Published date: 17 February 2023

It's my job to serve customers, literally

I love being a chef – there’s nothing else I’d rather be. And working as co-head chef at Clacton District Hospital is the cherry on the top. I get to work directly with our customers – whether that’s patients in the wards, or colleagues and visitors to the onsite restaurant.

Meet the author

This year is an important milestone for me. It’s my 20th year working in the health sector. I joined the NHS in 2003, after working at McDonalds for a couple of years. I feel I’ve earned my stripes in the kitchen – having started with washing pots and sweeping the floor.

My big break came in 2016 when I became part of NHSPS. The first thing my line manager (at the time) Iain Drewery, did was ask me what my dream was. I said: ‘I want to be a chef’. Three years ago, I earned my chef’s jacket. For me, this symbolised I was on the right track. It was a huge moment. I cried, but they were happy tears.

First NHSPS apprentice chef

I’ve always wanted to broaden my horizons and when the opportunity arose to get formal qualifications, I grabbed it. I got the chance to back my many years of kitchen experience with study. However, there’s nothing wrong with being self-taught; it’s sometimes better. Take Christina M. Wilson who works for Gordon Ramsey US – she’s fully self-schooled.

I became the first-ever apprentice chef at NHSPS. I’m now half-way through my apprenticeship.

A huge shout out to Beverley Townsend, Service Assurance Manager, who gave me plenty of advice for the NHS Chef of the Year 2021 competition (a MasterChef-type competition where I had 90 minutes to create a three-course meal for a patient that was nutritious and value for money) and to my line manager, Mark Brown, for suggesting I enter.

I didn’t make the regional finals, but colleagues Mark Brown and Tracey Shaw spotted potential in me and urged me to approach Bev who put me forward for the apprenticeship. Important lesson: if you have your eyes firmly on a goal, there may be hurdles, but nothing will stop you – and the sky’s the limit.

I love pleasing our customers

I’m one of those rare – and lucky – individuals who can’t wait for the working week to begin. I love the close-knit team of six that I work with. We’re essentially two teams in one, because we work on both the patient catering service and prepare food for the restaurant. We cater for around 180 patients every day, though the number of guests coming through the restaurant doors can vary.

Nothing is more satisfying than pleasing customers. And we try to tune into their individual needs. This could mean being mindful of food allergies and intolerances. Just last week I had to prepare a meal for a patient who was vegan and had numerous intolerances – lactose, gluten, and soya.

We get to see and hear their reactions (often) first hand or through written feedback they can provide every day. Nothing beats being told your chocolate cake is the best they’ve ever tasted, but we value getting any feedback, even negative comments. It’s an important way for us to learn from mistakes and up our game.

Why collaborating with my team is essential

Teamwork is always crucial to be able to serve our customers better - and this is especially true in the kitchen. Although every day is different (for which I’m eternally grateful) there are certain tasks we must do routinely to ensure our service happens like clockwork. Planning and preparation are key. And collaboration is essential – you can’t do it alone.

Guided by dieticians, we aim to create the healthiest food for our customers – so we really are putting them at the forefront of what we do. And, of course, we want to provide the best value for money for the NHS. This is even more important in recent times with the cost-of-living crisis affecting us all.

How to eat well and save money

My advice to save money is to shop wisely, don’t waste (there are so many great meals you can make using leftovers), grow your own veg, and think about portion control (now that the festive season is over there’s no excuse for huge helpings).

Also, buy a cookbook that enables you to make a meal in a short time.

And here’s one everyone’s talking about: buy an air fryer. They say it only uses one eighth of the power your regular oven does. All these small changes add up.

Looking ahead

I’m excited about 2023 as it will be the year I get married (April) and go on honeymoon to Florida (September). I will continue hosting NHSPS podcasts. I’m a podcast geek and my love affair with it has taken me all over the world – even before I got involved with podcasts at NHSPS.

By September I should have finished my apprenticeship, and I’m thinking of continuing my studies to improve my skills so I can give back to NHSPS – and our customers. I’m looking forward to our team going from strength to strength so our patients can receive the very best meals while they are being cared for by the NHS.