The French are renowned as food lovers and, appropriately, it was a Frenchman who said that an army marched on its stomach. So, what's that got to do with a site canteen in London's White City? Quite a lot, actually, because the canteen in question serves hundreds of different meals every day to an army of 1000 construction workers.
It opens at 8am and closes nine hours later. Its clientele may be varied in their ethnic origins but they share some common traits. For many of them, the working day begins at 7am. The work they do is invariably hard and it makes them hungry. Understandably, the food they want is hot, filling, high-carb and affordable. Haute cuisine may be what diners expect at The Ivy but site tastes tend towards the simple and the substantial – a meal that will equip workers for the day ahead.
Their preferences – and, to an extent, the prices they are willing to pay – dictate the menus and the meals served in site canteens everywhere, and in that respect Bovis Lend Lease is no different from any other contractor.
Predictably, calorie counts aren't a major topic of conversation on construction sites.
But, in a world increasingly obsessed with healthy eating, that raises an interesting question. As the construction manager, should Bovis Lend Lease be worried about the waistlines as well as the physical welfare of the people on its projects?
Safety is our first priority on any site, anywhere. The systems and procedures we employ are intended to save lives in an industry that is notoriously difficult to police. But how far should that policing extend? In my view, telling people what they can or cannot eat by imposing restrictions on their menu smacks of the nanny contractor. Should we deny a steel erector his bacon sandwich on the grounds that we know better than him what he should be eating?
A far bigger threat to site workers' health and safety is alcohol abuse; that's why Bovis Lend Lease operates a no drinking policy on all our sites. Tougher security measures – everyone entering site now has to pass through manned turnstiles – has reinforced that. Anyone smelling of drink or appearing to be "under the influence" is turned away.
Understandably, the food that construction workers want is hot, filling, high-carb and affordable. Haute cuisine may be what diners expect at The Ivy but site tastes tend towards the simple and the substantial
Apparently, that's not how Jonathan Meades viewed it, as he insultingly suggested that people used the canteen to sleep off the previous night's hangover. A more likely, but altogether less sensational, explanation for someone being asleep at the table is the simple fact that they're recharging the batteries after a 7am start.
Hygiene is a different issue, and there he makes some valid points. Who's to blame?
The clientele, for their own lack of interest in their surroundings, the canteen staff, for failing to empty the ashtrays as promptly as they should, or the contractor, for not caring about canteen conditions?
The White City canteen seats 300 people; by lunchtime it's been open four hours and served several hundred breakfasts and mid-morning snacks. Cleaning up the trail of muddy boots is a constant priority, as is clearing tables to make room for the next wave of customers. That's no excuse for untidiness, but it does explain why sometimes the canteen staff get behind in their duties.
Surprising as it may seem to Mr Meades, all our site canteens are independently audited and we are also subject to frequent inspections by the Health and Safety Executive, whose remit extends to all aspects of site safety and welfare, including canteens.
In fact, site welfare is a subject that has long been part of the Bovis Lend Lease culture. We first worked for Marks & Spencer in the 1920s and in the 1950s, at the suggestion of Lord Marks, we introduced the industry's first proper site canteens on our M&S projects. It was an innovation that quickly spread to our other sites and is now standard practice across the construction industry.
On bigger projects we've also experimented with satellite canteens to save people having to walk too far from their workplace. For those who prefer to bring their own food, we provide microwaves and, in response to demand for ethnic variations in the menu on certain sites, we've introduced curries and other more exotic options alongside the pasta and butties.
Les Chatfield is chief operations officer for Bovis Lend Lease Europe.