The Caterer

My Life in Hospitality – Sam Walker

13 May 2010
My Life in Hospitality – Sam Walker

Sam Walker began cooking as a child with his mother, who sadly passed away before he was 12 years old. So keen was he to learn, Walker tried to enrol in night classes while still at school, but was told he was too young.

At the age of 15 Walker began a full time City & Guilds 7061 course at Reid Kerr College in Paisley. At the same time he took a part time job, which developed into an apprenticeship at the Hospitality Inn in Glasgow, where he discovered a mentor in executive chef John Dunn.

"I learned a lot from the way John developed and coached his staff," explains Walker.

"You can't make a chef - they have to have it in them - and John taught me how to bring it out of someone."

After his apprenticeship Walker went to Trusthouse Forte at Glasgow Airport as a junior sous chef, where he met Guy Rettie.

"Guy was a great believer in teaching young chefs about cost control, which is an essential skill," says Walker.

"You can make great food, but if you can't sell it you might as well not open the door."

Two years later Walker agreed to help Rettie's son for a fortnight at the Forte hotel in Crick, Northamptonshire, where he was general manager.

"I only meant to leave Scotland for two weeks and 20 years later I still haven't moved back," laughs Walker.

He spent the next six years developing a reputation as a "solution finder" while making his way up the career ladder from sous to executive chef, at Swallow, Marriott and Novotel hotels. Often he was recruited to revamp menus and instil an emphasis on fresh produce.

But by 2001, Walker decided it was time to go it alone. Working very long hours was wreaking havoc with his family life, so he began doing freelance work while he launched his own catering business, Simply Just Wonderful. Although it secured its first contract almost straight away, ultimately it couldn't survive the recession and Walker was forced to wind up the business. Fortunately the freelance work led to an executive chef position at Gibson Hall with Crown Venue Catering.

Five years on and Walker joined BaxterStorey as the executive chef responsible for the Government estate in Westminster, where for three years he fulfilled his brief to upgrade the food offering and recruit and train staff. He left with a sense of achievement because not only did he believe the service was in a better condition than when he started, but he had been succeeded by his sous chef - a testament to his staff development philosophy.

In February Walker returned to the Crown Group fold by joining Seasoned Events as executive chef, and has set about transforming the team.

"Previously, there was a head chef and a team of casuals, but we now have a team of full time staff who understand the focus of delivering fresh, quality food," he says proudly.

HIGHS… In 2000, Walker represented the Novotel Group at a prestigious food and beverage competition in France.

"I won the Trophy Mondial at the Stade de France. It was a fantastic achievement - I was the first British chef from Novotel to win it," he adds.

Another memorable event came last year when Lord Mandelson took on the task of carving the roast beef on St George's Day.

"After he became business secretary, he would eat in the staff canteen at the Department of Trade and Industry most days," explains Walker.

"He couldn't carve the beef particularly well, but he did enjoy eating it."

LOWS… Being forced to wrap up his own business was deeply disappointing for Walker. Unable to give Simply Just Wonderful the full attention it deserved, he decided to concentrate on his full time job.

"When we lost our main contract I tried to keep the business going. I briefly considered opening a cooking school for housewives, but the economic climate meant it just wasn't happening.

"If I ever decided to go it alone again, I'd be more analytical; more ruthless. Once bitten, twice shy."

Family Married with three kids
Age 41
Favourite holiday South coast, British Isles
Drives Jeep
Motto You reap what you sow
Recession-busting tip Use cheaper cuts, such as shoulders of pork or lamb, which are really versatile and have great flavour anyway

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