Chef's Special

Tuesday 17th September 2013 at 7:56AM

Although I am a Mackem – and for those NBC viewers who are supporting the Black Cats from the Bronx, there’s a word to make you seem cool and more in the know – I have a real affection for Middlesbrough. That’s not just because they were the first club to give us the opportunity to work through my ideas on fan engagement, but also because back in the late 80s, Ana and I married, worked and lived in the land of the Parmo.

I keep in touch with the Club and have real admiration for the way the club is working more closely with supporters, from the Red Lion Bar (when they lost their Premier League status their Fan Panel came up with the idea of re-allocating the now-unused half of the away end to home supporters, as a pre-match social area with pub quizzes, entertainment and refreshments) to the Parmo Burger (which, again, sprang from a memorable discussion when, after the then Club Catering Manager explained that the club’s ovens weren’t big enough to prepare the town’s most iconic food item, a fan simply suggested ‘make them smaller). This season has seen the debut of the new Generation Red Family Zone and reports coming back to me talk of a (North) sea change in the family experience at the Riverside. Clearly things are changing in operational terms, but it’s matters of a more cultural nature that I want to share today.

In my travels, I often encounter individuals at Clubs who epitomise what the club stands for, who are always to be found fighting the supporters’ corner and who instinctively do those things that make you proud to be associated with their club. To me, they represent the seeds of the culture required to grow the club – any club. They do their job well – extremely well, in many cases – but their true contribution is in crystallising the values and identity of the Club with their behaviours.

Sadly, in most cases, their kindness sometimes jars against the prevailing wind – and I’ve written separately about how the instinctive assertion and aggression associated with winning on the pitch sometimes infects a club’s attitude to its supporters – and they remain forever a lone voice in the wilderness: the one person says ‘no, this isn’t good enough – and I’m going to sort it out for you’.

One such person is Middlesbrough’s Executive Chef Howard Archer. This is the man who, upon discovering that our 20th wedding anniversary party was to be held at the Riverside, decided to create an entirely Spanish menu, simply because he knew Ana’s family hailed from those parts. And this was Barrafina-level cuisine too – not your La Tasca-style offering. I keep hearing lovely stories about Howard, but the latest takes some beating and, no, I won’t say ‘unlike Boro’.

Howard was sent the CV of a young girl who wanted to go to college and study catering.  Boro’s Foundation staff were already teaching her on an access course and said that she lacked confidence.  They asked Howard if he could have a 5 minute pep talk with her.  He duly obliged.  So a couple of nights ago, after work, he arranged for her to see him, along with a colleague from the Foundation, and he told her he’d show her how to cook something.  He decided on Sunday dinner for 4 people as this represented transferrable skills and she could use the recipe regularly at home.  He told Boro’s suppliers of the plans and they, to their credit, actually sent over free ingredients.

Howard recalls that she was a great student: ‘She was very enthusiastic, but she didn’t like vegetables’.  So he made her up a plate and told her that top chefs must try the food before it gets sent out.  She dutifully ate the lot.

As waiting skills are an essential part of early training Howard suggested she deliver the food to some customers and that there were 4 guests waiting in an executive box for what she had prepared. 

Naturally, the young girl was nervous, but very happy to take out the food. Howard recalls that she asked him to take pictures of her as she walked across the floor to serve the food, because she wanted to collect evidence to help her with a college interview and, more importantly, wanted to show her Mum and Dad what she had achieved.

Howard followed her all the way to the box, taking pictures to collect images of her newly found skills.   She then opened the Executive Box door and was greeted by the sight of her parents and grandparents. ‘Her face was an absolute picture’ recalls Howard, who later presented his new protégé with her first set of Chef’s knives.

This isn’t just ‘using the power of football for good’ – a phrase we hear often – it’s one individual at the top of his profession with a deep understanding of the support youngsters need to make a good start in life. But it’s also a glimpse into a future where a myriad of staff – not just one or two – recognise what their club means to the local community and have the freedom to do the unexpected in increasingly marvellous ways.

It happens ‘on the pitch’ too. I recall Mark Hudson visiting a Cardiff fan, too ill to attend his team’s promotion run in after not missing a game in something like 40 years, to bring him the Football League Championship Trophy. I also recall the Southend player who shared his X-Box ID with a youngster who played him before last week’s Scunthorpe game so they could hook up again in future. There’s also the Ipswich player Tyrone Mings, who arranged to leave two tickets on reception for a supporter for a game last season because, in Tyrone’s words ‘you shouldn’t miss a game because you can’t afford it.’

These are the heroes on the pitch, but there is a cadre of people ‘off the pitch’ laying the foundations for a future where clubs genuinely do love their supporters as much as their supporters love them. They’re growing the beautiful game. Take a bow, Howard.

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