My fifty year history as a chef
I decided that I wanted to become a chef when at boarding school in Scotland.
The Directors were visiting and asking the boys questions about the School. They asked me what I thought of the food. I remember saying that "I would be able to do better one day". It didn’t take too long before all of the boys in the dining room knew what I had said and that night I was told to report to the kitchen where I was met by an angry chef who gave me a table knife and a bag of onions to peel.
Many nights were to follow just like that with me peeling onions and potatoes and scrubbing burnt pots and pans. The cooks were obviously out to break my spirit for making such a remark and I was determined not to back down.
When I left the School I joined the army and trained as a cook, studying for my army qualifications which were the same as the London City & Guilds 147, 149 and 151. Army cooks had to study French culinary terms and had to know the theory of catering including the origins of many classical dishes and also about the history of the great chefs of Europe and we were often tested on these.
There was an extra component of Field Training where we taught how to make field ovens and to have very strict hygienic practices in the field etc. This was useful when I was on active service in the deserts of the Middle East.
When I was stationed in Bahrain I cooked for the Sheik of Bahrain when he visited our regiment. I also cooked in Germany, and in bus stations, police stations and in an industrial flax mill in Northern Ireland. Cooking in these conditions was truly an experience that not many chefs will have had.
This of course was in the days before mobile kitchens.
It was also interesting to work in Cornwall using a coal stove where the most important person was the stoker, because if you upset him, he would watch you put something in the oven (particularly sponges) and he would go down the ramp, hose the coal down with water and come back to the kitchen and rake the fire out and put the wet coal in and the sponge that you thought would rise 6 cm would only rise about 1.5 cm, if you were lucky. From this I learnt that the man in the kitchen who has the lowest position could in fact be the most powerful.
The thing that I remember most about being a young cook in the army was that every day we were all lined up and had our uniforms inspected to ensure that they were properly starched and ironed, the creases were in the correct position and our finger nails were clean and our hair short.
I was very interested in learning as much as I could from those who had been cooking much longer that myself and I would often go in on my days off to learn how to do chocolate work, how to make various breads and how to make petit fours. Most of the senior soldiers were very experienced and were only too happy to pass on their knowledge to someone who was prepared to give up their free time to learn.
When I was sent to Germany I was encouraged to compete in my first Salon Culinaire, against cooks from all the NATO forces. The standard was very high and many of these cooks went on to compete and win medals at the Hotel Olympia, London. This was a great experience, as it took me out of my comfort zone and I started to realize what it was like to work under real pressure.
The trade that I learnt i gave me a really good all round grounding because we were trained in every section and had to be proficient in them all if we were going to pass your City & Guilds exams.
When I left the army I worked at The Royal Commonwealth Society as Saucier and as this was the first place that I had ever worked where fine dining was a feature, it taught me a lot. The Club had its own butchery department and pastry section, and all the desserts were made on the premises. After this I went to the Rubens Hotel to the Central Pastry Dept, part of the Grand Metropolitan Group in London.
Here we made the desserts and pastries for all the hotels and restaurants in the Grand Metropolitan Group, thereby getting the same high standard of desserts across all the restaurants. This idea was similar to what Oliver Schaul had in North Sydney in the 1970s and 1980s, when he had the Summit Butchery which supplied all of his restaurants with the same high quality meat. Working in these places taught me how to work with people from many nationalities.
I came to Australia in 1974, where I worked on the Gold Coast. Here I worked at most of the better hotels: The Chevron, The Chateau Motor Inn, The Iluka, and The Apollo. No one knew what I was talking about when I mentioned that I wanted to compete in salon culinaires and people were totally bewildered when as I asked about an Australian chefs association. They thought that it was a chefs union.
I came to Sydney to study and worked at the Summit Restaurant under Executive Chef, Doug Campbell, who was a great mentor and friend. From there I went to work at Moore Theological College where I remained for over nineteen years, steadily improving the standard of the students’ meals. Here I taught young cooks how to make bread rolls and pastries and how to do fruit and vegetable carvings as garnishes and table decorations. The only time that I bought desserts was for large functions. I read an article by a noted chef that institutional chefs were the hardest to motivate, that was until he came and saw what I put on our menu, which did not work on the usual cycle menu, as most institutions do. Some of the students used to say that the food was just like restaurant food.
In 1999, I was appointed to be the Administrator of the Australian Junior Culinary Olympic Team 2000. I still had to run my own kitchen which meant that when we finished a Training Session in Terrigal I would come back to Sydney and work for about four hours every time that we went away , which was seven week-ends out of eight. The job of Administrator was very strenuous, because of all the work that it involved, as I had to write numerous letters to our sponsors, families, establishments, as well as keeping a tight rein on the money that the Team made from our fund-raising functions. I was very thankful that the Team Manager, Markus Gerber, and I worked so well together.
The Team went to Singapore and to Erfurt, Germany where we came 5th overall, against other National Junior Teams. I still keep in touch with many of those fine young chefs after eleven years.
In latter years I have become an accredited ACF judge and judged many competitions having been mentored by the late Hans Schings and Tom Schoots, from whom I learnt a great deal. I have also been an Assessor for Le Cordon Bleu. In 2006 I was made a Life Member of ACF (NSW Chapter). I have written numerous historical food articles for the Open House magazine and for Chef to Chef, and have gone to high schools and talked about the hospitality industry as being a great career.
I have worked with the Army at Holsworthy Barracks, Sydney, where the cooks have been told “to pick my brains” and get as much information from me as they possibly can. I have put together my Recommended Reading List – books that I couldn’t be without and I have also added some DVDs that will benefit these young cooks should they choose to continue on in this profession.
Having just completed 50 years since I started on the road to becoming a chef I want to say that I’ve had a thoroughly marvellous time. Along the way I have worked in some very unusual places in the army, where most young chefs today could never imagine having to do what cooks of my generation had to contend with. I’ve also met and worked alongside some great chefs, who have encouraged me. To them I will be eternally grateful, but the person whom I owe the most to is the School Director who asked me what I thought of the food that day as he started me on a great journey and I have never regretted it.
The advice that I would give to young apprentices and cooks today is to remain professional, take pride in what you do and always have a passion for the service that you provide.
JockStewart 16:57, 21 October 2011 (EST)