food strategist, and former BBC MasterChef judge, John has 40-plus years’ experience in the industry, which is regularly called on by dozens of football stadium kitchens. These include the Etihad Stadium, (Manchester City), Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, and Santiago Bernabeu (Real Madrid).

With projects spanning Europe, the USA, and Middle East, John is able to offer unique insights on intercultural differences to cooking and foodservice, which he combines with his distinctive sense of humour.

In this exclusive interview, John Benson-Smith sits down with Alex Blair, Head of Content and Research at Klipspringer. Together, the pair discuss the following points.

Browse the above menu to navigate straight to whichever topic interests you most – or click here to watch the full, uninterrupted interview.

Introducing John Benson-Smith

“I wanted to be a popstar, professional footballer, or motorcycle world champion. So I decided to become a chef.”

Alex kicks things off by overviewing the day’s topics of discussion and introducing John, who comically details how he got his first job as an apprentice chef in Beverley, East Yorkshire.

A Chef's History of the Hospitality Industry

“It’s like having two lumps of pastry mixed together for me. I can see the good, the bad, and the evil of all of it.”

Films like Boiling Point have cast a spotlight on the intense working culture in top kitchens. John paints a light-hearted picture of this culture, but says that those days are largely gone for good.

From parmentier potatoes to steak au pouivre, John also highlights the French influence on British cuisine and cooking in the 1970s – and the difficulties this posed to a “dyslexic lad from Yorkshire”. With the French word “chef” translating as “boss”, John traces the dictatorial dynamic of kitchens in that era.

John then mentions the rise of American and English chefs in the 1980s, naming Robert Carrier and John Tovey, and parallels their lineage with that of various cooking techniques, such as demi-glazing!

When Alex asks who inspired John’s passion for food and cooking, John pays tribute to Nico Ladeniz – who trained Gordon Ramsey – and Michael Quinn, the first ever English Head Chef of the Ritz, and “another successful Yorkshireman”.

John's Current Projects

“Hospitality catering and retail are very similar – but very different. Each has played in the other’s playground, and it hasn’t always worked.”

Next, John delves into some of the ventures he is currently involved in. Firstly, he describes an ambitious vending concept using interactive smartphone technology that takes preferences, intolerances, and allergies into account.

When Alex questions how this contradicts the romanticised version of cooking as art and expression discussed before, John emphasises the need for romance alongside something prosperous, sustainable, and commercial.

Regarding his other projects, John summarises his work with Morrison’s Market Kitchen, and hints at projects overseas and “a return to stadia”.

Working with the NHS

“It’s about money. If you want great hospital food – and the same in schools – and better facilities, it needs investment.”

Alex then transitions the conversation to John’s work in the public sector, specifically working on NHS foodservice.

Tailing back to his time on BBC MasterChef, John describes how involvement with John Prescott and Lloyd Grossman led to the NHS project, during which he visited 48 hospitals over two-and-a-half years.

John also outlines the logistical difficulties of serving 1 million meals each day, contrasting various methods including contract catering, in-house preparation, and centralised production. Funding and investment are also raised as the foundations of the problem.

Common Issues in Stadium Kitchens

“It’s the organisation. If the club is genuinely interested in and committed to good food, that will show. I’m not necessarily talking about the quality of the product, but also the floors, the walls, the extractors, the ventilation, the light, the food safety.”

According to John, logistics and speed are raised as two of the primary issues across stadium kitchens.

John details how 60-70% of revenue in UK stadiums is taken at half-time, a window of 15-20 minutes within which – based on an average crowd of 40,000 people – kitchens have to cater for around 15,000 people using predominantly casual or agency workers.

Understanding Hospitality in Different Cultures

“You learn that it’s their country, they’re great people, and you become part of their team. What you don’t do is dictate to them that you’re from a ‘better country’ and you’re cleverer. Become one of them. You work shoulder to shoulder, you clean the floor, you shred, you chop.”

Drawing on experiences unique to him, John outlines the difficulties and lessons learned through his work in Middle Eastern countries including Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. He denounces the superior attitudes of some chefs who embark on projects abroad, and reiterates the importance of humility and open-mindedness.

Hospitality Staff Shortages

“If you begin to inspire and show interest in the kids, with a curriculum of understanding what Earth is about, the elements, agriculture – that’s the solution. Unfortunately we spend more on Sky TV than our own health each month.”

The pair then discuss the pressing topic of hospitality staff shortages. John claims that “there has always been a shortage” – at least proportionate to the massive increase in food-serving venues from 1980 to 2023 without investment in workforce training.

Continuing on the theme of cultural differences, John also attributes the “ethos of foodservice doesn’t come naturally to the Brits like it does to the French and Italians” as a contributing factor.

When asked about agency staff, John says that leadership, influence, and development matter more. Alex then asks about his involvement in launching a hospitality scholarship for students in Scotland. Could education be the solution?

Future Trends in Hospitality

“I’d rather the chef concentrate on searing that wonderful piece of sea bass perfectly because potatoes came in already pre-prepared.”

Penultimately, John and Alex evaluate various hospitality trends that might unfold across the next decade.

Using the example of a local cake producer in Kuwait, John demonstrates the potential value of centralised food production – a system where food is produced in one central location, then distributed to multiple external foodservice points.

The pair also weigh up the pros and cons of automatised, machine-led processes for food preparation: “I used to chop parmentier potatoes into squares for four hours a day – I’d go to bed not counting sheep but diced potatoes”.

John acknowledges the potential threat to jobs posed by robotics, but asserts his interest in such technological trends amid the climate of staff shortages and continual innovation. He paints a vivid picture to explain exactly how far behind UK-based hospitality businesses are compared to the Middle East, and makes a strong call for change.

Equipment Standards in Hospitality

“‘If you get the right stuff, you’re going to perform better.’”

Alex and John discuss the use of equipment in the hospitality industry and the need for collaboration and innovation from manufacturers to meet customer standards. John then goes on to discuss the importance of quality equipment and the impact it has on his day-to-day operations.

What's Next?

“I want to be happy and enjoy my life.”

Lastly, John concludes the conversation with several humorous yet touching remarks on finding happiness and satisfaction in an at-times unsympathetic industry.

Klipspringer work with leading hospitality brands inculding McDonald’s, Five Guys and Whitbread to remove the guesswork from commercial kitchens.

This involves areas such as food oil management, thermometers & probes, and digital checklists.

If you are looking for support with your own kitchens, the Klipspringer team would be happy to help with your enquiries. You can contact us on 01473 461800 or Alternatively, you can use the form below to arrange a consultation

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