Behind the scenes at the museum cafe
We talk weird requests, celeb clients and the cream/jam debate with Operations Manager of the cafés at the V&A, Ashmolean and British Museum, Gianmaria Baldassarre.
Gaggles of school kids, throngs of tourists, families on a day out with requisite screaming child, old couples sat with their tea and scones – in normal times, museum cafes get the full assault of humanity thrown at them. And now, as we edge ever closer to – *whisper it* – post-Covid society, the eateries in our cultural hubs are gearing up to welcome us back.
So what better time to find out what goes on backstage? Gianmaria, are you sitting comfortably? (er, clearly!). Pinkies poised, and cucumber sandwiches at the ready and… we chatted to Gianmaria over tea at the Ashmoleon Rooftop Restaurant and Terrace – one of his charges.
Afternoon teas. What’s the big deal?
Everyone loves afternoon tea, always! And right now, I think people want to celebrate being back together with friends and family. It works for multi-generational groups and kids can use their fingers. Plus, you can add a glass of fizz in the middle of the day and no one will judge you.
Good point, I’ll remember that. Is any element of the AT non-negotiable?
The scone has to be in there. Don’t attempt an afternoon tea without it.
And where do you stand on the jam before or after cream debate?
Jam first and cream after.
So you’re with the Cornish on that one… anything else that must be included?
We always include a sandwich with cucumber and something with ham. We did one with anchovies once, which was quite divisive!
I bet. And what’s the most bizarre request you’ve had?
Well, I’ve certainly had quirky drinkers asking for a precise number of ice cubes in their G&Ts – that has happened a few times. Plus, we get asked for chips with afternoon tea quite often.
Have you ever had any celebrity customers at your museum cafes?
Quite a few at the V&A, including the Duchess of Cambridge as she is a patron and has visited our Member’s Room a couple of times. Then I’ve had Axel Rose, Jimmy Page and other musicians in the cafe after visiting music-related exhibitions (David Bowie in 2013, Pink Floyd in 2017). I remember bumping into Thom Yorke at the Ashmolean as well as Kevin Whately during my stint there in 2009-2011.
What’s the most unusual cake or sandwich you’ve offered?
About four years ago, we trialled a lemon drizzle cake made with cricket flour – and yes, that is flour made with pulverised freeze-dried crickets. It was part of a festival centred on the future of food. The response was quite positive, all considered. Also at the V&A, we collaborated with a recent exhibition called Food: Bigger than the Plate, where we were integral part of the exhibition itself, growing mushrooms (not those ones) from our own coffee waste and using them in our menus, selling ‘edible water bottles’ in the café, as well as making them for G&Ts and other cocktails.
What are your best sellers?
At the V&A, the undisputed No 1 item is a scone with clotted cream and jam; we sold around 120,000 of them in 2019, together with 270,000 pots of tea! Ham and Emmental baguette is a classic and our bestseller across the company in terms of savouries. Latte is the most requested hot drink.
Is there an unusual sandwich or cake that you like but would never dare serve to the public…?
There’s a couple of street food dishes from my childhood in Italy that may turn some away: ‘O pere e ‘o musso’ (Neapolitan for pigs’ feet and cow snouts, boiled and dressed with salt and lemon), a treat during evening late summer strolls in Naples with my grandma and army of aunties and cousins when I was a child. Then there’s a Sicilian sandwich of soft bread and spleen. Not sure how many of these would go down. Shall we find out?
Um, we’ll get back to you on that one.