Meals on wheels don’t come much fancier than those dished up by the crack caterers to the McLaren Formula One team, says William Sitwell
THE FOOD BEING lined up at the pass looked delicious. There was mushroom linguini, roast breast of duck waited for its caramelised vegetables, and a delicious-looking smoked haddock rare bit with a poached egg, herby salad and hollandaise sauce was whisked off to a table.
The kitchen itself was a little crammed, if slick and modern. Three chefs and two juniors moved about quickly: chopping, mixing, stirring, plating — like in any other kitchen in the world. And at the end of the galley was a large walk-in fridge crammed full of fresh ingredients.
Yet this was unlike any kitchen I had ever been in. A couple of days previously it had been trundling up the M40 heading for Silverstone. Once there, along with a dozen other trucks, it was miraculously dissembled and turned into a kitchen as part of the brand centre for Vodafone McLaren Mercedes.
The great travelling circus that is Formula One was gearing up for the 2011 Santander British Grand Prix, and aside from the intensity of competition between the teams there was another, rather more delicious contest. Wherever the circus pitches up, the drivers, technical chiefs, team principals and countless hangers-on have to be fed. In F1, top prize this year seems to be going to McLaren Mercedes, which is why I was there to see what all the fuss was about.
There are wheels within wheels of VIP zones. Strictly controlled passes are sold and given to those craving access to the pits, the walkways around the teams’ trucks and then, through the most tightly guarded red rope of them all, into the brand centres themselves, where drivers can relax away from prying eyes of fans and press.
It was across that final threshold I had stepped earlier, the guest of Lyndy Redding, who has been catering for Formula One since, as she puts it, ‘I was a baby’, in 1989. She has cooked for McLaren ever since and today she was giving me a tour of her latest triumph, a bespoke kitchen built for a McLaren truck in Germany.
‘We bring our own cakes and biscuits but then try to source the best ingredients in whatever country we happen to be in,’ she says. ‘So in Germany, for example, that means wonderful breads as well as delicious marinated cherries as the race is near the Black Forest region, where they’re a speciality.’
In addition to feeding managers and the press, Lyndy, whose catering company is the acclaimed Absolute Taste of many a wedding and flash party, is also responsible for the drivers. ‘I used to cook for Ayrton [Senna] and Gerhard [Berger],’ she says of two racing legends. Today her two most important Formula One mouths are Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton; the latter recently said the McLaren brand centre had ‘the best restaurant in the world’.
‘The drivers need a different type of catering,’ she explains. ‘It needs to be low-fat, high in carbs and high in protein. So we make them dishes like chicken salad, and pasta with tomato sauce. The pressure is on delivering them precisely the right food at exactly the right time. So Lewis might need to eat at 11am, but then he could get delayed for some reason so the dish has to be prepared again very quickly so that it’s totally fresh. We simply have to react to the drama of the job.’
Illustration by Richard Beacham
Upstairs, away from the kitchen, is the inner sanctum of the building. Through the tinted windows of a small room at the back, I spot Button being massaged. I meet his right-hand man, physio, nutritionist, permanent companion and friend Mikey Collier. ‘I monitor his health, weight, his body mass index very carefully,’ he says. ‘I then tweak his diet as I need to.’ He sounds as if he’s talking about a high-performance car rather than a human.
A few days later and I’m in another extraordinary setting. This time it’s the McLaren Technology Centre near Woking, the futuristic HQ built by Norman Foster as two vast yin and yang curves beside an artificial lake. It’s the closest thing I’ve seen to a Bond villain’s lair. The lake’s water cools the building and the 145-metre-long wind tunnel. In the glass-fronted boulevard rest dozens of cars from famous McLaren victories.
But I was here to eat, of course. The team had devised an internal competition with their partners Hilton Worldwide. So after catching a glimpse of the three-lane infinity pool and the gym (complete with a specially designed replica car seat with weights to train neck muscles), we visit the kitchens.
Here the chefs were battling it out for the chance to have their dish served to the drivers at the Italian Grand Prix in Monza in September.
Let’s hope Button and Hamilton like the winner that I picked. If they over-reach the bend at the Curva Parabolica because the winner (finissima of salmon with dill sauce by Hilton Amsterdam executive sous chef Franz Conde) gives them a tummy ache, I might get the blame.