Chef Eric took over the kitchen at Fairholme in 2017 after 31 years as Head Chef at the University of Northumbria. He was excited about revolutionising the menu at the home, introducing the residents to a world of flavour and teaching them to cook. Three years on, Eric now oversees the menus for four homes, has written a recipe book and picked up the title of Best Chef in the North East at the British Care Awards in 2019. He tells us why he loves sharing his passion for cooking with residents and colleagues.
Hi Eric, where did your career as a chef first begin?
When I left school, I wanted to join the navy, but I’m colour blind, so I couldn’t get in. I really loved cooking and going a bit over the top with everything I made, so I ended up going to catering college for three years. When I finished my course, I ended up working in pubs, then one day a friend asked me if I wanted a proper catering job and I said, ‘Yes!’. That’s when I joined the catering team at the University of Northumbria.
You did an incredible 31 years there, is it fair to say that you honed your skills in the job?
It’s true, and I never looked back. I qualified as a head chef while I was there. I’d go into a department, bring it up to a level where it couldn’t get any better and then I’d get moved to another department. I ended up working at Coach Lane, which was the nursing college, and I loved it. I was in charge of 17 chefs, we were cooking for 1300 people a day and making food for nurses, teachers, social workers and doctors. It was full-on.
What inspired you to leave and join Fairholme?
A new company took over, and I wasn’t as happy with their approach to the work. I’d also had two strokes and I knew it was time to move on. My partner was working at Fairholme, so when the chef’s role came up, he encouraged me to apply and I got it. I went from having 1300 people to cater for each day to 21, which was an adjustment. My priority was to redo all the menus so that I could expand the variety of food the residents were offered. I was passionate about bringing nutrition and healthy eating to the fore.
How did you go about designing the menus?
It was important for me to provide more choice. I wanted the residents to be able to make independent selections and to start eating new things. There were some menu items that I renamed so that people wouldn’t be put off by names they didn’t understand. For example, I would make Enchiladas but describe them as a wrap with tomato sauce and a filling so they would appeal to residents. I also started doing theme nights for different cuisines – Chinese, Indian, Mexican, etc. We had a lovely Valentine’s night with a special steak dinner and then heart-shaped strawberry cheesecakes, which we served to the table for the residents. I also bought red roses and presented them to each resident with their meal. It was amazing to see the look on their faces and how much they enjoyed it.
You’ve also started sharing your skills with residents, haven’t you?
I do hold cooking classes for the residents who want to learn – we make things like basic cakes and treats. One of our residents is living with dementia and last year I was able to help him make a Christmas cake. He mixed the cake batter, rolled out the marzipan and we decorated it together. I could have cried. I was so proud of him. When I asked him who he was going to give it to as a present, he said ‘Beryl’ who is a friend that comes to visit him at Christmas and it broke me. This lad can’t make a cup of tea anymore, but he made a Christmas cake for Beryl.
You must have been proud to win Best Chef in the North East at the British Care Awards.
It was a great experience – I was so pleased. I was a finalist at the Nationals in Birmingham as well. I recently got my Salutem Star award, which is the highest accolade you can get in this company. Our CEO John Gooden and his wife Alison asked me to write a recipe book for the company so that I could share the recipes I cook with service users. I’ve recorded a series of videos where I take them through each one step-by-step. What’s amazing to me is that I was at the university for 31 years and I never got recognised for my work, but I’ve been here for just three years and the recognition has gone through the roof.
What would you say to chefs considering whether to take a role at a Salutem service?
You should definitely give it a go. I can’t tell you how proud I am to work for this company. I’m no longer one of those people who wakes up and says, ‘Oh no, I’ve got to go to work’. Instead, I can’t wait to get in and see everyone. I can’t believe how thankful the residents are for every meal I make for them. I’m so happy I’ve got the job I’ve got.