RAF student chef discusses how to get big break in catering

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Lee-James Hickey
Demi Chef
The RAF Club

Supporting a chef demonstration at The London Produce Show led to student chef Lee-James Hickey being recruited by Michael Dutnall MCA, the Executive Chef at the Royal Air Force Club in London’s Mayfair. Here, Lee-James reveals what it takes to break into high-end catering.

How did you get hired by Chef Michael Dutnall?

I was doing a catering course at Redbridge College when one of my tutors asked for a couple of students to help prepare the food for the live chef demonstrations at The London Produce Show and Conference 2016. I signed up. On the day, Chef Allan Pickett was called away and couldn’t demonstrate his white gazpacho recipe. So, the host – Chef Peter Gorton – stepped in, and I accepted his invitation to help on stage. Michael was another demonstration chef and he watched us in the audience. Afterwards, he asked me if I’d like to work with him.

Why did Michael choose you? 

I think Michael liked how I got on with it despite being open and honest about my lack of experience in that situation. Accepting what you can do is one of the best attitudes to have in the kitchen because it’s all about teamwork. On that day, Chef Peter gave most of the direction and I followed his lead, but he did let me take charge for part of the demonstration when I had to talk to the audience about myself and what I was cooking.

What’s your position at The RAF Club?

I’ve been promoted twice since I joined in August/September 2016. I started as a Commis (junior) Chef and I’ve just moved up to Demi Chef. Basically, I make sure we’re all ready to go for service. If I’m on early, I set up and read the handover notes from the night before. If I’m on late, I take over from the early shift, so I might do prep and service for the evening. It’s a balance between making sure service is ready for your shift and the next, and working as far ahead as you can.

Can you explain what you love about your role? 

The nicest aspect is learning about cooking again. Obviously, I studied meat prep at college but I’m relearning how to cook meat and fish. I also like the fast-paced vibe in the kitchen – I like the adrenaline rush. 

What expertise do you need in a high-end kitchen?

You learn on the job more than you can be taught at college. All the prepping and technical skills will come with time but you’ve got to jump in and ask to be taught. You also have to be able to organise your time and communicate with each section of the kitchen because they’re all connected. And, you have to accept that it’s not a 9am-5pm job. So, you need the determination and drive to accept these conditions if you’re going to be the best. You have to really love it. If you’re passionate, everything else will fall into place. 

Are you enjoying working at The RAF Club?

It’s great! The team is excellent. The sous chefs are always there to help us learn and suggest ideas. Because we’re a private charitable members’ club [for serving and former Officers of the Royal Air Force and their families], we don’t get any AA Rosettes but we work roughly to a 2-3 AA Rosette standard. It’s a young team – the oldest are just over 30 years old, while everyone else is in their early 20s. We all take a serious approach, but we have a bit of a laugh at the same time. 

Is finding the right working environment important? 

Some places won’t be as good as others, but it’s all a learning experience. I once worked for two weeks in a Michelin-starred restaurant where the food was perfect but I didn’t like the attitude in the kitchen. Everyone worked very hard, and the atmosphere was so serious. I need more of a social side in the kitchen. That’s important when you’re working 10 hours a day, six days a week.

How would you describe working with Chef Michael Dutnall?

He’s really involved. Obviously, we can work at different times over different weeks. But he’s hands-on in the kitchen and he gives good direction. He’ll ask you for your input and ideas, and he talks to you about your mistakes. I’ve not heard him shout really and everyone respects him. That’s the attitude I want to implement when I get my own place. If you can give direction, you shouldn’t need to be aggressive.

So, you want to open your own restaurant?

I’d like to own a barbecue diner with a rock ’n roll vibe where the food simple, the alcohol is home-brewed and the customers enjoy themselves. Fine dining still gets people going but I think people are going more rustic in their food and drink choices, with the rise of craft beers etc. 

What’s your advice for any would-be chefs? 

Get stuck in! If you’re asked to do extra work, do it whether it’s on your day off or not. The London Produce Show was on my day off from college but that’s how you meet people and make connections. Also, note down any ideas to create your own portfolio. There’s loads of inspiration on YouTube and Netflix, and I take photos to capture what I like about food presentations or menu descriptions. And, if you know you want a career in catering, think about going to a cooking college straight after school. I went to uni first and, although I had a great time, I felt out of place at college because I was older. Chefs are getting younger and younger, and better and better. 

The Fresh Careers Fair is the recruitment event for the fresh produce, retail, foodservice, hospitality, and wholesale sectors, plus their related service suppliers.

Any organisation looking to attract the next generation of food and drink professionals by taking part in the 2018 edition on 8 March in London at The Kia Oval, should email Linda Bloomfield.

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