Sheffield Hallam University is on to a winner when it comes to sustainable catering – in the shape of its new head chef, Darren Procter.
Darren, who took up his role in September, has already led the academic field in pioneering links with the Sustainable Restaurant Association.
That led to a string of industry awards, including the Green Gown for sustainability, and now he has brought his cutting-edge approach to Sheffield.
“Universities have really upped their game over the last 10 years,” he says. “We’re benchmarking our cafés against the best on the high street, using fresh, exciting ingredients, cooking food and concepts that are really on trend as well as seasonal and sustainable.”
Darren wasn’t looking for an academic life when he started out. He trained on the job, working his way up the kitchen ladder in three-star hotels and restaurants, completing his qualifications along the way.
In 2006 he moved to Cornwall and set up a successful restaurant and country inn.
But the satisfaction of running his own business had a down side too: “I missed doing banqueting and events and it’s quite demoralising to have the wonderful produce of Cornwall on your doorstep… and a traditional steak pie as your best seller.”
That frustration tipped the balance and after seven years he traded the insecurity of self-employment for the challenge of becoming head chef at Plymouth University.
Flying the banner for sustainability, he made a name for himself and satisfied his own passion for ‘green’cuisine.
“It’s a big deal to me,” he says. “And universities as a whole put a lot of emphasis on food sourcing, waste and treating staff well.”
They also have access to the latest equipment and advanced cooking techniques: “If there’s something new available, they get hold of it, which really enhances what we can provide for functions wanting that ‘wow’ factor.”
So, using a battery of equipment, including thermo mixers, dehydrators, anti-griddles and waterbaths, Darren and his team provide everything from bacon butties and porridge for the students to canapés and fine banqueting for events.
He is enjoying the new challenge – and the new range of produce he finds on his doorstep in Sheffield. His chosen signature dish is warm cured duck with sweet potato and fig salad.
“For me, the key is exciting flavours, interesting combinations, great colours and originality,” he says. “This dish is really versatile so can be served warm in winter and cold in summer, with or without the duck.”
Recipe by: Darren Procter
Warm cured duck with with sweet potato & fig salad
½ tsp black peppercorns
½ tsp coriander seeds
2 bay leaves
1 tblsp fresh thyme leaves
60g table salt
50g caster sugar
2 duck breasts
1 large sweet potato
4 figs, each cut into 6 wedges
3 spring onions
1 red chilli
Small bunch coriander leaves
Grind the peppercorns, coriander seeds, bay leaves and thyme leaves and mix with the salt and sugar.
Place half of the cure in a shallow dish, place the trimmed duck breasts, flesh side down, on top and cover with the remaining cure.
Leave for at least 12 hours.
Pre-heat oven to 180ºC
Cut the sweet potato into wedges and halve, then toss in a little olive oil and seasoning.
Roast for approx 45 mins or until soft and browned. Keep warm if you are serving the salad hot.
While potatoes are cooking, thinly slice chilli and spring onions and mix with the coriander leaves.
Remove duck from cure and rinse thoroughly. Seal in a hot pan, then cook for 8-10 minutes in the oven.
Place the duck and potato in a bowl and toss with the onion, chilli and coriander.
Place this neatly but not uniformly into your serving bowls and, just before serving, drizzle with some balsamic syrup.