Recently I’ve spent a fair bit of time judging other people’s work at awards and competitions. After turning 46 last week, I’m starting to realise I do have some experience to share, but it’s still a strange position to be in. What it has made me realise is the myriad ways chefs contribute to society through their craft.
Awards + inspiration
One of the events I attended was the Craft Guild of Chefs 25th anniversary awards, where I won the People’s Choice Award in 2013. It’s a big, amazing organisation and they do a lot for our industry – both in terms of encouraging young people to get into hospitality and recognising individuals too. I especially like the fact they have awards for non-traditional areas, recognising those working in higher education, development chefs and members of the Armed Forces.
Last week I was also a judge for the Royal Academy of Culinary Arts Annual Awards of Excellence Final, along with fellow judges Jason Atherton (Pollen Street Social), James Golding (The Pig), Brian Fantoni (Babette), Hywel Jones (Lucknam Park Hotel), Martyn Nail (Claridge’s) and David Simms (Corrigan Collection). What I really like is that it’s an awards scheme rather than a competition, so everyone or no-one could achieve it. I like the idea you’ve got to reach a certain standard – it’s fair and it encourages young chefs to move themselves forward to the next stage of their careers.
And finally, I was also invited by the Baxter Storey Awards team to be a judge at their company awards ceremony. Baxter Storey took over the management of Brigade. This is a fairly new relationship for me with Baxter Storey, so I was proud to be invited and it was great to meet new people within the company and tell them what we’re all about. The entrants were all inspiring people working on the ground at Baxter Storey sites all around the country. They were all fantastic and passionate individuals doing great things for one of the most awesome hospitality companies in the UK.
All these awards and competitions got me thinking about the contribution chefs make to society, in all sorts of ways. Alain Ducasse won International Chef of the Year at the Craft Guild of Chefs Awards and some of his words really stuck with me. He talked about the responsibility of the chef and how we can impact the world. His philosophy now is about creating a more sustainable world through the food he cooks, and one way he’s doing that is by using less meat and crafting more plant based menus. He really made me think about how I eat and how I think as a chef. He has 25 restaurants globally and holds 21 Michelin stars. It’s crazy to think about what he’s achieved, what he’s contributed to the industry and the world, yet his thinking is still ahead of the game.
The impact of food + people
I’ve realised how the people around me are constantly innovating in ways that have a positive effect on society. Sometimes innovation is happening in the background too. For example, my friend Rupert Pick has launched an organisation called Work for Good. It’s essentially to encourage businesses to contribute to good causes through their invoicing system, giving part of their profit margin to good causes. Many companies these days want to do corporate social responsibility (CSR) in a more innovative way – so solutions like these are ideal.
In my own work, I witness how the relationship between food and people does so much good every day. In the last couple of weeks in particular, I’ve spent a lot of time with one of our apprentices. Mike is in his sixties and fell on homelessness abruptly. He had a house, money, a job, friends – and he lost it all in one day. He found himself in London where he didn’t know anyone. It affected his physical and mental health, and his ability to function day-to-day.
We met Mike at Beyond Food in July 2017. We took him through our Freshlife and Get Stuck In programmes, where he started to focus on his wellbeing, and then his employability skills, because his confidence and self-esteem had been knocked to the floor. He then joined our apprenticeship scheme.
He’s an astonishing guy. He grabbed hold of the opportunity and he’s well on his way to qualifying as a chef. He’s the first in the door and the last to leave every day. But he was starting to lose a bit of focus about six weeks ago. We chatted about what was happening and part of the issue was that he wasn’t taking any time off and didn’t really want to be on his own. We talked about his childhood and where he grew up. His dad worked as a farmer and his childhood was all about agriculture and community spirit – Mike’s face lit up when he talked about it.
This got me thinking about Tablehurst Community Farm – who I’ve been involved with for a long time – and I managed to set Mike up with a working holiday there. He’s been doing everything from bedding in pumpkin plants to fixing polytunnel doors. I spent the afternoon with him half way through his trip and took him for a curry in the evening – he seemed happy and fulfilled.
What the kitchen does and what the chef can do is to provide some structure and security to others. Since food is such an important part of all our lives, it’s almost family-giving. People like Mike are having a profound impact on our industry in more ways than one. But what I love most about food and about the work we do is that this relationship goes both ways – and people like Mike get their lives back too.
It was with great sadness I learned of Anthony Bourdain’s death last weekend. His honest writing and approach to food really inspired me from a young age, even though I was no grade-A student. We shared a love of travelling and he brought us interesting programmes about food and travel with real integrity and humour. I must have given 15 of his books to my best friends over the years. If you feel there’s no future please speak to the Samaritans on 116 123. They can provide a safe way for you to talk in a way that will help you if life is getting to you.
This is the season when beetroot is harvested, so here's a recipe full of heritage ingredients: Salt-baked beetroot with creamy cheese and the crunch of hazelnuts.
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