Industry expert: Healthcare

Craig Smith, head of corporate affairs – key accounts for ISS, reports back on what has been a more stable, but still extremely busy, time for healthcare catering...

One of the main recommendations of the Hospital Food Review was to improve the marketing and recruitment for chefs and other members of the catering team, demonstrating that a career in hospital catering is a rewarding one. To help create this awareness, it was proposed that we all celebrate success and create chef academies and an NHS Chef of the Year award.

Through NHS Supply Chain, supported by Compass Group, the chef academy has now been launched and live cooking sessions are being held around the country to encourage hospital chefs to try different dishes, including more plant-based options. I have been lucky enough to attend some of these sessions and it’s amazing to see just how engaged the chefs are. The culinary director, Nick Vadis, and his colleague Stephen England are there to demonstrate new skills and to encourage everyone to join in. For many of the chefs, this is the first serious session of training that they have received for a long while, and it is evident that they are thirsty for more.

As the Chef Academy was getting underway, it was also agreed that a competition should also be put in place, hence the NHS Chef 2021 was created. Seven regional heats were held, utilising local colleges, and from here eight teams of two chefs were invited to progress to the next stage.

For everyone to fully understand what was required of them, a three-day mentoring session was held at First Choice in the Midlands. The chefs were again given practical demonstrations, including specialised subjects like dysphagia. They were also assigned mentors from Hospitality Industry Training and other development chefs who understand the competition environment. The finalist grasped this opportunity with both hands and the enthusiasm was amazing. Remember, these are chefs that have been working solidly throughout the pandemic, ensuring that the hospital patients and staff were well provided for at all times.

The finals will be held over several days with teams slowly being eliminated, until just the last three are left standing. The winning chefs will have demonstrated their skills over a range of menus including specific allergens, ethnic dishes, a breakfast challenge and energy dense nutrition, some of which are peculiar to their own target audience: the patient. This is the first time for many years that the NHS has put together such a competition and I hope that everyone will see the benefit of such a programme. It is imperative that, if we still wish to see fresh cook in most of our hospitals, we continue to grow, develop and retain our own chefs. Healthcare catering offers such a varied career as the number of specialised diets continues to grow.

Meanwhile, back in the hospitals, Natasha’s Law has now been enacted. Everyone has been given plenty of time to get themselves prepared, but I was concerned about the number of enquiries I heard about at the eleventh hour. This legislation has had a profound effect on the whole industry –  healthcare retail is no exception – and now we are being told that the next step is for further legislation on the declaration of calories in pre-packaged products.

You would think that this would be like falling off a log for the healthcare caterer, surely every NHS trust has a host of golden dietitians, all ready and waiting to assist in this project. Well, the fact is that only a small percentage of trusts employ catering related dietitians - the British Dietetic Association (BDA) has a Food Services Specialist Group, but their numbers are still lamentably low.

The Hospital Food Review has called upon each trust to have active membership with both the BDA and the Hospital Caterers Association. Therefore, my rallying cry at this time is to ensure that this suggestion is acted upon and we see more professionals wanting to have a career in this rewarding part of the foodservices sector.

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