Dishing out for Extreme E

No matter where you go in the world, access to water and a well-rounded meal is up there at the top of your hierarchy of needs.

Extreme E is moving from scorching deserts to frosty glacial plains during its inaugural season of races. Each stage requires intense levels of logistical planning to make sure not only that the races go ahead as smoothly as possible, but that all participants are well-nourished and ready for each day of the event as it comes.

That’s why we spoke to Harry Ellard, Catering & Hospitality Manager at Extreme E, to get an insight into the goings-on behind the scenes during the Ocean X Prix and elsewhere, to make sure that nothing was overlooked and that all involved were ensured a square meal.

Preparation from afar

Like any good meal, the logistics of catering for a motorsports event involves a high degree of pre-planning to make sure the event can be conducted without a hitch. Harry Ellard plays a crucial role at Extreme E in organising the logistics of catering and hospitality across the variety of environments the team expect to be operating in during the inaugural season of races.

When he hasn’t been out in the field in Al-Ula during the Desert X Prix or sunny Senegal for the Ocean X Prix, Harry works out of Extreme E headquarters in Hammersmith. He has a solid background in the hospitality side of motorsports events, having been part of the hospitality team at Silverstone for four years. He joined the Extreme E team in late 2019, just before COVID-19 swept through the sector and changed the face of large-scale motorsports events forever.

“This is the first time I’ve ever been operating an international event abroad”, Harry admits, when discussing taking part in the Desert X Prix. “The first time I’ve ever been out of Europe, going to Saudi, and it was challenging.”

The budget was one of Harry’s foremost concerns when he started at Extreme E, and he already had a wealth of knowledge of what to expect from his UK-based experiences at Silverstone. “I know a lot about the pricing from the UK…I have a lot of contacts in the UK, but I didn’t have that in Saudi…one of the things we asked was, what was Formula E basing budgets on?”.

We decided quite early on that we were not going to bring any international people out. The exception might be Greenland, because there is physically no one there. In the majority of them, we said we’re not going to get a global caterer…we’re going to support local, use the authentic catering.

– Harry Ellard, Catering & Hospitality Manager at Extreme E

The issue with this was that Formula E based catering and hospitality budgets on events based in urban environments only. Extreme E was gearing up for motorsports events in five different parts of the world, held in places some distance from civilisation. The remoteness of the races would require the likes of Harry to be imaginative and face up to something surprising.

Much of the additional costs from what Extreme E had in mind wouldn’t stem from the food itself, but rather the logistics of having staff on-hand. “Formula E can just pull upon staff in a city and then they just go home, whereas when we operate, you have to accommodate them, get them there, feed them, all those things, which actually costs far more than the food.”

While out in Senegal, racers and other participants and observers of the Ocean X Prix were operating out of a four-part base of operations. The races themselves took place on a beach near Lac Rose, while the broadcasting and media operations were all carried out in a tented community further inland. A few minutes’ walk away, you would find yourself at the racing paddocks, where the racing teams would carry out essential works on their Odyssey 21 SUVs and review footage of races in special tents.

A further walk from the paddocks would take you to a fourth and final spot: a nearby hotel called Chez Salim, where everyone would assemble for water, nourishment and perhaps a spot of WiFi from the hotel reception in order to message home. To be able to dine at the hotel, all attendees were required to carry vouchers for each and every meal. The voucher would grant you a tray covered with some cutlery, plates and drinking containers which were all biodegradable. Ceiling fans kept the dining area cool during the heat of the day, while water coolers allowed people to quench their thirst after a day out in the field.

A lot on one’s plate

One of the big concerns with an event such as Extreme E is how to pull off a professional operation as well as keeping the carbon footprint as low as possible. Crew sizes were one such concern, and as we discovered with the broadcasting team, the answer to this is often to digitise where possible and avoid having to bring the whole crew with you as you move from place to place.

Obviously, hospitality and catering can’t be done the same way, with dishes beamed out of thin air like TV signals. When we ask Harry about the size of the crew involved when it comes to hospitality and catering, he surprised us, saying: “The team is me.”

Harry tells us he used to typically work with at least four people to manage directly and over a hundred other people down the chain to carry out the cooking and serving itself, but in places like Lac Rose, it was up to him to call the shots on many big decisions. In Senegal, Harry called upon the services of La Fourchette, a business which operates a restaurant of the same name in Dakar. Such an arrangement works well in the Extreme E locations based close to more populated regions.

We tend to serve upwards of 4,000 unique meal days, so that is 12,000 meals over the course of the time the Team and Crew area is open.

However, in places like Greenland, Harry admits that the options for finding local chefs and cooks might be more challenging. Based mostly within the confines of the Arctic Circle, Greenland is the world’s largest island, but has a population of just over 56,000, giving it one of the world’s lowest population densities.

“We decided quite early on that we were not going to bring any international people out. The exception might be Greenland, because there is physically no one there. In the majority of them, we said we’re not going to get a global caterer…we’re going to support local, use the authentic catering.”

Going local closes a resources loop when it comes to sourcing people for the purposes of catering and of sourcing the ingredients themselves: fewer air miles for all involved, while also supporting the local economy. It’s all just a case of identifying the best contacts, and organising a supply chain to provide what’s required for however many days Extreme E will be present.

French and Wolof are the most commonly-spoken languages in Senegal, and Harry didn’t let his lack of linguistic expertise deter him from his mission. “That is a challenge, but everyone I’ve spoken to so far…spoke great English. I’ve never had that language barrier, but it’s always been good to have a fixer, to have someone on the ground who can talk to locals.”

Foreign currency is a consideration when it comes to budgeting. Senegal uses the CFA Franc, but as we discovered, a lot of UK-based currency exchanges have trouble sourcing large quantities of this currency to foreigners. “When you’re budgeting,” Harry explains, “you can’t claim back VAT, so you have to factor all of that in, and you can escalate costs quite quickly.”

Maintaining food standards

Harry is able to give us some nice round numbers, indicating the sheer scale of the job undertaken to make sure everyone onsite is fed during a typical Extreme E event. “We tend to serve upwards of 4,000 unique meal days, so that is 12,000 meals over the course of the time the Team and Crew area is open.”

Being responsible for delivering thousands of individual meals, Harry can’t afford to cut corners or compromise on quality to ensure plates are filled each day. Oversights regarding food standards could risk affecting the health of everyone involved, as everyone is in the same boat, being fed from the same source. Allergies or other dietary requirements are held in consideration as well, to ensure the health and safety of those passing through the dining area.

One of the things that I’ve opened my eyes to with Extreme E is alternative energy…the fact that you can roll out some solar panels and then you can create the hydrogen and use it in the fuel cells…that for me is quite exciting.

“It’s hard to say, OK, you have to have the same standards as the FSA in the UK, you need to conform to all these standards that we adhere to. What I say is that, OK, let’s aim for that, we might not hit every single one, because you’re a caterer in a country who’s never done anything like this.”

Harry has been pleasantly surprised, however, about the standards observed in both Al-Ula and Lac Rose, claiming that the caterers produced better foods than he had seen in some situations back in the UK. A food safety policy is used during each trip, clearly detailing the requirements for foodstuffs, including cooking temperatures and travel logs for ingredients. “That is the standard I want to aim for”, Harry concludes, saying it’s unlikely that the experience will be the same in every location, but that the previous two experiences set a good standard for how to proceed.

Disposal of waste in Senegal was easy, as the plates and cutlery supplied during the 18 days Extreme E was spending at Lac Rose were biodegradable. During the week of the Ocean X Prix itself, some of those biodegradable Polymateria LyfeCycle plastic cups also started making an appearance, all part of an unprecedented experiment. Far from being a flash in the pan for places such as Chez Salim, the Ocean X Prix and the work Harry has been doing in recent weeks are sure to leave a lasting legacy, even once Extreme E has moved onto the next location.

“One of the things with La Fourchette in Senegal was that they’re a catering company, they’re very big, they do stuff for the President and all the embassies, which is why they were very good at their job.”

Harry refers to how the staff at La Fourchette are expected to leave behind a positive legacy at Chez Salim, helping train the staff to help maintain higher standards in the long-term. Before Extreme E first arrived, Harry reveals that the venue was in need of some necessary changes, a major overhaul from how it used to be.

A new generator was required, as well as a refitting of the electrical system, as the venue was originally dimly lit. A lack of light made it tricky in the preparation area to see how dirty it had become over the years. A paint job was given to the walls and ceiling, while the floor was relaid, giving the whole place a much-needed update to make it more future-proof.

Electric fly traps were installed to make sure no meals were contaminated with insects, while seals were added to windows and doors. To round off the renovation, the fridge was upgraded, with new electrics, a new compressor and even a new door, allowing for food to be stored in a cool, sanitary and secure place.

A good old fashioned taste test is still the best way to make sure a catering service is up to scratch, but for the events in both Saudi Arabia and Senegal, sudden changes made it hard for Harry to do this essential litmus test. “In Saudi, we actually had a supplier lined up, I did a taste test and went on a recce in February, and then we changed supplier five days before we went live…which was an interesting one.”

The update and future proofing of the Chez Salim hotel kitchen, Senegal.

In the case of Senegal, Harry was intending to go on another recce, but a sudden illness prevented him from flying out in person. Harry describes himself as flying blind in this situation, but was sure that his fixer on the ground had sourced a catering service fit for the job nonetheless. “Ideally, I like to go and meet people before I commit to their services.”

Travel abroad has, understandably, become harder under existing restrictions. Senegal is currently considered an Amber List country, requiring UK entrants to conduct a COVID-19 PCR test and produce a Fit to Fly certificate with a valid negative result from 72 hours before the outward flight. Direct flights to Dakar are tricky from the UK, and travellers often have to pass through France, the Netherlands or Belgium in order to reach their destination.

Senegal is also a country where Yellow Fever and diseases such as Malaria are a concern, while there are risks of contracting other diseases which are water-borne unless the right vaccinations are taken. Even the most seasoned of travellers with stomachs of steel wouldn’t want to fall foul of any bugs while dining in Senegal, so it pays to be prepared for all eventualities.

With the COVID-19 pandemic remaining a clear and present concern, staff and diners were encouraged to wear face masks and make use of hand sanitisers upon entering the dining area for the duration of the Ocean X Prix. It wasn’t just up to the staff to maintain good health and safety standards – COVID-19 is a disease that preys on human sociability, and small steps like masking up and using the hand gels were all essential parts of the dining experience at the Ocean X Prix.

The future of food

During the last few days of the Ocean X Prix, there were whispers of a new addition to the menu. After variations of beef, chicken and vegetarian options, burgers were on the menu, but not as you might know them. While the patties looked like any old grilled beef burger, they were actually entirely meat-free. Neat Burger was responsible for supplying them, having been announced as Extreme E’s official Plant-based Partner in August 2020.

The plant-based burgers caused a great degree of excitement when first served up in the dining area at Chez Salim. The orderly queue around the perimeter of the room had a small spin-off queue forming close to the part of the room where the burgers were purported to be imminently served from. A quick lifting of the bun revealed a slice of cheese, tomato and lettuce, as well as a couple of small slices of plantain, a banana-like fruit which lacks the sweetness of regular bananas, offering a starchy, potato-like taste when cooked.

It’s a sweet local twist to something very Western, and gives a flavour of how Senegalese people enjoy their own food. Plantains grow all year round and provide the calorific requirements of over 70 million people in Africa as a staple food. It just wouldn’t have been Senegal without a bit of a local staple food somewhere along the way.

I think there’s certainly a message there, that the meat industry needs to become more sustainable

In his experience in catering, Harry has noticed a shift towards more vegetarian and vegan-oriented ways of dining. “I’ve seen a sharp increase…We actually did an exercise in my old place and redesigned the menu and made sure that, at the top of every menu, we started with the vegan and vegetarian option.”

Catering has become increasingly inclusive to those who have differing dietary requirements: many have allergies or intolerances to foodstuffs containing gluten for example, and offering up alternatives to meat-based foods is just another way of ensuring no one is left out. While Harry doesn’t consider himself a vegan, he has a growing number of friends who are switching from meat for good, and admits that he could imagine switching up his weekly diet to accommodate more plant-based alternatives.

“I think there’s certainly a message there, that the meat industry needs to become more sustainable”, Harry adds. “One of the things that I’ve opened my eyes to with Extreme E is alternative energy…the fact that you can roll out some solar panels and then you can create the hydrogen and use it in the fuel cells…that for me is quite exciting.”

Harry’s involvement in Extreme E makes him more conscious of the sheer amount of plastic used in packaging when he goes for his weekly shop, and thinks progress is needed to find ways to keep food fresh while avoiding plastic waste. Polymateria’s involvement with Extreme E gives Harry cause for optimism for the future. “Hopefully, in the next five to ten years, we’ll see a big change”, Harry adds.

Surely, such a timescale is a reasonable one, you would assume, to allow us to reach a stage where biodegradable plastic could potentially be rolled out en masse to take the guilt out of wrapping our food in plastic. Perhaps in the year 2031, we can do our regular grocery shopping for the week, content in the knowledge that the packaging will self-destruct and return to nature in less than a year.

With so much going on at Extreme E, telling Harry’s story from behind the scenes gives you an idea about the sheer attention to detail that is being afforded to the first season of all-electric SUV racing in the world. While catering and hospitality can seem like a walk in the park, as we opened by saying, Extreme E races on its stomach, and it is an incredible achievement for the likes of Harry to operate as a one-man band, juggling so many spinning plates in the air for 18 days.

The Desert and Ocean X Prix events, however, are just a taster for further things to come. Who knows what lies ahead, as Extreme E finds itself in the frosty Arctic X Prix which awaits it in August 2021?

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