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A day in the life of...Matthew White, Head of Catering

Matthew White

'I love the diversity of my job. It throws something different at me every day and I've never been bored for a moment in 19 years!'

As the University's Head of Catering, Matthew White heads up a team of 250 staff, who provide catering across our campuses, as well as hospitality for external events hosted at the University.

How long have you been working at the University?

I started in 1992 as temporary commis chef at what was called The Buttery, I then became a permanent chef which I enjoyed very much. After about eight years I applied for a role as the Catering Officer (as it was called then) and have been here ever since in various roles managing the catering operations. I became the Head of Catering in August 2010 and my feet haven't touched the ground since!

What did you do before coming to the University?

I worked in various catering roles, including owning and running an outside catering company. I also worked as a Head Chef for a large brewery, but the focus was very commercialised, so coming to work at the University was great, as the focus was far more oriented towards customer service and food quality.

Catering at the University has undergone a lot of change recently; can you tell us more about what's been happening?

We've just completed the implementation of the University Catering Strategy, which saw an investment of £20 million into the development and refurbishment of our catering facilities. The portfolio of catering units was somewhat tired, and so this investment has helped bring catering services up to the standards that are expected across the University. I believe catering is an integral part of life on campus and the products and services we offer play a critical role in helping students decide on their first choice University. 

The whole implementation programme has been about four years from the initial concept meetings and has taken just over two years to complete the new builds and refurbishment projects. I've been involved in every detail of the projects from the colour of bricks through to the choice of crockery and interior décor, as well as creating the new Eat brand. It's the first time catering across the University has had a joined-up identity. We now have some fantastic venues in which to cater for our diverse customer base.

Has the project now come to an end?

There is still one part of the project to complete which is the refurbishment of the Blue Room. Because all of our other projects have gone to plan and budget, we've been able to allocate some of the contingency on upgrading the Blue Room. The plan is to create a flexible space for formal meetings, University gatherings, events and banqueting. This will provide an excellent meeting and conference space for the University, whilst gaining income from hosting external events.

What would a typical day look like for you?

Well I have two German, Short-Haired Pointer dogs who don't have clocks or jobs and they get up at 5.30am, so I'll be up and walking them and then at my desk for 6.45am. I love that time of morning because I get so much work done when it's still quiet, before the phone starts ringing.

At 8.00am, I head down to the open plan office where the catering management team are based and I catch up with them all and see how the night before has gone. We run the bar operations across campus and late night catering operations like the pizza and burger bar at Park Eat which is open till midnight, so there can sometimes be matters to deal with first thing.

I attend all sorts of meetings throughout the day, ranging from official University Committees and things like the project team meeting for the development of the London Road campus, to the Environment and Sustainability Committee.

On my way between meetings I'll usually drop-in to whatever catering outlet I'm passing and see how things are going. I do schedule in visits for more formal things like auditing but I like to catch up on what's going on day-to-day and chat to the staff. Listening to staff feedback is invaluable; it's the best way to find out what works and what doesn't and a lot of what the team tell me informs what we do in catering and the strategic decisions we have to make.

Sometimes, if there's a big event taking place, I'll go home and then come back in the evening - and I work occasionally at the weekends to help out and make sure everything is running smoothly.

What do you enjoy most about your job?

I would have to say the diversity. Every day is different and I could be anywhere from meeting with a Chief Executive from one of our external clients doing a tasting for an upcoming conference, to discussing recipes with the Executive Head Chef or planning capital building projects. It throws something different at me every day and I've never been bored for a moment in 19 years!

What are the challenges you face in your role?

The biggest challenge recently has been completing all of the catering projects and bringing the whole team along with me on the journey whilst still making the finances balance! It's been very difficult but I'm now looking forward to us all being able to enjoy the new facilities and focusing on delivering great service and products to our customers.

The unique thing about catering at the University is that our customers' needs are constantly changing. Students and staff are demanding very different products now to two years ago and food is always trending. We've had to make a very big leap from traditional, residential and institutionalised catering, through to a customer-focused service competing on a commercial level. We're really proud to be catering in-house and working as part of the University.

Are there any aspects of your role people might not expect you to be getting involved in?

I like to keep involved at all levels of the operation, last year I did a week in the Central Kitchen as a ‘back to the floor' exercise. It really helps to see how things are going and gives me a chance to get valuable feedback from staff. While I was there, I had to wear full chef whites, wellies and even a hair net - I don't have any hair, but rules are rules!

What are some of your best moments in your career?

The best thing for me is when we host huge events like the recent KPMG conference. Catering for thousands of delegates a day is a huge challenge and when you get nothing but really positive feedback after weeks and weeks of planning it's actually quite a thrill. I love it when a plan comes together.

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