Charlie Thellusson - director and head chef of Red Olive Catering Company
PUBLISHED: 15:12 29 September 2014 | UPDATED: 15:12 29 September 2014
Red Square Photography
Charlie Thellusson talks about life on the front-line of event catering
Now in its 14th year of business, Charlie Thellusson established The Red Olive Catering Company in a modern but basic production kitchen in an industrial unit in his home town of Derby. In the intervening years the company has become a familiar presence on the event catering scene; successfully catering for numerous weddings and corporate events, winning a host of awards, and moving to new state-of-the-art, custom-designed premises.
How has your background in the catering industry influenced your approach to your business?
Gaining experience in all the restaurants and hotels for which I was lucky enough to work has been the bedrock of my business. I was fortunate to have an apprenticeship in France, work for the Roux brothers in Mayfair, and work at Hambleton Hall and Le Gavroche. It’s all about delivering the very best you can and understanding how to achieve high quality.
How different is running a catering company to owning a restaurant?
Logistics play a huge part in making sure you deliver on the day. If you forget a sauce in a restaurant then it’s easy to quickly run one up. If you forget to pack the sauce for an event an hour’s drive away then you’re stuck! It takes experience to transport an entire kitchen and dining room to and from an event without making mistakes.
Have your ambitions for the company changed in the last ten years?
Yes. If I had known where I would be today I wouldn’t have believed it. I’m not sure I had an ambition other than to make sure every client’s expectations were exceeded. Before I was the chef, kitchen porter, marketing manager and logistics manager but now we have a team with members working in every area. I want to ensure that Red Olive Catering continues to grow and develop so that we can continue to offer excellent service to our clients for the next 100 years or more! I’d love to think we can keep wowing our clients even after I’m long gone. This is all about having a great team and having great processes and procedures.
Do you think the food industry has changed a lot in this country?
Yes, people are able to do so much more now than ever before. Thirty years ago the food on offer was very simple, for example, prawn cocktail, melon, egg mayonnaise and ham. Now, it’s about food from around the world. The internet has made it much easier for people to learn about new cooking styles. Some of our most popular canapés are chicken tikka poppadums, Thai fish cakes and duck pancake rolls.
What would you say is your greatest achievement?
I’m proud of many things but staying in business for 14 years, winning Best Wedding Caterer 2012 for the East Midlands region and cooking for Royalty all rank highly. Having a loyal, talented and friendly team who consistently deliver a quality experience to our guests, from the moment we meet them to the day itself, time after time, has to be my proudest achievement of all. It’s all about good people!
We often face difficulties with power (particularly if a marquee is in the middle of a field), which is when experience really comes into play. We were on our way to a wedding in a marquee in the Peak District recently when we got a call to say there was no power in the village. As most of our equipment is electrical this caused a lot of problems. We managed to cook six hot canapés and an entire three course meal for 100 guests with one gas oven. Fortunately the couple were really understanding and relaxed. Our resourceful team served the meal impeccably and without any difference to our normal high standards. Just as the desserts were served and it started to get dark, the power came back on!
Do you still spend time in the kitchen or is it all management and marketing now?
I moved out of the kitchen two years ago to concentrate on office and front of house duties. We have a business coach who keeps us on track. I try to spend at least four hours a week working ‘on’ the business as opposed to ‘in’ the business. Of course, I am still a chef but it is difficult to oversee everything from the kitchen so I am being coached on how to run the business more efficiently by taking a step back.
What do you feel are the most important elements for a successful event?
The most important element for success is organisation. Good preparation is vital to feeling confident that nothing has been overlooked and experience teaches you how to solve problems before they occur. I am always a bit nervous about an event as each one is so important and especially with weddings – you don’t want to be responsible for letting the bride and groom down on the most important day of their lives! But as you get into the flow and start to look after the guests everything falls into place. We find we usually exceed expectations, which means guests enjoy the event all the more. The worst thing would be an unhappy client, so we work extra hard to make sure they never are!
What is special about the service you offer?
We put just as much effort into the service as the food. Our team is trained in-house so that they share our passion, dedication and willingness to do whatever it takes to make the event fantastic. We also employ experienced event managers who work full time with Red Olive Catering and see the event through from the enquiry to set-up and the clearing up. This allows a rapport to develop with the client so we’re all working together to create an unforgettable experience.
You’ve moved to new premises. What were the most important considerations when you were designing the kitchen?
You need a large amount of fridge storage space so we have a 28ft x 6ft walk-in fridge and freezer. We have an oven that roasts and steams and we can even programme it from home. At Christmas I put the turkey in at 6pm on Christmas Eve and it cooks on a special program which takes about 18 hours, then holds it at the perfect temperature until I turn up.
What advice would you have for anyone just setting out?
You have to be prepared to work very hard and be dedicated. Set yourself one year, three year and five year goals and keep moving those goals forward. Too many people think the catering industry is an easy profession to fall into but after three months they realise the grass isn’t always greener.
Aside from weddings, what have been the most memorable events you’ve catered for?
We cater for all sorts of occasions including private and corporate events. We felt very privileged to cater for the Aviva athletes in 2012, including Mo Farah, Greg Rutherford and Christine Ohuruogu. Another big achievement has been catering for over 700 people at the Leicester Mercury Business Awards dinner for the past two years. I am proud to have Bentley, Rolls-Royce, Coutts and Bang and Olufsen amongst our corporate clients and we enjoy being part of the inauguration events for the High Sheriffs of Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire. We know that every guest at every event has the potential to be a new or returning client, so we ensure that they all leave impressed.
Where would you like to be in ten years time?
I would love to have the same business I have now but to be less involved in the day-to-day running. My son Oliver is keen on cooking, so who knows…