11 April 2005
The canteen staff have been headhunted en masse, and the firm is in disarray. No more twice-baked lasagne souffle; no more salmon en croute with tarragon Pernod sauce; no more treacle tart meringue bites. Their genius was to cook nursery food in a way that made the £250,000 professionals feel safe yet unpatronised, a tough act because they usually feel neither, the ungrateful sods, however respectfully you treat them. My God, it was far better than anything I produce at home, better than most of their menu fixe deals at the local eateries, and all down to the chef Pauline, who decided long ago she didn't want to work restaurant hours but still wanted a clientele who could appreciate a beurre blanc sauce when they saw it.
As with all headhunting, it began gently: a couple of casual meetings in Starbucks, nothing too pressured, an exploration of the possibilities, a mention that a certain firm might be interested and would be willing to pay more.
And then the hard sell. They don't just want you, they want the team, which means you've got to go round probing their loyalties and hoping to God you don't get a die-hard lifer who will go blabbing to management. Hoping, also, that you're as popular as you thought you were, and that the team will actually want to come with you.
And then you discover the new firm wants you to go out and get the work in - you can't just ladle the food out, Pauline, we expect the canteen to be providing catering packages and winning outside contracts. There you were, thinking you were pretty hot property and suddenly you realise no one wants you unless they can build three high-rise office blocks on you.
The firm has taken it very badly. Mass walk-outs seem the story of the day and the managing partner is terrified of the trade press and headlines with the word "haemorrhaging" in them (while anyone in journalism dances with joy if they manage to get a word as long as that in a headline). They narrowly averted a similar annexation of a group of secretaries recently, but it seems no one wants the lawyers. Last week the Lawyer mocked up a spoof front page: "Canteen defection means firm has had its chips," which went down like a overboiled suet pudding around the management table. "I don't care," he said. "Pauline's lunches are the only beacons of hope in the blasted landscape of a normal working day. One of my main reasons for being a lawyer at all is disappearing to work for the opposition. Expenses will have to rise in compensation. No more menu fixe, I will have to eat à la carte from now on."
I popped into the canteen with the children over Easter and Pauline told me all this as they tucked into banana boat baked Alaska. She asked me if I wanted the recipe. God no, I told her. They'll think my job is actually to cook proper food for them. Damn Jamie Oliver: he's upped middle class guilt by about a million per cent.
Is it a lot more money? I asked her, and she simply raised her eyes to the ceiling and toyed with her sparkly new diamond earrings, so I figure it was a good deal. The firm, however, like all mean organisations who don't do enough to keep their staff on board, are making her work three months notice. "Bad move," she said, "they obviously haven't thought what I can do to their food behind closed doors."