Long and unsociable hours, poor remuneration and physically demanding work – these are a few of the downsides of being a traditional chef. But there is an alternative. Here, two new recruits with Chefs in Schools, discuss how their careers have taken a turn for the better since they joined the charity.
“Throughout the restaurant industry, you see people working a 60-hour week and being paid for 40, often on minimum wage. At our school there’s a nice vibe, we work 7am – 3pm, we have evenings off and weekends. You can have a work-life balance.”
(Jake Taylor, former chef at St John and now working with Chefs in Schools).
Since October 2019, friends and former business partners Samuel Riches and Jake Taylor, have been transforming meals at a school in Streatham. Driven by a desire to make a positive difference through food, the two chefs joined Woodmansterne Primary and Secondary School as part of the Chefs in Schools initiative.
The pair met working at the Camden Town Brewery from where Jake went on to work at Michelin starred restaurant St John and Sam cooked for celebrities. They then worked together to create ‘Luxury Flats’, a successful street food business, before joining “Chefs in Schools”.
Samuel Riches, 29, from Cambridge:
“I was cooking from a reasonably young age and spent my time at university cooking rather than studying. I moved to London and started working as the manager at the Camden Town Brewery. I got to know the Street Food vendors, saw what they were doing and thought, ‘I could do that’.
Jake and I worked in street food for four or five years and it went well but we decided to take a break. I spent the summer cooking for celebrity clients and then Jake mentioned Chefs in Schools. It sounded like something I wanted to do.
We’d always wanted to build the street food business into something bigger that could have an ethical impact. We were making a good income, but it wasn’t at the stage where we could start supporting charities. We were both thinking, what do we do next? How do we make a difference working in food? Chefs in Schools appealed because it has big aims and is trying to change things.
With Culinary Education, I’m looking forward to growing food with the pupils, teaching them how to make dishes and try different foods as well. We’ll be doing pickling as one of the first sessions. We’d like to smoke food with them as well.”
Jake Taylor, 29, from Norfolk:
Sam and I were talking about street food so much, and eventually had to do something about it. We started off doing Swedish Smorrebrod and smoking our own fish. We built a wardrobe on our balcony in Peckham. London wasn’t ready for the open sandwich in 2014 so we started selling flatbread wraps under ‘Luxury Flats’.
In January 2019 I went to work at St John for six months and Sam carried on the business until the summer. I loved seeing how the kitchen worked around the clock, how a close team was nurtured and how to eliminate food waste. The incredible respect paid to the animal by using all of the offal and offcuts was a very crucial ethos I now believe in.
The big difference I’ve felt with Chefs in Schools is the support network you get. In a school, you’re part of a bigger team, there are people looking out for you and your welfare. Throughout the restaurant industry, you see people working a 60-hour week and being paid for 40, often on minimum wage. It can be exciting but it’s an unhealthy lifestyle, there’s high pressure, a lot of drinking, a lot of competition. The industry is changing now, people are actually starting to talk about how they feel but it’s still a very tough environment.
At our school there’s a nice vibe, we work 7am – 3pm, we have evenings off and weekends. You can have a work-life balance. We’re going to start giving cookery lessons soon, rebranding it from Food Tech to Culinary Education. I want to get the children into our kitchen to see how it all works. I don’t think many adults would be able to understand what it takes to cook for 800 pupils so I’d like for the children to see how, and that it’s all made from scratch. I think if they understand it, we can cut down on food waste. They’re already learning that yesterday’s food can be transformed into a totally different meal. We’re enjoying being creative, working with our kitchen teams and teaching the students about food.
Being friends and working together is the best bit about it. We know each other well enough now and know exactly how one another work. We know what each other cares about and when to put our foot down.