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On Her Majesty's Service
After 25 years in the catering business, and with a contract for Buckingham Palace garden parties, Charles Boyd of Chester Boyd is at the top of his game. Here, he tells Louise Troy how to make a cucumber sandwich fit for a Queen
It’s a gorgeously sunny day when Square Meal catches up with Charles Boyd, and it’s clear he’s been giving our photo shoot some serious thought. He’d emailed earlier to suggest – in the gentlest possible way – that our idea of giving him canapés to hold might not work, and could he use Champagne instead?
It was a masterclass in how to get what you want with minimum fuss, and provides a strong clue as to why his company, Chester Boyd, has become a low-key success story in the competitive world of event catering.
The 51-year-old chief executive has plenty to smile about as the firm celebrates its 25th birthday this year, because Chester Boyd is currently the holder of one of most prestigious contracts around – catering for Buckingham Palace’s summer garden parties.
The company was founded in 1983, when Boyd was just 26. After being expelled from school, he worked as a kitchen porter, then a chef, before becoming involved with a catering company working for livery halls. ‘The City then was archaic,’ he says. ‘The Butchers’ Hall pre-cooked roast beef, put it in a slicing machine, then reheated it in gravy.’
Deeply unimpressed, he cut a deal with
the Worshipful Company of Butchers to form an in-house catering division.
The business grew organically, and by last year Chester Boyd had 14 venues – including The HAC and the In and Out Club – and more than 200 staff. The company was then bought out by Charlton House for an estimated £5m. Does he regret ceding overall control? ‘Not at all. They pretty much let me do my own thing, and it frees me from all the admin and allows me to focus on the catering, which I love.’
OK then, here’s a harder question – how do you make a cucumber sandwich fit for a Queen? ‘White bread, spring onion, cucumber and mint. It needs a little bit of bite, a little bit of texture and the cucumber has to be perfectly ripe so the sandwiches don’t go soggy.’
The 8,000-odd guests of Her Majesty also get treated to eight or nine different cakes, in a format described by Boyd as ‘oversized canapés’. The jewel in the crown, so to speak, is a chocolate cake with ganache, topped with a tiny gold leaf coronet. ‘People try to take those home in their napkins,’ says Boyd, ruefully. ‘But they don’t survive well.’
The garden party contract belongs to an offshoot of the company, known as Chester Boyd Classic. It runs on a more traditional outside catering model, as opposed to the venue-centric approach favoured by the main firm. Boyd’s main concern is working with his portfolio of livery halls and private members’ clubs, making some of London’s finest historic buildings commercially viable. ‘It’s a balancing act,’ he says. ‘Working with clubs, the members don’t particularly want anyone in their home, but they also don’t want to bear the full cost of maintaining the building.’
Trying to reconcile these two impulses isn’t the only challenge Boyd faces. He believes that successful catering often gets taken for granted, whereas a stinker of a meal becomes the talk of the evening. ‘I’m always telling my managers that people don’t notice if the food is good. But if it’s bad they don’t tell you, they just don’t come back.’
It’s also a good job that Boyd is able to make even a cucumber sandwich sound enticing, because he cheerfully admits that nine out of ten menus follow the ‘salmon-chicken-chocolate’ formula. ‘It is boring. But that said, we’ll do 10 events like that, and the eleventh will be a gastronomic dinner.’
This is where Boyd comes into his own. He recently went on a gastronomic tour to Spain and came home buzzing with ideas.
‘Some of the food I ate out there was astounding. One chef made “eggs” full of port, with a skin on, and there was this explosion of taste when you ate it… Astonishing.’
Surely the buyout means Boyd could go and live in the Bahamas, and not have to worry about ways to make salmon and chicken exciting? ‘But I love work,’ he says.
When he’s not in his office, you can usually find Boyd training for a charity cycle ride, of which he’s completed many. This month, he will be cycling in aid of Help For Heroes (to sponsor visit justgiving.com/charlesboyd). Then there’s a 3,000km motorbike dash round India for Unicef in January.
So, what’s next for Chester Boyd? ‘We need to expand. The demand on margins is difficult,’ he says. Clients say, “This steak cost you £3, so why are you charging me £25?” They don’t think about the unbelievable building, the fine china, the silver.’
Just before the interview finishes, Boyd quotes some statistics. ‘It’s reckoned that there are 1,000 venues in London and 150 caterers. There’s been an explosion.’ That may be so, I think, as he explains his crafty plan of Velcroing Champagne flutes to the tray – but there’s always room for Chester Boyd. V&E
This article first appeared in Square Meal Venues & Events magazine, Summer 2008.