Bev Puxley has a lifetime of experience to draw on when it comes to judging the National Association of Care Catering’s prestigious cookery competition, having taken the first step on his catering career ladder in 1951, when he studied the Professional Chef Diploma Course at Westminster College – winning the Isidore Salmon Award as top student.
His love affair with catering continues to this day and, though he has no plans to retire completely (he turns 85 this year), should he ever decide to do so he will probably spend his days cooking, he tells me.
“Cooking changed my life,” he says, “so it’s not surprising I’m still doing it!” He does all the cooking at home – “everything from classical to regional” – and still experiments. He actually fell into the profession by chance, having overheard a neighbour telling his mum that her son was studying to be a chef at Westminster College. “I was coming to the end of school and I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I said I’d like to give this a go – after all, I’d cooked at scout camp (!) and we sent off for the prospectus that very day.”
The rest, as they say, is history. “I fell right on my feet,” says Bev. “I loved it from day one. I worked my butt off and became top student, and I’ve never looked back.”
Bev’s passion for the industry saw him secure jobs with the likes of Claridges, John Lewis Partnership, Trust Houses Ltd and later Trusthouse Forte (THF), while his desire to help others develop their abilities led to 15 years as Head of the School of Hotel and Catering Studies at Westminster Kingsway College. Following his semi-retirement in 1995 he worked three days a week as Personnel and Training Director for the Capital Group for 10 years.
A Past Master of the Worshipful Company of Cooks – a principal sponsor of the NACC Care Chef of the Year – Bev has been on the judging panel of the competition, which was launched in 2000, for more than a decade. “I had been involved in the NACC National Conference and had been a judge at Hotelympia’s Salon Culinaire, and I think the NACC thought I might be useful to have on the panel,” he says modestly. “I wasn’t chair to start with – I rose to the position of Chair of Judges!”
The annual competition seeks to find the UK’s best chef working in the care sector and it is a fantastic showcase for the talent that abounds in this sector. Bev says it hasn’t actually changed all that much over the years. “It’s always been well supported by the regions. There used to be only one representative from each region, now we’ve got two, but we’ve always had a high standard of entries.”
In 2017 the name was changed from ‘Care Cook of the Year’ to ‘Care Chef of the Year’, largely in recognition of the culinary excellence and professionalism within the sector and the specialist skills and knowledge demanded of and demonstrated by chefs in this arena. “Wrongly so, the word ‘cook’ had connotations of being a grade lower than chefs, and also it was seen more as a woman’s position,” explains Bev. “The word ‘chef’ as we have now is deemed to be more respresentative of the quality, effort and expertise shown in our sector.” Nothing has changed about the entry criteria; it was more of a “status thing” to do with the word, he emphasises.
The NACC Care Chef of the Year competition challenges entrants to create a nutritionally balanced, two-course menu (main and dessert) that is suitable for service users in a care setting. The combined food cost for both courses must be no more that £2.25 per head based on three portions and it is to be produced in just 90 minutes. Participating chefs are expected to have clear nutritional understanding of the foods they are using and how they benefit their clientele, plus culinary flair through flavours, menu balance, execution and presentation.
The live final is nerve wracking for the contestants, but there is “an amazing atmosphere” in the room, says Bev. “I think this sector has got a sort of spirit about it and that shows in the competition. The whole business of representing a region as well as their unit is very daunting compared with someone just going into a competition on their own behalf.”
Bev says he’s not surprised by the age range of the competitors who have made it through to the finals and indeed won the crown over the years. These have ranged from Alex Morte (2016), at 21 the youngest ever winner, to seasoned veterans such as Malcolm Shipton (2011) and last year’s winner, John Grover. “I think it illustrates the opportunities available in the world of care catering. It’s always good to see the experience, skill and wisdom being passed on.”
One of the aims of the contest has always been to raise the profile of care catering as a rewarding, dynamic career choice, and Bev says it has been successful in this. “I think it instills pride in the contestants, and the care homes they represent, and it certainly raises the profile of care catering within the wider industry – and hopefully also amongst the general public through relatives and anyone else that comes into contact with the care home business.” Winners, for example, tend to display their trophy and certificate in a public area where anyone coming into the care home can see them.
But Bev believes there is more that can be achieved in this regard. “I think, given the attention that’s being paid to nutrition and health generally and indeed looking after the elderly in the community, there is a TV opportunity. I definitely think it’s something we could pursue,” he says. “From a TV producer’s point of view it’s another angle, it’s not just the same old thing.”
Could this be the next big reality TV show? We shall have to wait and see – but the competition does have its moments of drama.
Last year’s final was interrupted by a fire alarm at Barking & Dagenham College’s Technical Skills Academy, which necessitated a full evacuation of the building just as the contestants were plating up their dishes. Real disasters or meltdowns have been avoided so far, however. “There’s been occasional equipment failure, forgotten ingredients and tearing out of hair, but help is always on hand from the venue,” says Bev. “And there’s definitely never been any sabotage, despite the rumours,” he laughs.
Historically there have been suggestions that a career in care catering is a soft option compared to other areas of hospitality, but Bev is quick to shoot this notion down in flames. “Well it isn’t a soft option at all,” he says. “Cooking for many different diets and eating disorders, often at the same time in the same kitchen; the fact that these chefs do need a knowledge of good nutrition; and they have to have the manner and ability to engage directly with the clients – those are all factors that are not standard in kitchens, and it demands a special kind of person.”
That there are more and more chefs coming into the care sector from hotels and restaurants is “good news” says Bev, but they need to be doing it for the right reasons – not just for an “easier life” (no more late nights or all-weekenders, for example). “There are particular demands on a care chef, as I just mentioned, and we need to talk about those factors whenever we get the chance to publicise what we do in this sector. Cooking for a range of different diets at one time in one space – it’s not easy.”
So what is the right kind of person? “It’s about being concerned with long term wellbeing at the same time as people’s enjoyment of food,” says Bev. “That’s a major, major factor, and when the chef believes in what he (or she) is doing they can take immense pride in their contribution to someone’s continued wellbeing and gain massive job satisfaction.”
Having spent so many years at the sharp end of chef training Bev is delighted with the recently accredited Level 2 Award in Professional Cookery in Health and Social Care, which is the first ever sector-specific qualification. He believes, however, that while it is a huge step forward there is a timing issue that means the uptake is slower than was hoped. “Unfortunately it’s come at a time when colleges are under pressure to reduce costs, so asking them to start up new programmes is not the best of news. It’s no use just one college in one remote area of the country having it as an offer – it’s got to be part of the general offer. I think it almost ought to be a module that’s offered within other courses.
“It’s going to take some very clever handling and a lot of work to get it firmly established,” he says.
Looking to the future, Bev (who, incidentally, thinks he would be “a doll” to cater for should he end up living in a care home, enjoying eating whatever was put in front of him) believes there will still be a place for initiatives such as the NACC Care Chef of the Year. “Whatever we do we need to just keep on promoting this whole idea of striving to be the best that we can be in the care situation.”