Chef serving up in a care home

What working as a care home Chef has taught me

We are currently in the midst of a situation never before experienced in the UK or, in fact, the world. The outbreak of Covid-19 has changed the way of life for many of us in various ways. As restaurants and hotels have had to close, some Chef jobs have been lost, but now, more than ever, key workers are needed and care home Chef jobs and hospital Chef jobs are something to consider as the next move in your catering career. 

We recently spoke to Blue Arrow Chef, Paul Williams-Allen, who has a wide range of experience as a Chef working in various different catering environments. Currently he is a key worker in a position as Head Chef running the kitchen in a care home.

How long have you been a Chef?

I’ve been a Chef for about 32 years. I started working at a hotel in Luton for work experience and then they took me on for weekends. I later went to college to train as a Chef. I love the job, I’ve got a passion for cooking. 

Where are you working now?

My current job is Head Chef at a care home in Leighton Buzzard. It is a small care home, only about 15 residents, so I am the only person working in the kitchen.

What different Chef environments have you worked in?

I’ve worked in most parts of catering in my career as a Chef. A lot of my work has been in corporate dining, working for large companies in their staff restaurants. I’ve been in a restaurant management position setting up menus and managing the Chefs to get the service done. My last position before here was as Area Manager for a group of hospices. I was hands-on in the kitchen, but the job involved more of the logistics of making sure the patients got good nutritious food. I’ve also worked in other care home Chef jobs and hospital Chef jobs during my career. I’ve now started my own business doing Events Catering, but due to the Coronavirus situation I’m currently a key worker in a nursing home. 

Where do you feel you learnt the most as a Chef?

When you train as a Chef in college you gain a foundation of knowledge, learning all the basics and classic recipes and techniques. It gives you a good basis so that as you progress through your career you can pull things from this. It’s really important to have this, but I’ve learnt even more through working on the job. I think it’s good to start out in a restaurant as there’s a discipline that a Chef needs to have and you need to go through the hard stuff – slicing onions for 6 hours, cleaning pots and pans, late night shifts;  it humbles you a bit and makes you better at your job. It’s like you need to go through the fire and come out the other end.

How do care home Chef jobs differ from Chef jobs in other environments?

I think the type of food that you deliver. You are dealing with an older generation so some of the modern cooking techniques in restaurants are not suitable in a care home. When I’m working here I make a lot of stew-based food. You have to think more about the eating needs and dietary requirements of the residents in a care home, whereas in a restaurant you can be a bit more creative. 

What is a typical daily routine as a care home Chef?

They usually have quite a few meals in care homes. For me a typical day starts with a cooked breakfast for those who want it, then preparation for lunch. They have their main meal at lunchtime which is served at 12.30pm. The menu goes out to the residents in the morning and they pick what they want. On that list there will be some puree meals and specialist diets, so I do those and put them in the hot cupboard and then get all the other meals served. At about 4 o’clock they have a light supper, here we do buffet-type food like sandwiches, sausage rolls and cakes, which I make after lunch is served. In a small place like this it’s a bit of everything, because I’m by myself, so it means cleaning the kitchen as well. Cleanliness and hygiene are really important.

What are the hours like?

In a care home the hours are usually 7 or 8am till 3pm, 5 days a week. The latest a care home Chef will work is about 6pm. Care home Chef jobs usually involve weekend work but you’ve got the evenings free so it’s a lot easier on  the social life. 

Do you require any special training to work in a care home?

All Chefs should have a basic understanding of allergen and dietary training, but I think to work in a care home you need a specialist understanding about purees. There are different puree and soft diets and in this kind of environment there are vulnerable people with swallowing issues so you’ve got to be really aware and very careful that the food you serve is as safe as possible for them. There is a course to learn about food textures and liquid thicknesses which is often part of on-the-job training with all staff in the care home.

Do you find working in a care home a challenging environment?

It can be challenging because everyone has their own different dietary needs. For example, if there are 3 meal options that could easily be trebled just by people having certain requirements such as one needing food pureed, one not being able to eat carbohydrates, two being diabetic another needing high sugar foods; you have so much variation your food choices can actually extend into about 15. 

What extra challenges are you facing in the current Covid-19 outbreak?

Obviously I am working in an environment with elderly people so they’re really high risk so I’ve just got to be so careful. Basically I just go to work and go home, go to work and go home. I keep myself totally in the kitchen and I don’t let many other people come in. I think every Chef anywhere has a really good knowledge of washing hands, transferring germs and cross contamination, but I think even now those skills have to really kick in in a nursing home because they are so vulnerable at the moment. You’ve got to be careful of everything you do. 

How does being a hospital Chef differ from being a care home Chef?

The job roles are totally different because of the numbers. In the average care home you might have about 3 or 4 staff, depending on the size of the home. In a hospital you’re looking at about 10-15 staff on the shift with probably about 30 staff in all that rotate around the shifts. In a hospital everything is made in bulk and then they have like a conveyor belt, each Chef adding things to the tray, so it’s a production line serving hot food to go into a hot cupboard. In a care home it is much smaller so the quantities are totally different. Catering for different diets is easier in a hospital because you have a Chef that prepares food specifically for people with special diets, in a care home you have to spread yourself over quite a few areas because there’s only one of you.

Is a care home a good place to gain Chef experience?

I think it is. It is often something that good Chefs come to after working in the industry for so long and they want an easier life, so they change to become a care home Chef. But you’re still learning. Everyone in the care home has their own individual needs so you learn how to cater for them. You might have residents that will be here for years so you build a relationship with them and you learn about your customers a lot more than if you worked in a restaurant.

What skills and knowledge have you gained from working in a care home that you couldn’t get from other Chef job environments?

I think it’s 100% about knowing your customer. Getting to know the people, listening to their opinion on the food and making sure they get what they want. Building up a relationship with all of the residents and learning how to feed them is very important in this environment. 

Why is being a care home Chef a good career choice?

One of the reasons would be to see a different side to catering. It’s an environment where you can really get to know your customers. In the past, I’ve built up nice relationships with some of the people I’ve cooked for over the years because you’re cooking for them, you’re seeing them day in day out and you know them on a first name basis. In a restaurant your customers are all important but they’re faceless and perhaps all you’ve got to worry about is the review you get. In a nursing home they’re stuck with you, you’re stuck with them so you better make sure that you give them good food!If this has inspired you to work in a care home kitchen, then search Blue Arrow’s latest care home Chef jobs.

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