The School Chef of the Year competition has become the premier event for those working in the sector. Chris Druce talks to past winners about what the contest means to them.
Competition remains the lifeblood of the catering sector and within the school meals sector the Local Authority Caterers Association's (LACA) School Chef of the Year (SCOTY) has, over the past 15 years, secured its place as the premier event in a sector traditonally looked down upon by peers plying their cooking trade elsewhere.
Sponsored by Maggi from Nestlé Professional, the competition showcases the talents of school chefs - often working with limited resources - in producing exciting, healthy food for schoolchildren, and has undoubtedly played an important role in improving the perception of school dinners and the people that produce them.
Current title holder Suzanne Duncan works for North Ayrshire Council at Irvine Royal Academy and pipped 10 other finalists at a cook-off held at Sheffield City College in May. Her winning menu of turkey kebabs with summer salsa accompanied by a mini yogurt dip and flatbread, followed by a dessert of strawberry cupcake and milkshake, couldn't have been further away from the traditional stereotype of lumpy custard and stewed cabbage which unfortunately lingers in the public's collective psyche.
On winning the national title, Suzanne Duncan said: "I was totally stunned to win. It was such an honour to be competing alongside such talented people. They were all so professional and I couldn't believe the standard. To win against this was incredible and a great accolade".
This is the other important thing that competitions such as SCOTY achieve, namely highlighting the professionalism, dedication and expertise that those working within the school meals service bring to the workplace every day, dispelling again the myth that there's a vat of something unknown bubbling away in the kitchen or that everything served is processed rather than fresh.
It's one of the main reasons Sharon Armstrong, winner of the 2004 competition, entered repeatedly before ultimate success, and why in her current role of assistant area manager at North Yorkshire County Caterers she has continued to encourage and mentor other staff through the competition process.
"I won around the time Jamie Oliver was coming on the scene and I very much wanted to showcase the hard work and good job that we were doing in North Yorkshire," says Armstrong. "I remember being disappointed that he chose an area where they were using so much processed food. We were already moving to what he envisioned and it felt a little unfair that all of England was lumped together."
Armstrong, who won in 2004 with a menu of Captain Cook's pasta - pasta shells with Esk salmon, smoky bacon in a spicy tomato sauce served with sweet and sour salad and garlic and herb east coast muffin - and Dracula's delight with jetter biscuit - raspberry jelly, fruity white chocolate mousse served with a shortbread biscuit - sees the value of the competition in promoting the good work school caterers are performing, with parents and children invited to try the menus of competitors from the local authority before entry each year, providing insight and engagement.
Competing is, of course, a great way to see what other regions are doing, providing plenty of inspiration, and also a great way to network and feel part of the bigger school meals community. While those wishing to enter have to show dedication and put in extra hours of practice around work, Armstrong is keen to point out that taking part is also a lot of fun. "It's not just deadly serious but also about enjoying food and meeting new people," she says.
A catering manager at Caedmon School, Whitby, when she won the 2004 title, Armstrong believes that the profile that came with the accolade, including subsequent media interest, did her no harm in achieving her ambitions to move further into management within the school meals service and change things from the top - she currently oversees 76 primary school kitchens.
"Ultimately, competing in the School Chef competition allows you to promote school meals and the caterers that provide them," says Armstrong.
THIS YEAR'S COMPETITION
For the competition's 16th year, the format has been tweaked slightly. A paper-based entry has replaced the local heat stage of the competition from previous years. It remains open to kitchen-based staff employed by organisations that are full members of LACA and are involved with the daily preparation of school meals.
This annual competition puts the preparation, cooking, creativity and presentation skills of school chefs to the test with each entrant required to produce, in just one-and-a-half hours, a healthy, balanced two-course meal comprising of a main course and dessert that would appeal to 11-year-olds in school.
The composition of the dishes must conform to the Eat Well Plate and adhere to the principals of Nutritional Standards for school meals. A maximum of £1.35 per head is allowed for the food cost of a main course and dessert for one child. Regional finals will be held between January and March 2011, with the national final of the competition due for May 2011.
For a full list of conditions and judging criteria, or to enter this year's competition ahead of the 29 October deadline, visit the School Chef of the Year website at www.laca.co.uk/scoty.php.
ROLL OF HONOUR
2010 Suzanne Duncan, Irvine Royal Academy, Irvine, Scotland.
2009 Debbie Mumford, Ermington Primary School, Ivybridge, Devon.
2008 Sonia Reynolds, chef at Brimscombe Primary School, near Stroud, Gloucestershire (Sodexo).
2007 Lynette Tinney, Coton-in-the-Elms Church of England Primary School, Swadlincote.
2006 Lynn Hawdon, Middleton-in-Teesdale Field Study Centre, Durham.
2005 Lynne Howe, Tannadice Primary School, Forfar.
2004 Sharon Armstrong, catering manager at Caedmon School, Whitby.
2002 Deloris Brown from Crofton School, Brockley, LB Lewisham (Scolarest).
2001 Pauline Gati , Cubbitt Town Primary School, Tower Hamlets Education Contract Services
2000 Sharon Maddocks, Little Hulton Community City of Salford School
1999 Nicky Lewin, Wyvern Secondary School, Hampshire Caterers
1998 Kathryn Cordy, Wickhambrook School, Suffolk County Catering
1997 Ruth Watts, Northbury Primary School, Barking & Dagenham
1996 Sue Morris, the Marist RC School, Surrey Commercial Services
1995 Ann Gates, Pennington Infants School, Hampshire Caterers
1994 Marie Wright, Farlingaye High School, Suffolk County Catering
NB. There is no 2003 winner due to a change in the format of the competition that saw it straddle years, for example, the 2010 competition began in 2009, with Suzanne Duncan crowned as ultimate winner in May 2010.