Meaningful, practical & creative: Why I love being a chef in care

James Clear, Care UK's hotel services manager, shares why he loves his career in care.

Was working in a care home always the place you wanted to be as a chef?

When I was training to be a chef, my aim was to work in hotels or restaurants aiming for Rosette level standard. Care catering was not at the forefront of any catering colleges or agencies lectures I attended. My journey saw me work in highly regarded hotels and gastro pubs and running my own business but about 10 years ago I saw an advert for head chef for a new care home.

It really opened my eyes to what life for a care chef can bring. A far better work life balance, residents to cook and care about on a daily basis so you can really get to know what they like to eat. The whole focus is very much centred on each person - looking after their nutrition and well-being – it is a very fulfilling role to do on a daily basis.

What’s working in care really like?

When a resident comes to live in a care home, it’s a new chapter in their life so it’s our privilege to fulfil their lives as much as possible while they’re with us. We pride ourselves on offering person-centred care, with bespoke menus tailored to individual residents’ tastes and needs. This means there’s a lot of free reign and you can show creativity in developing the range of dishes available.

We want our chefs to use their knowledge, flair, and imagination so they can produce excellent, homemade, nutritious meals for residents. We pride ourselves on offering the very best in hydration and nutrition to fulfil people’s lives and give them mealtimes to really look forward to. My favourite part of the role is working with the chefs to create and experiment with dishes to enhance the mealtime experiences.

It’s versatile. My role goes from mirroring the duties of an environmental health officer to supporting homes with menus and nutrition. I look after all hotel services including laundry and housekeeping. There’s so much that we do, but it’s all for the benefit of residents, whose families trust us to support their loved one and I get a huge amount of joy from that.

What are the benefits of working in care?

The kitchens have all of the equipment chefs require to deliver homemade nutritious cooked meals. We always look at the latest technology when we fit out the kitchens in our new care homes which means we offer modern, state-of-the-art equipment for our catering teams to use.  

We’re able to offer a good work life balance, working late nights or split shifts is almost never necessary, we also have occasional weekends off. In other areas of hospitality most of the time the shifts are split shifts. These are not appealing to everyone, but you fall into thinking that’s all chefs can do. It doesn’t have to be like that.

I enjoy the creativity needed to develop care menus. We make a lot from scratch so always need to ensure we are meeting nutritional, sensorial, emotional and flavour needs for residents in our homes when we do this.

Rarely seen in a restaurant, we’re able to build up relationships with those we’re cooking for and the impact you can have on someone's life and their health, day in, day out is very rewarding.

How do you keep your team motivated?

At Care UK we are very people-focused and this extends from residents to our colleagues. Ensuring catering teams enjoy their work and develop their skills is vital to deliver the brilliant service they offer to residents.

I believe in treating each day as a learning day, celebrating success and encouraging creativity. For example, we share recipes from across the homes and put them into recipe books.

We run different initiatives and themes to spark ideas, for example our Dining through the Decades project encourages chefs to bring an era from the past to life through their menus. Food is so important in care homes, because it provides comfort and brings back memories, whether through a Black Forest gateau or the perfect roast dinner. Chefs are all creative by nature, sometimes they just need the tools and space to express it.

What advice would you give to leaders in other sectors of hospitality?

Not all hospitality businesses can be as lucky as the care sector when it comes to working hours, but as a leader, what you can control is making sure the hours your team spend there are happy ones and that they feel valued and supported in their career.

Celebrate your team, encourage them to learn and develop and the rest will follow.

Care UK is a partner in the #FairKitchens movement