by Sarah Marten
Liz Plant is the Operations Manager in the School of Hospitality and Tourism, Faculty of Professional Studies at Thames Valley University (TVU). TVU has recently been awarded the prestigious Queen’s Anniversary Prize for outstanding achievement and excellence in hospitality education in recognition of their continuing contribution within this sector. Liz combines boundless energy with an infectious enthusiasm for this industry and her exciting job at TVU, which has taken her to the Edinburgh Commonwealth Games, the Winter Olympics in Canada and the Brit Awards, and also enabled her to meet the Queen.
What does your job involve?
We have over 1200 students studying hospitality and catering, from 14 year olds attending our Saturday Junior Chef’s Academy to postgraduate students, spanning a wide range of further and higher education courses. My job is to manage the team of operations staff, 18 full-time and 15 part-time, who enable the courses to function efficiently. This team comprises kitchen assistants, cleaners and technicians who undertake a wide range of tasks including cleaning the kitchens, weighing up ingredients, food preparation and ordering. I also work very closely with our operations supervisor Rita Soares and Michael Coaker, who is one of our senior lecturers and is also Operations Curriculum Co-ordinator.
Here at TVU we have two exciting restaurants providing a very high standard of food and service. The Pillars Restaurant is open to the public and won the College Restaurant of the Year Award in 2008, and we were regional finalist in 2009. In addition to this, we also operate the Feast Restaurant, which is open to students and staff as well as the public. Each restaurant has its own production kitchen, and in addition there are a further six training kitchens.
TVU also offers a wide range of popular industry courses in food hygiene and health and safety, and part of my job also involves ensuring that we have all the systems and procedures in place to ensure that these run efficiently. Clearly working with sharp knives can involve an element of risk, so I make sure we have safe storage systems and the right safety posters displayed. Within food hygiene this involves making sure that food is stored safely.
Do you do any teaching?
Although I work very closely with the students and teaching staff I don’t actually teach students as such. Even though I have actually completed a teaching qualification I decided some time ago that teaching was not for me as the idea of spending precious evenings and weekend preparing and marking work did not appeal!
What else do you do?
Event management and planning are a vital and at the same time interesting aspect of my job. We recently held a Jazz Dinner in our Pillar’s Restaurant, with 60 guests and musical interludes provided by our own students from the London College of Music. John Williams, Executive Chef at the Ritz, assisted by his sous chef, provided an unforgettable experience for a fortunate group of our students who were expertly guided to create a delicious menu.
Prize giving ceremonies within our school are important occasions, and as well as beautiful silver trophies, our best students are awarded prizes supplied by our industry sponsors. We are looking forward to the next event at the London Metropole Hotel, where I will be organising an afternoon tea for everyone attending. Everything will be prepared here at TVU, and taken to the hotel in a refrigerated van.
Important competitions are also regularly held here at TVU, including the recent London heats of the Roux Scholarship Competition, which both Gary Rhodes and Michel Roux attended. All the organisation and administration of these events is my responsibility, and I must ensure that our busy kitchens and classrooms are available for judging, and that all the refreshments are in place.
These are just some examples of the many exciting events taking place every academic year at TVU. Over the years I have also accompanied students abroad on trips, and attended many events such as the Chelsea Flower Show. I was also involved in the design of the kitchen for our new Feast restaurant, and it was rewarding to see the process from initial plans through to the finished result.
Are you responsible for budgetary management?
I have overall responsibilities for the purchasing of food and equipment, including small appliances and crockery, which involves close liaison with the university finance office. Our efficient finance administrator deals with all the invoices and banks the cash from our two restaurants.
How does your job change during the University holidays?
Although our own students are not around, there is plenty for me to do, as we have to make sure the kitchens are properly utilised during the holidays. To this effect I organise a range of events, including summer schools and cookery courses, and industry taster days for local school students. Companies such as Waitrose also hire our kitchens and facilities for staff development and training. August is usually quiet, which provides the ideal time for planned equipment maintenance and our annual deep-clean of the kitchens.
Why did you choose this work?
When I left school I was unsure about whether to become a Home Economics teacher or to study catering management. I am really glad that I chose the latter, as I really love my job!
What are the hours/working conditions?
My working day usually starts at 8.30 am and finishes at 5.30, and includes half an hour for lunch. However, some of our events take place during the evening, so a flexible approach to working hours is important. Time off in lieu is given for evening work, and there is potential to take this time off outside the university semesters, when we are less busy.
Staff employed in the hospitality industry often have to work unsociable hours at weekends and during the evenings, so I consider myself fortunate that I work fairly regular hours most days and have every bank holiday off. Holidays must be taken during the University breaks, and I usually take about three weeks off during August, with another week at Christmas and Easter.
What skills and personal qualities are important?
The ability to work effectively with a diverse group of people is vital, ranging from lecturers who may have been in post for many years to the youngest students. The ability to multitask and to prioritise a heavy workload is also important. You also need good organisational skills and the ability to motivate yourself and other people. It is also important to be willing to be hands-on if necessary, which might include cleaning a kitchen or ordering supplies if needed. A friendly and approachable manner is also a great asset!
What do you enjoy about your job?
Despite having been at TVU for 17 years now I never tire of the students, and I enjoy interacting with them, including the younger cheeky ones! I also love the variety of the work, and the fact that I am certainly not desk-bound. Managing other people is very rewarding, and working as part of such a vibrant and enthusiastic team is great fun. Meeting and speaking to the Queen when she came to open our new teaching centre was an especially proud moment for me!
Is there any on-the-job training?
I have been able to benefit from many excellent in-house courses that TVU have provided, including IT skills and finance systems, appraisal training, customer care, discrimination awareness, manual handling and advanced food hygiene.
What prospects are there and what ambitions do you have?
I am so happy in this role and cannot imagine any other job which would offer me so much freedom and variety. It is really exciting working here at TVU, as we are right up at the top of the game.
How does this job fit into your work-life balance?
This job enables me to keep my weekends free to relax and unwind and I love to cook for friends and family. I don’t count myself as a professional chef, more of a Delia Smith person really!
What advice have you got for people interested in this career?
Working in Higher Education at TVU is not at all institutionalised – we have great links with industry giving the opportunity to keep right up-to-date. The opportunities within the hospitality industry are good provided you have lots of energy and are prepared to work hard.
If you weren’t in this job what do you think you would be doing?
Contract catering appeals to me, and if I had to retrain I think I might consider nursing.
Liz Plant has worked at TVU for the last 17 years. She left school with A levels in Home Economics, Biology and French and went to Sheffield Polytechnic to complete a BSc in Catering Management. The course included a year’s placement in a hotel in Canada, after which Liz decided to pursue a career in front of house management. However her first role managing the carvery at Best Western Hotel in Swindon led to redundancy after only six months. Undeterred Liz moved to Heathrow Airport managing in-terminal restaurants for three years. Liz then joined the staff of TVU at Slough as Assistant Operations Manager in Hospitality and Tourism, where she stayed for nine years. About eight years ago she moved to the Ealing campus and took on her present role three years ago.