Hats off to the roast dinner. This most British of institutions is so much a part of our culture that even our French neighbours refer to us as Le Rosbif.
Traditionally a family affair, served on a Sunday, the dish has moved with the times. Whether it is a midweek meal with mates, a go-to for vegetarians and vegans, or simply an excuse to fill up on Yorkshire puddings, there are loads of opportunities for pub chefs to make the most of the roast.
“Over the years as families have become more dispersed and lifestyles have got increasingly busy, there has been a shift from the roast at home on a Sunday,” says Kate Drew, senior marketing manager for Knorr Professional – which has just launched its annual Great British Roast Dinner Competition for 2019.
Give your roast the recognition it deserves
The Great British Roast Dinner Competition, in association with Knorr Professional, seeks to recognise the very best in both meat and vegetarian or vegan roast dinners served out of home.
Entries are now open and will close on 29th September 2019. Entries can be submitted via the Unilever Food Solutions website at www.ufs.com/knorr. Terms and conditions apply.
The great thing about this is there are now so many places offering top-quality roasts – and not just on a Sunday. As a matter of fact, enjoyment is the key driver of roast dinner consumption out of home, according to Kantar Worldpanel, and we’re increasingly choosing roasts because we like the taste – and because we are looking for a change of occasions.
Of course, that’s not to say you can’t capitalise on a few traditions. At the Kings Arms in Georgeham, north Devon, Great British Roast Dinner south-west regional winner Liz Connor believes the homely atmosphere she has created at the pub helps to make a Sunday roast experience great.
“All of our vegetables are made to share and we want to create that feeling of passing dishes around the table while the conversation flows,” says Connor. “It feels very homely.”
Great British Roast Dinner national winner Matt Healy from the The Foundry in Leeds, West Yorkshire, has a similar ethos.
He explains that, during the week, his venue is “a bit more fancy” but on a Sunday, he sets out to make it more accessible for everyone. That means sharing boards brimming with roast beef, roast chicken, crispy roast potatoes and fat Yorkshire puddings. “It’s all about the informality of the event,” he says, as he describes diners trading dishes and stories over the table.
From traditional roasts to contemporary serves, the plethora of choice, along with more awareness of food provenance, means consumers are becoming more and more discerning in their quest for roast perfection.
“People want to know what they are eating and where it comes from,” says Kate Drew. “Pub restaurants in particular need to tap into this trend.”
Drew suggests this doesn’t need to mean additional work. “Just give the butcher a call and ask them. Once you have the information, tell the diners – reference the farm on your menu or reference the fact your vegetables are organic or locally sourced.”
Connor at the Kings Arms agrees, adding that a big part of what makes a great roast dinner is the ingredients.
Speaking of ingredients, this brings us to the stars of the show – the meaty, vegetarian or vegan centrepieces around which all those wonderful trimmings are served.
According to Kantar Worldpanel, in the case of meaty roasts, growth is being driven by chicken and lamb, with chicken an especially popular source of protein among younger meat eaters. In fact, the under-35s are 25% more likely to have chicken, compared to other proteins.
There are also other benefits to using chicken, if margins are tight.
“The great thing about roast dinners is that you can balance the cost to fit your margins,” explains Alex Hall, executive chef for Unilever Food Solutions. “Meat costs can vary and some cuts, such as rib of beef, are always going to cost more. However, options like chicken and pork are much more cost-effective.”
Hall also highlights that vegetables and trimmings are, for the most part, the same with every type of meat – or vegetarian option – meaning less wastage. “It also makes prep a lot easier,” he adds.
Sourcing the right supplier is a key consideration when it comes to serving tasty meat.
‘Make everything from scratch’
“Find a decent butcher and buy good-quality, grade A produce,” says Bradley Morley, head chef at Croxton’s in Southsea, Hampshire. The pub last year scooped Knorr Professional’s Great British Roast Dinner regional prize for the south-east and east of England. “We also source our ingredients locally and make everything from scratch.”
Meanwhile, chefs at the Kings Arms use sirloin from a West Country butcher and, as a result, around 70% of roasts sold at the pub are sirloin, Connor says.
“We have a small kitchen and, therefore, a shorter menu so that we can really focus on doing a few dishes well.
“It has to be better than it would be at home,” she adds. “That means all of the vegetables and trimmings are tasty” – right from crispy roast potatoes and honeyed parsnips to cauliflower cheese.
At Matt Healy x The Foundry, Healy also champions local suppliers and he uses Yorkshire sirloin, hung for a minimum of 27 days. The meat is cooked overnight at 54°C in a special oven. “It’s perfect all the way through,” says Healy. “No one else in Leeds does this quality.”
On the question of getting more creative with meaty roasts, Croxton’s head chef Morley says he smothers the beef in horseradish, rosemary, thyme, salt and pepper before sealing it and then roasting the meat on a high heat.
However, the chef warns against messing too much with the great British institution that is the roast dinner. He says there are so many places that try to do something different with a roast and just end up ruining the dish.
Alex Hall agrees, adding that there are some ingredients “you want to keep simple”, such as good-quality roast potatoes.
“These can then be paired with quality seasonal produce, which gives each roast a seasonal, personal touch,” says Hall. “Changing your vegetable options to reflect the season is a great way to add variety. For example, leafy vegetables such as kale really complement a roast beef.”
A good roast offering is all about inclusivity, says Kate Drew from Knorr Professional. And that means ensuring your vegetarian offer is as delicious as the meats – not just an afterthought.
“We’re starting to see... dishes like vegetarian Wellington made with goats’ cheese and beetroot,” Drew says. “It’s delicious and provides a more substantial offering to vegetarian diners than a risotto or pasta dish.”
In fact, some 4.4bn meat-free dinners were consumed in 2018, according to MCA’s Menu and Food Trends Report – a massive increase of 150m on the prior year.
At the Kings Arms, Connor believes the number of vegetarian or vegan consumers has risen by “10 to 15%” in the past year or so. She also outlined a surprising demographic that is increasingly giving meat a miss.
“A lot of our traditional male beer drinkers are looking at meat-free options,” she says. “Especially ones with younger children who are on Instagram and who pass on the influence of what they see.”
The vegetarian option at the north Devon pub has “evolved from a home-made nut roast to a veg Wellington”, Connor explains. The dish is made with vegan pastry and it is “full of herbs and spices”, she adds.
At Matt Healy The Foundry, Healy says ensuring a vegetarian offer is as irresistible as its meaty counterpart is “a challenge” for chefs.
“We tried a nut roast – actually we tried loads of different ones – but people didn’t go for them.” Not one to be deterred, Healy now serves a Portobello mushroom Wellington, packed with seasonal wild mushrooms.
The number of diners that identify as vegan is undoubtedly on the rise. Today, plant power can be felt everywhere – from dairy alternatives in coffee shops to juicy, plant-based burgers that are making headlines for their meat-like appearance.
According to research commissioned by The Vegan Society, the number of vegans in Great Britain quadrupled between 2014 and 2018, to reach 600,000 last year.
A few simple tricks
When considering the creation of a vegan Sunday roast, there are a few simple tricks to try.
At the Kings Arms, for example, Connor’s veg Wellington is already made with vegan pastry. She simply ensures vegan diners are served parsnips without the honey glaze.
Similarly, head chef Morley at Croxton’s in Southsea says his wild mushroom, sweet potato and nut
roast, served with mushroom and burnt shallot money bag parcel, is vegan by standard. Morley’s change-ups include roasted cauliflower, rather than cauliflower cheese.
When the pub opened a year ago, Morley says the team was expecting around 15% of the consumer base to be vegan. “It’s more like 30%, especially in the week and for weekend breakfasts,” he says, where the veggie and vegan option accounts for almost 70% of orders.
A sometimes overlooked part of a roast dinner – and a key component, especially for vegetarian and vegan serves – are vegetables. So often they can be disappointing, over-cooked, under-seasoned and bland.
So, when it comes to promoting the pea or supporting the sprout, seasonality is a key consideration, both in environmental terms but also in respect of keeping an eye on margins, since produce that is available in abundance usually avoids price hikes.
“Come September, Maris Piper potatoes will be bang in season,” says Alex Hall from Unilever Food Solutions. “And they go really fluffy when you boil them, which helps get that crispy crunch on the outside.”
Hall suggests keeping things seasonal and simple. “Pumpkin and squashes are in season along with kale and cabbage so think about how you can put these on your plate,” Alex Hall adds. “Grill some hispi cabbage to add a smoky flavour to the plate.”
As well as catering for vegetarians and vegans, it is crucial to consider other dietary requirements, including diners who need gluten-free options.
According to charity Coeliac UK, the catering industry is missing out on an estimated £100m a year by not providing for people with coeliac disease and their friends and families. Moreover, some 74% of coeliacs said they would eat out every two weeks if more gluten-free options were available.
“More consideration of dietary requirements is needed,” says Kate Drew. “A roast dinner is all about inclusivity – if you’re coeliac and go out for a roast dinner but can’t have Yorkshire puddings or even gravy, it’s not a great experience.”
Drew believes these challenges aren’t insurmountable, though they do require a bit of thought. “Many of our customers tell us that people really appreciate it when an effort to cater for dietary requirements is made.
“Dining out with dietary restrictions can be stressful and anything a restaurateur can do to take that stress away is likely to be appreciated and remembered.”
Healy agrees, saying that at Matt Healy x The Foundry, guests are asked about dietary requirements when they book, so that the team can be prepared. The main gluten-free considerations on a roast dinner, he says, are Yorkshire puddings and gravy.
“For the gravy, nine times out of 10 we will make a red wine sauce,” says Healy. Of course, there are some great gluten-free gravy options available for those who require them. Gluten-free Yorkshire puddings on the other hand, can be tricky. Healy says if they don’t work out well, he won’t serve them. “I will go out and personally explain to the customer,” he adds.
The wonderful thing about the roast dinner is that it is an everyman dish, and all of us – diners and chefs alike – have our favourite little twists and additions.
“It’s very much down to personal preference,” says Alex Hall. “For me, it’s got to be beef with really crisp roast potatoes and Yorkshire puddings. In Autumn, I love to add roasted vegetables and then good old-fashioned gravy with a splash of ale to add to the meaty flavour.”
Whether your customers go wild for your Yorkshires or rave about your nut roast, there is no question that a great roast dinner has the power to bring everyone to the table.