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Caterer Spotlight: Chef on Wheels

Chef on Wheels NCASS

Christian Crowder has risen from a young trainee chef to multiple business owner thanks to his love of cooking. With over 20 years of experience behind him, the Argentinian has travelled all over the world as a chef, working at everything from small pubs to Michelin star restaurants – he’s even cooked for Hollywood celebs..

After purchasing an Airstream van in 2019 and spending months renovating it, Christian was finally ready to delve deeper into the street food market, until Covid-19 delayed his plans to work at festivals this summer. We catch up with Christian to find out how he’s been getting on during lockdown and why he thinks those looking for new opportunities should take the leap and start their own catering business.

Hi Christian, thanks so much for speaking with me today. Tell us about how you got started in catering?

I’ve lived on my own since I was 16 years old and so I had very little experience in anything but cooking. I was born in Argentina but I’ve worked all over the world as a chef. My grandfather was from Slough and I grew up speaking English, so when I was 20 I moved to Oxford on my own with very little money where I found work as a trainee chef at Cherwell Boathouse Restaurant. From there I moved to Marbella where I worked in my cousin’s restaurant and continued to work at venues around Spain. I came back to the UK in 2005 and worked for three years at Ashdown Park Hotel & Country Club; that’s where I gained a lot of my professional experience and also cooked for a few celebs along the way.

From there I moved to south east Asia where I became a Business Consultant; my role was to train the staff before moving on to other restaurants and during my time there I opened three restaurants. I went from there to working as a head chef at Hollandse Club in Singapore, spent some time cooking also in the USA, and then finally I came back to England where I was working in everything from schools through to Michelin star restaurants. Finally, I helped my family to open a restaurant in Bali called Bali Enak.

I love cheffing because it provides me with a way to travel around.

Christian with his team in Singapore

You purchased an Airstream last year didn’t you to focus on the street food side of business?

Yeah the Airstream was in bad shape and abandoned in storage. I finally finished renovating it in February after about a year and then, boom, Covid-19 hit. I’d started researching what festival work was out there but as soon as lockdown happened the vehicle went straight back into storage. I have a very positive mindset and so I began looking at what else I could do to stay active during the pandemic. I contacted a pub in Ross on Wye called The White Lion and whilst the kitchen was closed, the owner kindly said that if I put my truck outside then I could operate there on a limited menu selling burgers, hotdogs, veggies dishes and the like. I got all the relevant permission and paperwork from the council and trading there has been a huge success.

This weekend I’m pleased to say we’re fully booked and the landlady has also allowed a couple of other street food traders to pitch up at weekends doing Japanese food and loaded fries. The pub wants me to stay pitched up for a while but I’ve also got a job coming up at the The Valley, a shopping centre in Evesham selling fish & chips, chicken tenders and finger food so I’ll see how that goes.

You’ve really done well to keep such a positive mindset during such an uncertain time! How did you prepare the business to operate during Covid-19?

I downloaded all of the NCASS documents and read through them all; they’ve been really helpful actually and I keep all of the Covid-19 paperwork to hand in my trailer. If wasn’t for NCASS it would be really hard for me to keep up to date with training and documentation.

I’ve decided to work alone in the van for the moment, as I don’t want to be in contact with anyone else at work, so that keeps me very much in my own bubble during work hours. I do have external support helping me if I need to get extra stock or any emergencies of that sort. I’m taking contactless payment, I’ve put up instructions for customers all around the Airstream so they know how orders are being taken and obviously I get them to keep a 2-metre distance when queuing. I’ve also tried to put even prices on everything to try and limit the amount of cash being handled. It’s quite time consuming going to get change and for hygiene reasons it’s not something I want to encourage, so I may at some point enforce a ‘no change’ rule. I then have automatic hand sanitisers in the van, disinfectants and I’m always wearing clean gloves when handling the food.

What advice would you give to other catering professionals who aren’t sure how to drive their businesses through Covid-19?

Firstly, be positive and think outside the box. If your business is supposed to be working at festivals this summer then try to think about other places where you can sell food, whether it’s by using the kitchens of restaurants, trading on a car park, in open areas, birthday parties, or at outdoor markets. I’m supplying the keychain from the outside at the moment and there’s a lot of opportunities out there currently that maybe you wouldn’t have thought of if you hadn’t been kicked into action by a global pandemic.  

Stay positive, look for opportunities and always try to find alternative ways of working because there’s chances for everyone if you keep looking. For example, when I finish up at the pub I’m at currently, I know they’re looking for a chef to take over the kitchen. I also left my business cards at a clay pigeon shooting centre near Cheltenham and they rang me recently asking if I could cater for 130 people at a day event in September and that is set to become a regular thing. You have to be on top of things all the time, whether that’s keeping your website up-to-date, launching new menus or getting someone you know to get some decent photos of your food (which I’ve currently put my 19 year-old nephew in charge of!)

I’m looking into doing Deliveroo or Just Eat at some point if the job at The Valley in Evesham goes well. At the end of the day if people don’t want to come to me then I’ll go to them. Delivery is also a great option as it provides some extra income during the winter when it’s cold and not as many people fancy eating out.

Great advice, thanks Christian! What would you say to people who may have been made redundant during Covid-19 and are wondering whether to start their own catering business?

Go for it! If you think your product is good and you have confidence in your food then definitely go for it. If you keep putting it off until tomorrow then it will never happen. The most important thing is to put your heart and soul into your cooking. If you cook with passion as if you’re cooking for yourself or someone you love then you naturally go that bit further with the little details and people will love you for it. Put lots of love into the food, wait to cook things properly and you’ll get a lot in return. 

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