Rob Pretorius, 35, spent 20 years working as a chef before the coronavirus pandemic hit and cost him his job. When an advert for care work caught his eye, Rob wasn’t sure if he had what it took to make a difference in people’s lives. But after his first month in the job, he knew he’d found his true vocation.
Hi Rob, you’ve made the transition from one challenging sector to another, did you have any experience of care work before you hung up your chef’s whites?
My mother was a community care supporter when I was growing up in Rugby, Warwickshire. She would visit people living in the area and would always come home with nice, interesting stories about her day. When I left school, I didn’t consider following her into the sector because lots of my friends were going into catering, so I did the same. I went from the classroom to the kitchen of the local Brewer’s Fayre restaurant and was soon plating up around 500 meals a week!
Wow, that sounds like a big transition for a teenager. What was it like to forge a career in catering?
It was a lot of fun and very exciting. A couple of years later, my parents moved to South Africa to help my grandmother run the family B&B following my granddad’s passing. I accompanied them and took over making the breakfasts for the next couple of years. I then worked in restaurants but after a while I decided to return to the UK and I worked at various pubs doing the carvery and other types of pub grub.
When the pub I was working at closed, I took a factory job at Know How boxing up TVs to make ends meet. There was a nice café there for the workers, so I spotted the opportunity to use my chef skills. I would do a shift in the factory boxing TVs during the day, then run the café for the night workers all night. It was pretty intense.
So, how did you go from that to becoming a support worker?
When COVID-19 hit, I got laid off because the café closed and there wasn’t enough work. I started applying for similar roles, but I kept coming across ads for a ‘support worker’. I assumed that I’d need qualifications, but I thought it was worth applying. The thing I was worried about was if I went for the job but didn’t like it, or couldn’t do it properly, would somebody else miss out? I wasn’t 100% sure what it would involve.
What changed your mind?
Like everyone, I’d been watching the news and seeing all the good that keyworkers were doing. I kept thinking, ‘What am I doing? What are my kids going to think of me when they grow up?’ I wanted them to know I was doing something decent and making a difference in people’s lives.
Tell us about your first day on the job
I walked in and Steven – one of the residents – came up to me, looked up and gave me the biggest smile I’d ever seen in my life! I instantly melted and thought, ‘No matter what this is, I’ll be able to do this!’ It grips you, this kind of work. Every day, I am excited to go to my next shift because I want to see Helen or Margaret, to find out what Pete’s up to, or see if Steven’s legs are any better.
What are your favourite parts of the job so far?
I love engaging with the residents and making them happy. If I can get a smile from Nicky, who can’t communicate verbally, it makes my day. I love helping these guys to do small tasks that are so simple for me to do but mean the world to them. As a chef who has worked with people who speak different languages, I’ve had to find ways to establish basic communication with others, and that’s really helpful in this job.
Have you been helping the residents to cook?
Yes, Pete and I have been making curries together. He enjoys cooking and he’s got his own vegetable patch. Every time I’m working with him, I say, ‘Come on, let’s go and have a look at the vegetables!’ and we can plan things to cook. My colleagues like me to make lunch or dinner for them – people come from other units when they smell what I’m cooking to ask for a helping!
You are a hard worker and ambitious, do you see the opportunity for professional development here?
Absolutely. I spoke to one of the Team Leaders because a job came up, and I wanted to learn more. He advised me to spend six months learning my role thoroughly and then we could have a chat. I have a new learning experience every day! So, I’m hoping to apply to be a Team Leader or a Senior at some point in the near future.
Will you miss being a chef?
I don’t think I will because, after 20 years, I’d lost my love for cooking at home. Since I’ve been working here, it’s come back to me, and I enjoy cooking with my kids or for residents. I can’t envisage ever leaving this career path in care work because it’s gripped me. I’ve been taken by surprise, it’s been so different from my previous work, but I can’t imagine doing another job that makes me feel so happy, grateful and fulfilled.