This Is What It's Like to Cook Subsidised Meals for British Politicians

In the House of Lords, the unelected chamber of parliament that works with the House of Commons to shape British law, members dine on caviar and saffron risotto—all subsidised by British taxpayers.

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Jun 16 2015, 10:00am

Photo via Flickr user Ralph Daily

For the price of a KFC family bucket, members of the House of Lords—the unelected chamber of UK parliament that works with the House of Commons to shape British law—can enjoy a two course meal and a glass of wine.

"The menu here changes every single week," Mikey*, a chef at the House of Lords, tells me. "If lords sign in to vote, they get £300 tax-free expenses for the day and they can go spend it down our restaurant, which is already subsidised."

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The meals enjoyed by members of the House of Lords, who are appointed by the Queen on the advice of the Prime Minister and an independent commission, are subsidised by British taxpayers. Last year, catering in the Houses of Parliament cost the taxpayer £6 million.

Having worked as a chef in the House of Lords for five years, Mikey knows the place inside out.

"We've got five different kitchens and restaurants in the House of Lords," he says. "I've cooked for hundreds of lords, ladies, dukes, baronesses, bishops, MPs—you name it—in all of them."

Inside the walls of power, lawmakers can enjoy everything from subsidised spirits to Avruga caviar and Champagne risotto. Members also have 28 different food outlets to choose from in the Westminster complex. With parliament regularly sitting into the night to vote on legislation, Mikey and his fellow kitchen staff often work long and unpredictable hours.

The menu here changes every single week. If lords sign in to vote, they get £300 tax free expenses for the day and they can go spend it down our restaurant, which is already subsidised.

"Monday to Wednesday is the busiest because the house sits, so we do house dinners three nights a week and I can end up working nearly 60 hours in the space of several days," he explains.

Mikey is a chef de partie for the Peers Dining room, where lords can bring up to eight guests, and the Long Room, which is exclusively for lords. While meals in the Peers Dining Room are priced at standard restaurant rates, the fare in the Long Room is heavily subsidised.

"Our roasts are sold for £6.95 in the Long Room and next door they're sold for about £14," says Mikey. "We do a different roast every day and it'll always be a nice bit of meat. The other day we did roast haunch of venison."

Inside the Long Room, lords eat along one elongated, banquet-style table.

"Apparently, they like this because of their public school days," says Mikey. "They all come in one by one and fill up from one end. It's pretty grand in there, with loads of paintings of old lords and MPs, and nice velvet carpets and curtains."

Becoming a chef in the House of Lords is no small feat. Hopefuls must undergo stringent security checks and it's not just your own reputation that counts. Your family tree must be as clean as a whistle, too.

"One guy whose grandad was part of the Birmingham Six (the group that got done for the IRA bombing but then actually got acquitted of it) couldn't get a full-time job because of it," says Mikey.

Those that do pass the security checks required to work inside the House of Lords' main kitchen cook three different menus—lunch, evening, and buffet—on any given day.

"We've got lamb rump with a pea puree risotto, served with jus, tender stem broccoli and dried cherry tomatoes. That's proper nice," says Mikey. "Then we've got a salmon dish with fondant potato, basil Hollandaise sauce, and spring vegetables like asparagus and green beans."

His preferred choice, however, has to be the ossobuco: "We do a veal ossobuco with saffron risotto and broccoli, which is lovely."

The Long Room also serves a buffet dinner and according to Mikey, this is the "biggest bargain." A world away from the sullen, stale sandwiches of a standard buffet, it offers a selection of garden-fresh salads, cold meat platters of parma ham, and smoked duck and fish platters.

"Last night we had proper homemade chicken curry—they love that—and deep fried whitebait," he says. "And today we're doing a Thai coconut broth with salmon and prawn."

Savoury dishes can be followed by cheesecake, crème brûlée, fruit compote, and fruit salad—the assortment is always evolving.

Last night we had proper homemade chicken curry—they love that—and deep fried whitebait. Today we're doing a Thai coconut broth with salmon and prawn.

"It's a lot of work because every night has to be different. It's only £9 or £13 with a glass of wine and they can have whatever they want. And they do take quite a lot," Mikey says, chuckling. "It's meant to be self-service but the waiters help them because they're all old."

He's not wrong. The average age of members of the House of Lords is 70. Perhaps for this reason, the staple fodder served from the House of Lords' main kitchen is pretty traditional.

"Our lot want meat and roast everyday," Mikey explains. Peers are also eagle-eyed about food quality.

"Lords and ladies send food back for the silliest things, like not enough sauce" he says. "If they're there with established or distinguished guests, it looks good if they say, Send it back, boy. Tell the chef to sort it out!"

Complaints logged by members range from salads being "cold" to crisp packets in the Commons vending machines being too light. Nevertheless, Mikey insists that not all the peers are ill tempered:"You see Lord Prescott making cups of tea and he always says hello." Perhaps this has something to do with his time as a waiter in the Merchant Navy.

While Mikey says there are perks not usually associated with kitchen jobs, such as only working Monday to Friday, he remains ambivalent about other aspects.

"Every year we lose a lot of taxpayers' money. If we could charge a bit more, we'd save a lot more money than we're losing".

In 2013, taxpayers' pockets were used to fund £1.3 million worth of food and drink in the House of Lords alone, aside from the £6 million subsidy for Parliament as a whole.

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"Sometimes I feel like I'm playing with the beast," admits Mikey. "Taxpayers' money is lost from wastage and us having to work overtime because the lords always have to get what they want. I'm a taxpayer and I've been a taxpayer since I was 16 and I think it's bollocks".

Food isn't the only thing subsidised in Westminster, booze is bankrolled too. With pints of beer costing as little as £2.90 in Westminster's riverside watering holes and prices kept lower than Wetherspoons, no wonder the Houses of Parliament are known for their drinking culture.

But when you remember that one million people in the UK used food banks in the last year, it seems a strange time for our legislature to be enjoying such low-cost and lavish lunches.

*Names have been changed to protect identity.