Feeding the 500

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Behind the scenes with Victoria O’Brien: from food science to a thriving catering business amid the rolling hills of Somerset. By Rachael Rowe

Victoria O’Brien catered the sponsors lunch at the Royal Bath & West Show – All images Courtenay Hitchcock

There’s an aromatic smell of lemons and freshly-baked cakes in Victoria O’Brien’s catering unit on a working farm near Wincanton – colleague Lauren is preparing for one of the many orders this week. The unit, based on a working farm, is the nerve centre for multiple catering events in the South West. From weddings to agricultural shows, there’s an incredible amount of behind-the-scenes planning that the customer never sees. Owner Victoria O’Brien started the business just after having her first child. ‘I grew up on a dairy farm and I’ve always loved cooking. I got my degree in food science, and I worked for ten years in food factories, monitoring the quality and safety of the production. However, when I had my first child I quickly realised things had to change. At the time, my mum worked with Southfield Caterers, and knew the owner was looking to retire. My husband and mum thought it would be a good idea for me to buy the business … so I did! I worked alongside them for a year, and then took over.’

A love of cooking
‘I took over the business in 2018 and ran it for a year before COVID came along. But we adapted by providing afternoon teas by home delivery. We did 550 afternoon teas for the 2021 Mother’s Day!
‘There are two distinct sides to the business. We provide event catering for anything from funeral teas to agricultural shows. My first agri show was Frome Cheese Show where we served 500 lunches in two hours. Then I did the catering at Gillingham and Shaftesbury Show, and at Bath & West I look after the sponsors. We also have a wholesale business, producing cakes for cafes and shops including Dike & Son in Stalbridge. And we make meat pies and pasties – 48kg of pasties a week. We have blast freezers that reduce temperatures from 97º to -5º in two hours, so nothing is hanging around. We work four days a week in the unit, but it’s a seven (eight!) day a week business.
‘I was inspired to go into event catering by my own wedding. We found it really hard to find exactly the catering we wanted – what was obvious to us seemed extremely hard to find. My husband is interested in the money side of the business, while I just want people to have a good time!’

Desserts and the cheese board featuring Dorset Blue Vinny at the Royal Bath & West sponsors lunch

Keeping things local
‘We use local suppliers wherever we can. Our meat comes from Andrew Barclay in Wincanton. We use 300 local eggs every week. Whenever we have a cheeseboard, we’ll use Dorset Blue Vinny, a Somerset cheddar like Westcombe and a West Country brie.’
What are her best-selling favourites among the huge range of cakes and canapés?
‘Brownies! Dikes took 450 brownies from us just this week. And our Biscoff flapjack comes up a lot in requests. All our items are hand made in small batches and then hand decorated. We also have a lot of equipment here – 800 plates and sets of cutlery – and we take catering ovens on site.


‘I learned, running the business, that every wedding or event is different. Nothing is ever the same. I’ve also learned a lot about logistics – we have a lot of cables on site, for example, and I have to ensure that everything reaches a plug, and that a marquee has connections. We’ve seen places where there’s no water supply.
‘We haven’t had any big disasters ourselves, but I have seen a few leaning wedding cakes on a hot day and had to swiftly hint to the bride and groom that they might like to cut the cake … like NOW!
‘I’ve also learned not to give up. When my son was six months old and I was in my second month of being in business I broke my back. But I just keep going.’

Behind the scenes
When guests sit down at a wedding or an agricultural show lunch, there’s an enormous amount of invisible logistics that will have already taken place.
‘The guests won’t have seen that all the glasses and cutlery will have been polished beforehand, and that their plate is handled four times before they see it. It’s also all the ordering and shopping we have to do. Once we’re on site, we have to have everything there. We’ll be on site as soon as the marquee is up and we’ll be there clearing things the next day.
‘A big issue for us now is allergies – and also getting the host or bride and groom to understand their importance. One in eight people has a serious allergy now, and if we get it wrong, there’s no going back.
‘It is a real privilege to cater for a wedding. It’s stressful – but we want to get things right. We’ve had a few unusual situations, such as catering for someone with specific sensory needs. We also got handed a (full) nappy in the middle of service once! But we take everything in our stride – in this job you also have to expect the unexpected.’

Victoria O’Brien and some of the team at the Bath & West Show

The Shows
‘I’m most proud of my work with the agricultural shows. The first time I did Gillingham and Shaftesbury I had no idea what to expect. I had spoken to the previous caterer, but until you do it you don’t realise how hard it is. And then suddenly people were sending emails congratulating us and my best friend turned up while I was scraping plates into a bucket. We did it!
‘The team is just me and Lauren – when we have events, friends and family come to help. We’re also bringing in some younger workers. We run the business around our families, taking the school run into account.
‘We’re focused on growing the business – I’m learning new skills with a Pru Leith course. We take the food we prepare so personally. We want to make sure everything is perfect, and we strive to make things work.’

victoriaobrien.co.uk

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