Has Britain's culinary revolution really reached the site canteen? In the final part of our health series, we examine whether the worker's staple of carbohydrates fried in grease is under threat and discovers that firms are increasingly treating diet as a health and safety issue. He also tests Bovis' model cafe and talks recipes with Ruth Rogers …
It's happened at last – The revolution in British eating habits seems to have finally reached the building site. Although we are still some way from seeing Gordon Ramsay knocking up calves' liver in a red wine jus on a housing maintenance job in Peckham, it seems the decline of the great British fry-up is detectable even in such strongholds as the site canteen. The cliché of the sausage-bacon- beans-egg-and-chips-fuelled site worker still exists, but there is now a will in the industry to provide the option something a little more imaginative.

Graham Rice, managing director of Heery International, says the availability of good food should be seen as an integral part of a site's health and safety policy. "We are trying to get a safety-first culture on our sites. But if you don't look after yourself, you can't look after other people. It sounds flippant, but we see it as very important."

Heery has started to promote healthy eating by offering site staff two pieces of fruit a day, as well as installing blood monitoring machines to test workers' blood pressure. "It's had a remarkable effect," reckons Rice. "The fruit replaces chocolate biscuits as a snack on site. Now all the fruit goes within half an hour of being put out."

Good food is integral to a positive working environment, according to project and construction management consultant the RG Group. So much so that the firm has produced a written guide for caterers working on their sites that outlines the type and variety of food it expects.

The guide was written is response to a particularly poor offering from a catering firm on one of RG's schemes in Birmingham. "The food was so rough," says project manager John Hodges, "we decided we needed some control over the menu. The guide we came up with even specifies the size and type of sausage." Hodges stresses the importance of good grub. "You have to have a reasonable quality of food. We have guys working all hours of the day on some of our sites. Morale is very closely linked to food."

It seems that the rise of television chefs such as Jamie Oliver, Nigella Lawson and Antony Worall Thompson in the past five years is beginning to impact on the tastes of builders. "It's all those cookery programmes that are feeding it," confirms RG's Hodges. "The workers are much more aware of nutrition and different foods." Builders are now even demanding (dare we say it?) salads on site.

Janine Berns, a site nurse for construction logistics firm Wilson James, has been gradually delivering a healthy eating message to workers. "I am not making them healthfood freaks, but trying to educate them a bit more about healthy food," she says. "There is nothing wrong with a cooked breakfast, just not every morning. You should balance it with fresh fruit or cereal." Berns sees the key as convincing the workers that healthy food is not necessarily bland.

Graham Smetham, managing director of medium-sized contractor Trak, points out that the increasingly cosmopolitan nature of the workforce is contributing to the change in eating habits. "We have a job in central London. The workforce is a cross section of different ethnic backgrounds – they bring in all sorts of fantastic stuff for their lunch." And the healthy eating drive has even spread through to the Trak office. "We are starting to look at healthier options for lunch, such as salads from Sainsbury's," Smetham adds, before admitting the staff tend to fall off the wagon on Fridays, when they all tuck into sausage sandwiches.

I am pleasantly surprised by the number of people who are not ordering chips. If you offer them the choice, they seem to take it

Construction's culinary revolution is probably at its most impressive at a Stanhope–Bovis Lend Lease site in Regent Street, central London. The project is the first £53m phase of Crown Estate's overhaul of its property on the west side of the capital's premiere shopping area – and the site has a canteen worthy of its upmarket location and prestigious connections. In fact, it is not even called a canteen – it is now a "staff restaurant", the Regent Cafe. And the initiative has been well received. Stanhope director and strategic forum chairman Peter Rogers – whose sister-in-law Ruth jointly runs the River Cafe with Rose Gray (there is more on them overleaf) – and Lend Lease boss John Spanswick have both sampled the fare at the venue and been impressed.

The smart new restaurant was opened partly in response to a revulsed review by Building columnist and former Times restaurant critic Jonathan Meades of a Bovis canteen, at the BBC White City site in west London. Although the piece, published in last year's Christmas edition, was intended as a lighthearted take on the typical fare served up on site, it touched a nerve at Bovis. "We wanted to see what we could do to move things on in the industry," says Bovis project director Vince Lydon. "We created a brief to provide healthy, nutritionally balanced and properly cooked food. We didn't want to go far in terms of the prices we were offering."

The Stanhope–Bovis joint venture brought in catering firm Zak Hospitality to instigate its new approach to on-site catering. "Zak didn't think we were serious," recalls Lydon. "We agreed to give them control of how to do it." The new venture was pushed through by Zak operations director and chef Kieran Robinson, an energetic and passionate Ulsterman whose experience until now had largely been in corporate catering for firms such as Sodhexo.

Robinson insisted he would choose the equipment he needed, which included a £12,000 state-of-the-art oven. "Bovis and Stanhope have invested heavily in the kitchen. We are determined to change the perception of how a canteen is run for this sector," says Robinson. The result is a menu that ranges from early morning staples such as cooked breakfasts to sandwiches, salads and lunch specials such as grilled Caesar salad and seared tuna (see "The Regent Cafe", opposite).

… And talking of chips

About 2 million tonnes of British potatoes are made into them every year, and they are the foodstuff most likely to form the staple diet of your average building worker. The British Nutrition Foundation offers tips for those who want to eat healthily but can’t bear to give up them up.
  • Oven chips are the best choice. They contain about 4 g of fat per 100 g serving – one-fifth of the fat of those fried in blended oil.

  • If you are making home-made chips, cut them thickly. They will absorb less oil because they have smaller surface area to volume.

  • Use rapeseed oil for frying your chips. This is a source of mono-unsaturated fatty acids – oils containing polyunsaturated fatty acids (like sunflower or corn oil) are also a good option. Avoid hard fats such as lard or dripping, as they are high in saturated fatty acids, which can increase blood cholesterol.

    Chips don’t count towards your five servings of fruit and vegetables – make sure you fill your plate with vegetables like mushy peas, salad or low-fat coleslaw (make it with low-fat yogurt instead of mayonnaise).

  • Go easy on the salt – try flavouring your chips with paprika, chilli powder or fresh black pepper.

The Regent Cafe: Reviewed by building’s galloping gourmand

The Regent Cafe is already attracting interest from Mayfair locals for its elusive combination of decent, honest fare and extremely reasonable prices: lunch for myself and three compatriots worked out at just below the £25 mark – about the price of a single main course at local rivals Mirabelle or Gordon Ramsay.

Tucked away on the side of a rather dilapidated block on the Mayfair side of Regent Street, the cafe, I’m told, is at full stretch in the mornings, when anything from fresh Cumberland sausage sandwiches to French toast is served to crowds of hungry workers.

Lunch allows the two chefs, led by the garrulous Ulsterman Kieran Robinson [top right], to take their talents further, serving a mixture of modern British (daily roasts and freshly made pies) and Continental fare to a relaxed clientele.

I skipped the starter on offer (homemade tomato soup) and launched straight into the seared tuna in lemon and black pepper. Although the tuna was a tad overdone for my palate, the fish remained succulent and was balanced well by crisp green salad and boiled potatoes.

My fellow diners were also left suitably impressed – and filled – by the menu’s offerings. One plumped for the grilled chicken caesar salad and the other for a hearty chicken, ham and mushroom pie with potatoes, cabbage and carrots. “That was superb,” was his satisfied response. “The crust on the pie was just right.”

For dessert, the chefs relied on a couple of nursery favourites – apple and cinnamon crumble and chocolate fudge cake. The dishes may be familiar, but Robinson pulled them off with some aplomb – the crumble was perched sweetly atop the spiced apples.

A special mention must be added for the ambience and service. The two chefs attended to our every whim and the small dining area was spotless, given its location. Some nearby demolition work sent the merest shudder through the venue, but did not detract from the pleasant atmosphere. Its exterior may not promise much, but the Regent Cafe delivers unpretentious yet decent food in unlikely surroundings. All in all, a hidden gem – watch out Gordon.

Building spoke to three regulars to see what they made of the venue.

Pat Dowling, UCATT officer on the Regent Street site “These are the best site facilities I have seen in the 20 years I have been in the industry. It’s unbelievable. I have had no complaints from the workers. They are saying how refreshing it is that they are not treated like cattle, which can happen on other sites.” Pat’s favourite dish is the chicken caesar, but he also indulges in a weekly morning fry-up.

Sean Walsh, carpenter supervisor for logistics firm Clipfine “This operation should be brought into more sites. It would stop you having to go outside and spending more money in sandwich shops.” Sean now has a new breakfast most mornings. “I usually had sausages or toast but one morning I asked Kieran to make me French toast. Sometimes I have omelettes. If you ask Kieran beforehand he makes what you want.”

Kevin Talbot, site supervisor for scaffolding firm Lyndon  “I think the food is incredible here, it’s spot on. Kieran listens to what you want. I have a BLT, and I like the bacon with no fat.”