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Starters orders

PUBLISHED: 15:00 20 May 2014

Feature on Newmarket racecourse chef and restaurant. Pictured is head chef Damian Adams (left).

Feature on Newmarket racecourse chef and restaurant. Pictured is head chef Damian Adams (left).

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Ever wondered what catering for 30,000 racegoers over three days might be like? Frances Hopewell-Smith goes backstage at Newmarket to find out

Feature on Newmarket racecourse chef and restaurant.Feature on Newmarket racecourse chef and restaurant.

A day at the races. That’s pretty close to heaven for me. Ever since my first encounter with a chunky chestnut pony I’ve had a special place in my heart for horses, so a day out at Newmarket races is pure joy.

The Newmarket Moet & Chandon July Course meeting takes place over three days in, yes, July, when the Jockey Club organisers welcome nearly 250 horses competing for prize money in excess of £1.6 million. Long before the race day starts ground staff have been working through the night to make sure the course is in prime condition. From 6am it’s all systems go. Everything has to be ready when the gates open two hours before the first race and the racegoers – 30,000 of them over the three days – start to arrive. A lot is written about the horses, trainers, owners and jockeys and the sometimes startling ladies’ day fashions. But it’s behind-the-scenes that fascinates me and if you’ve ever wondered how all those people get fed and watered I can reveal the secrets of the catering challenge.

Damian Adams, 36, is the head chef. He’s been devoted to cooking since starting his career as a kitchen porter aged 15. Through college and into catering on a big scale both in England and abroad, he’s now been at Newmarket for ten years and in charge for six. He loves every second of it. He creates all the menus and when they’re finalised it’s his job to make sure it all happens on the food front. Alexandra Goss, unflappable head of operations, puts all the pieces together.

Adams and his brigade of 40 chefs (sometimes even that number isn’t enough and they have to get extra help) and 1,650 waiting staff and team members operate like a vast, sleek machine to get all the meals prepared, cooked and served where and when they’re needed. By lunch time they’ve been at it for hours. Working out of 11 separate kitchens, this crack team delivers meals to the five restaurant marquees and assorted hospitality and guest boxes, each one finished to Damian’s extremely high standards.

Being in Suffolk means the chefs have access to some marvellous local products, many of which are supplied to the racecourse. It’s all part of the British food revolution, says Damian, and he’s noticed some exciting restaurants opening in the area. He makes a point of trying them because he likes to keep up to speed with innovations and what’s available in the region. Increasingly, he says, guests expect something special from him.

When he was younger and expanding his cooking horizons, he spent time in Thailand and has a fondness for that style of food which, he’s happy to admit, influences a lot of his dishes. It’s a delicate balance to introduce new ideas but still keep the traditionalists happy. He cleverly makes sure there’s an element of familiarity, so as ‘not to frighten the horses’. Vegetarian guests are well served and Damian also manages to accommodate any number of special diets which, he says, are asked for much more nowadays.

Sitting in one of the summery marquees enjoying a perfectly cooked and presented lunch, it’s easy to forget the legions of people and monumental effort that goes in to making it all go without a hitch. I ask Damian how he and his crew cope with conditions that are less than perfect, that is when it rains which, incredibly, it does in July. The answer is simple – waterproofs and wellies. And that just about sums up the cool, calm and capable Mr Adams.

n The July Course meeting takes place at Newmarket on 10, 11 and 12 July 2014. For more information see www.newmarketracecourses.co.uk

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