Originally from the Philippines, Darwin Serrano is the first to admit that he never planned to work as a care home caterer. In fact, you could say that he entered the general world of catering rather by accident.
“When I was 17, I applied to work in my cousin’s hotel in the Philippines as a room boy, but they hired me as a kitchen helper instead,” he reveals. “While I worked there, I developed my love for cooking. I would finish my chores and then ask the head chef to teach me to cook and after three months I was promoted to chef.”
Six months later, and fuelled by this newfound passion for cooking, Darwin moved to another hotel to continue building his knowledge. Once his development had peaked there, he worked at a four-star hotel in Manila, the capital of the Philippines, for the next two years before returning to the previous hotel to occupy the role of head chef. As time went on, Darwin gained further experience in various five-star hotels until he was approached by an agency one day and given the opportunity to work in the UK.
“I was hesitant at first but decided to accept the offer and move to England,” he recalls. “I arrived in January 2000 and worked in Bedfordshire as a sous chef and went on to work at the Dorchester Hotel in Park Lane.”
As you can imagine, working in such a world renowned establishment gave Darwin an experience like no other. It also pushed his skills to the absolute limit.
“I started my journey at the Dorchester in the room service team before being moved to the main kitchen and working for six years as a sous chef,” he reveals. “I later moved to plated banqueting where I managed a team catering for an average of over two thousand people a day. While doing this role I cooked for the Queen, Tony Blair, Nelson Mandela, Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman and many other high-profile figures from around the world.”
Of course, nothing lasts forever and Darwin eventually left the Dorchester to work at the Royal Surrey County Hospital, where he remained for nine years. He knew he needed to move on, however, when the role became monotonous, and so he put his name online in the hope of attracting new job opportunities. It was then that he was approached by Racquel Barretto, the former general manager at Gracewell of Camberley, who convinced him to enter the care sector. Initially, Darwin began working at the Camberley home before moving on to Gracewell of Church Crookham.
“I didn’t plan to work in a care home but since being given this opportunity I have truly grown to love it,” he enthuses. “I think this is partly because of my own culture and upbringing which had a great respect for older people.
“Furthermore, working at a care home means that you can change someone’s life for the better. Life does not stop when you join a care home and I have catered for some residents who have been at our care home for around fifteen years. Because of this, I understand how important my job is as I can make sure that our residents are still able to enjoy their life. I also don’t believe that you can’t please everyone, and I am constantly trying to accommodate all of our resident’s requests in our cooking.”
It is clear when talking to Darwin that he cares wholeheartedly about meeting the needs of every single resident at Gracewell of Church Crookham, which can house a maximum of 60. Not only is he happy to cater for individual requests each day, but he also develops every menu based on feedback from residents, along with Sophie Murray, head of nutrition and hydration for the whole of Gracewell, and Giles Conroy, head of dining services UK.
“Before we start a menu cycle, we discuss possible options with our residents before trialling it for a month,” he says. “If we find that residents would like alterations to these dishes, we are more than happy to accommodate these and make changes accordingly.”
Earlier this year, Darwin and his colleagues launched an event called The Captain’s Table, which takes place on the first Wednesday of every month. It is where all residents with an upcoming birthday join the general manager, Racquel Barretto, for an exclusive feast.
“We ask the residents if they could go on a cruise where they would like to go around the world,” explains Darwin. “Then at the event, we put on a banquet of food from each of the locations that residents have chosen.
“This private dining service can also be booked by residents if they fancy a special meal with friends from within the home for any occasion. For example, last month we had a group of friends who requested the private dining service and wanted fillet steak, which we were more than happy to accommodate.”
When Darwin first started at Gracewell of Church Crookham almost seven years ago, most residents had a strong preference for traditional food and would refuse to taste anything new. As time has gone on, however, he has noticed that more and more residents are open to eating international cuisine, which he suspects is due to more of them having travelled abroad. For example, he recently made sushi, as was requested, and says the food ‘was very well received’. Fortunately for residents, Darwin is highly capable of producing almost anything they ask for.
“I trained in Hong Kong to build my knowledge of oriental cuisine, including Chinese dim sums and Chinese cooking,” he reveals. “I also worked in a hotel which was managed by Germans, so I was able to learn how to make German sausages, German breads and other cuisines from Germany. I also have extensive experience in Japanese, Thai, Korean, Indonesian and other Asian cuisines. I can also do ice and vegetable carvings too. I tried to learn everything because I wanted to succeed in life, and I want to know everything I can about foods from around the world.”
As for the future, Darwin is determined to keep doing his very best in his role as head of hospitality.
“My ambition is simple: I want our home to be the best care home for the benefit of our residents,” he says. “I knew it was going to be difficult when I first took on the job because, based on my experiences, everything is always hard in the beginning. However, I know that I will always succeed as I always do my best and know that nothing is impossible when you put your heart in it.”