The Faces Behind the Formal

Whether a lover or a hater of Oxford traditions, we have all attended formal halls, a major part of student life at the university. Outside of the Oxbridge bubble, formals can be the subject of speculation and occasionally make national news, whilst internally, opinion is divided over whether formals reinforce social privilege or simply allow space for students to decompress during stressful academic terms. Students and the student experience are often at the centre of such speculation and debate, however less attention is given to those who work hard to make this experience possible: those running kitchens, cooking meals, serving food and managing large dining halls. 

Who, therefore, are the faces behind the formal?

On a sunny day at St Antony’s College, on Woodstock Road, I sit down with the Head Chef, Andrew Tipton. Andrew tells me that he was immersed in kitchens from an early age: “My father used to have a large catering equipment company. I used to go into work with him and I liked the aura from the head chefs.” He trained as a chef at a conference centre in Witney, just outside Oxford, before moving to Merton College to work as a chef de partie. From there, he moved to University College, where he progressed through the ranks to Head Chef. He’s since worked at St Antony’s for ten years, where he enjoys managing kitchen staff and occasionally gathering wild garlic from the college grounds for use in meals. 

St Antony’s is one of few colleges to serve vegetarian meals as default, with meat as an opt-in, and feedback from students is often requested. In fact, working with students to improve formals and menus is all part of the job. Each term, Andrew works with the GCR President to review formals and design menus: “Sometimes they’re not as bothered, but some years they’ll come to me with big ideas and I have to encourage them to calm down, because budget-wise, not everything is possible.”

Similarly, at Hertford College, the Head of Catering Services, Simon Robinson, works closely with JCR and MCR reps, who have helped develop new ideas for formals and catering, including an ‘informal formal’ on Sunday evenings, and breakfast and ice lollies served during Oxford Pride. This working relationship with students has also helped the college develop a more sustainable approach to catering, prioritising local suppliers and ethically sourced products. “The students have opened my eyes far more to sustainability, and quite rightly they judge me on that,” Simon tells me.

“The students have opened my eyes far more to sustainability, and quite rightly they judge me on that.”

What are college kitchens actually like?

At St Antony’s, Andrew describes the kitchen as relatively calm: “It’s not how kitchens are generally portrayed, as a chaotic environment with chefs running around sweating and the head chef shouting. Those days are long gone.” The kitchen was recently refurbished, Andrew having designed the flow of the new space. He gives me a tour, and as described, it is calm and air-conditioned. We move past pantry rooms for storing dry goods, a walk-in fridge and a freezer, before coming to an area reserved for high-risk products. In the main section of the kitchen, one chef rapidly cuts vegetables for the formal that night, whilst another is preparing salads for the dining hall lunch in a couple of hours. Sauces bubble away in enormous pans. 

At Hertford College, the kitchen and servery are much older and smaller, something that Simon describes as one of the more challenging parts of the job, though they are hoping for a refurbishment in the coming years. Simon works closely with Hertford’s Head Chef, investing in training and employing a couple of apprentices who are working towards professional qualifications. Despite the difficulties of working in an older space, Simon is confident that they are able to provide great service and excellent food without much trouble.

However, as any Oxford student will know, formals are not only about food. They are just as much about the experience: tables carefully laid, candles lit in the centre of the tableor as the Tab once described it: “like something out of Downton Abbey.” As such, there is also a lot of admin involved behind the scenes for catering and dining hall staff to ensure things run smoothly.

At Worcester, Sarah Wozencroft is the Catering Manager. Day-to-day, Sarah manages a team of staff including front-of-house, and spends time taking care of bookings, dietary requests and queries, to ensure that formals and events run smoothly. She previously worked as a Butler at All Souls, which was a very different experience, as of course, there are no students and the level of formality is much higher. In contrast, Sarah tells me that the atmosphere at Worcester is friendly and supportive, though if she could, she would free herself from admin tasks in order to spend more time working face-to-face with students. 

The Catering and Conference Manager at Somerville, Dave Simpson, considers dietary requirements to be the most challenging part of managing formals. When students don’t provide their guests’ dietary requirements until the last minute, the experience of working in the kitchen at a formal can go from a smooth evening to a more stressful ordeal. Nonetheless, staff at Somerville are approachable, and maintaining a positive and friendly relationship between staff and students is considered important.

The friendly relationship between staff and students seems to be a theme at all the colleges I visit. At Hertford, Simon tells me that before working here, he had a long career in catering at hotels, nightclubs, the City of London, even Buckingham Palace. Managing and running a minimum of three formals a week, often more, is relatively low pressure compared to the regimented and tightly-timed banquets at the Guildhall. Simon puts his passion for catering down to the relationships he’s built with othersmembers of staff and students: “In the catering department, we’re the people who see the students more than anyone else. My staff get on with the students so well. We know whether they’re having a good day or a bad day”. Ultimately, Simon enjoys being surrounded by enthusiastic young people, telling me that although it sounds sentimental, the current generation gives him hope.

Back at St Antony’s, Cathy is the Deputy Steward, with oversight of the dining hall and front-of-house staff, and Milena is the Assistant Steward. Whilst Cathy has worked at St Antony’s for 25 years, starting out as a casual before progressing to her current role, Milena is relatively new, having previously worked in hotels. For Milena, the experience of working in a college couldn’t be any less like working in hotels, where the customer is always right and saying ‘no’ isn’t an option. Milena tells me that after starting at St Antony’s, “it took a while to get used to telling students, ‘I’m sorry but we cannot do that,’” though the ability to say no is a welcome change. The more respectful relationship between staff and students, as compared to staff and customers in hotels, means that work at the college is far less stressful and Milena has rarely dealt with instances of rudeness when serving meals. Like at Hertford and Somerville, Cathy and Milena describe a positive, friendly relationship between staff and students.

the experience of working in a college couldn’t be any less like working in hotels, where the customer is always right and saying ‘no’ isn’t an option, so it took a while to get used to telling students, ‘I’m sorry but we cannot do that.’

Most catering staff seem to have a story about serving someone famous. When Andrew worked at Univ, he frequently cooked for Bill and Hilary Clinton, whose daughter was attending at the time. And, in her 25 years at St Antony’s, Cathy has also had her share of famous faces: Vice Admiral Sir Timothy Laurence, the husband of Princess Anne, was a research fellow at the college for a while, and according to Cathy was great company: “He would come in and have lunch with the students, no airs, no graces, so people wouldn’t necessarily know who he was.” Cathy has served many other important figures and has overheard scandalous reminiscences of college alumni, though she isn’t able to divulge much information. Likewise, Simon has served many politicians, not just while working in London, but also at Hertford, where the principal frequently invites high-profile speakers and politicians to speak at the college.

Working in college catering is, therefore, fast-paced. Dining halls must be rearranged from canteen setup to formal layout in a short space of time, ticketing must be managed, meals cooked, and students need to be served. Nevertheless, the environment tends to be friendly and supportive, and a positive relationship with students seems to be a hallmark of many college catering teams. It is incredibly enriching to put a face and story to those who serve meals, manage bookings, and chase students to confirm dietary requirements. And, it is wholesome to hear about the positive influence of students on the college catering teams at Hertford and St Antony’s: perhaps students shouldn’t underestimate their ability to influence, for the better, how formals are run and the food that is served.

Image credit: Simon Mumenthaler on Unsplash