Val Bowes - Flying Saucers

Flying Saucers has been feeding the world's biggest bands for nearly 30 years. Its founder, Val Bowes, tells us how she combines a successful business with a demanding degree course...and why she'snot too keen too appear on TV with Gordon Ramsay any time soon.

Catchy name – what inspired it? 

A roadside café called Flying Saucers 40 years previously. It’s still a great name even though our company is now 29 years old.

 How did you venture into catering?     

I had hardly cooked at all until I left the North York Moors for London having failed miserably in my A-levels. I did get a 'B' in English Lit though! The only thing that even slightly appealed to me was an HND in Hotel Catering & Institutional Management. I discovered I was a very good caterer and manager. 

After college the lease of the shop that I lived above became available. It was a second-hand bookshop called Booklovers, so I changed the 'B' to a 'C' and it became Cooklovers. I sold cooking items, lots of them made by local potters and craftspeople. 

I briefly worked for another catering company on a Daryl Hall & John Oates UK tour. I was the only caterer and doing my own washing up and self-driving! I have no idea how I got through it. At the end of it I thought it was bloody hard work so if I’m going to do it I’ll do it for myself! The opportunity to start Flying Saucers had cropped up and I knew in my heart that I had to do it.


How has the catering business changed over the years? 

In the early days there was simply a set menu for dinner; one main course, one pudding and everyone was simply delighted to be fed. Fast-forward to catering today and there are starters and soup, three to five main course choices depending on the size of the tour, and a choice of desserts - not to mention vegan, gluten-free, nut-free and allergy diets! 

At big events, where we can be catering backstage for more than 1,000 people for lunch and dinner, people are amazed that we make the effort to produce a special dietary needs dessert corner. 


You cater heavily for the live music sector. How did you fall into this sector?                   

I was lucky enough to be offered the studio at the back of Hammersmith Odeon. Catering for lots of the bands who played there meant that I got to know a lot of tour managers, promoters and bands in a very short space of time.

 Talking Heads was the first band I did there, in 1980, and in 2009 we've just finished a David Byrne European Tour.     


What are the most complex events that you've worked on?  

The busiest in succession was during one month at Wembley Stadium in 2007. It started with Muse, then the Concert for Diana, followed by Live Earth (which involved catering in the Arena as well as the Stadium) and finally Metallica! 

The simultaneous planning of them was extremely complicated, not least because at the same time we had a Bryan Adams tour and the BBC at Glastonbury! I’m not saying that the U2 world tours we did were not a challenge (sadly they are no longer our clients) but tours do generate their own momentum, unlike separate events.

Up until that month at Wembley I’d have said that the three weeks we spent in the grounds of Buckingham Palace for the Queens Golden Jubilee Concerts was the most challenging event we’ve done. All the food deliveries had to go to be checked by bomb disposal experts and then be police escorted to us, which could take hours, and nothing could be delivered during the changing of the guard! 

Tell us about your academic commitments                                                       

I decided I wanted to top up my HND to a degree and I chose a BSc in Hospitality Management. I am now at dissertation stage. I’m a firm believer in the more you do the more you can do. Not forgetting that I’ve been lecturing in Travel & Tourism for several years, as well as studying a nutritional therapy course!  


Any other unfulfilled ambitions?

I would love to be a food writer. I have a book synopsis, and Harper Collins were very keen, but they wanted to tie it into a 10-part TV series and I couldn’t see how I could do that without compromising our clients’ privacy. The kitchen is a place of sanctuary and comfort – not the place for TV cameras. That’s why I turned down MasterChef when they wanted to put their contestants into our kitchens at the V Festival and, indeed, researchers for Gordon Ramsay who were keen to do the same thing! I don't think I would get on with Gordon... 


What do you cite as major influences on your life?

Without doubt the fact that I was lucky enough to be brought up on a farm in the middle of the North York moors has had a huge influence on my sense of space, freedom and independence. On our farm we hand-milked the cows, and my mother made butter every week with a churn in the yard. It sounds like something from the middle ages, but I’m actually not that old!


What are the perks of the job – and the things you could do without?  

 I feel privileged to have been able to do something I love for so long. In the beginning I took the tours out myself and would catch myself thinking how wonderful it was to be paid for living such a great life. Hard work, but a great life. And do you know what? There's nothing about it I could do without. 

What’s next for Flying Saucers? 

We are developing our new warehouse and looking at diversification. Innovation is key. We feel very lucky to have a fantastic team of caterers who consistently go the extra mile. And we have such lovely clients, with new ones coming on board all the time, which is very exciting.


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