How did you come to be involved in cooking with schools?
It all started through the local Rotary Club Young Chef competition for secondary school pupils. I was initially brought in to help judge the competition, but I went on to offer my services in mentoring the contestants. I said I’d go into the school or students could come into our kitchen. Now I mentor a few kids involved in the competition - we go through their dishes and look at how they can improve them – but I also go into schools in the area and teach students how to make certain dishes.
Why do you give up so much of your free time on projects like this?
I believe that if I can give my time up to help somebody then it’s worth it. I’m not doing it to get myself known, it’s to give something back. If I see a young chef progress that I’ve helped start out then that's great for me. That's all I need to realise it's worthwhile.
Does exposing students to cooking early on really have a positive impact on recruitment within the industry?
I have one member of staff who’s been here two and a half years who came through the Rotary competition. She was interested in pastry, so I offered her a week’s placement at the hotel. As soon as she turned 16 she came and worked full time with us. We’ve had other students come in and work here too who've been involved in the Rotary competition.
I do think that if we can get chefs in at a young age and train them how we want them to be before they even go to college then it’s a great way of doing it. I’ve had apprentices in the kitchen too who are still here with us. Giving them an insight at an early age really helps get them engaged.
I'm careful not to over-hype things which I think helps. I call it as black and white as I can, but I think it helps if you do nurture them a bit too. Here at Ellenborough Park we treat everyone as a family and everyone gets on well. I think it's important to create that environment for a young person coming into the kitchen.
What else could help solve the chef shortage?
If we actually allowed younger people to come into the kitchen it might help. I started in the industry working part time as a kitchen porter when I was 13, but health and safety laws now mean that no-one under the age of 16 can come into the kitchen.
My son is 15 and it's a really important age when they're considering what they want to do as a job. My son wants to work, but he can't. If someone has a passion to go into the kitchen and cook then let’s get them at a young age.
I think that even if they only work in the industry for 10 years, that’s 10 years we haven’t had to go to Romania, Hungary and Bulgaria or wherever to bring chefs in to the industry.
Once we have brought a young person into the industry then we have a duty to protect them. There does need to be a change of mindset in the industry and we shouldn't kill staff by making them work long hours. I’m lucky in that where I work they don’t overwork us. If a chef has a split shift and finishes at 11pm the night before then we won't let them back in until 11 or 12 the next day.
What would you say to other chefs thinking of getting out the kitchen and going into schools?
It's a really good thing. If you can get out there it shows you care about the bigger picture. I know it doesn't work for all chefs - some are just more insular and would never leave the kitchen or even to talk to customers because it's not their thing - but for those that do want to it can be a great way of engaging with your local community and is good PR too.