This year's LACA School Chef of the Year, Kate Davies, talks to Janie Manzoori-Stamford about the day of the final, her passion for Indian food and why winning the competition means so much to her
Kate Davies used her love of Indian food to take home the title of Lead Association for Catering in Education (LACA) School Chef of the Year 2015 last month. The Welsh finalist, who works at St Gwladys Primary School in Bargoed, served up a winning main course of ‘spice street' fire-cracker chicken curry platter, comprising chicken curry, cauli-pilau rice, aloo dal paratha, roasted Indian potatoes and a trio of chutneys.
"The culinary and creative skill of this year's finalists was, once again, at an exceptionally high level, which meant the judges must have had a very difficult task," said LACA national chair Carrieanne Bishop.
"Parents and the wider community should be reassured that our talented front-line staff in schools not only prepare tasty, highly creative dishes to tempt the taste buds of discerning children and young people, but also nutritious school meals that make a major contribution towards altering eating habits, improving diets and decreasing obesity levels."
We thought we'd find out from Davies what winning the title means to her, where she draws her inspiration from, and what she most loves about her job.
Congratulations on winning the 2015 LACA School Chef of the Year competition. How did it feel to take the title?
When my name was announced I was totally gobsmacked. Having looked at everyone else's dishes, I had my money on another contestant, so I was not expecting my name to be called.
The room seemed to go silent and all I could hear was my own voice - it was an incredible moment, I felt completely overwhelmed and just could not believe it. I would be lying if I said I hadn't thought about how it would feel to be the winner, but I never thought it would be as special as this. It's the stuff of dreams.
How did the final go?
We arrived early, so I had a little bit of time to wait before setting up my work station. Having done this, and then managing to be late for the first briefing because I couldn't find the changing room, I started to think that maybe luck wasn't going to be on my side. But before I knew it, we had started cooking.
Things were progressing really well until it came to cooking off my breads. In order to be within the time limit, I needed to cook two breads at a time. And disaster struck! My hot plate had turned off and it wasn't hot enough to seal my breads. The head judge, Justin Clarke, was frantically trying to relight my hotplate, and I was running back and forth trying to get the breads to cook - to say I was sweating was a bit of an understatement. This set me back a good few minutes.
The next thing I can really remember is looking up and catching the eye of my boss; she looked very cool, and then I heard Justin shout "six minutes left". I hadn't started to build my dessert, my adrenaline was pumping, and I thought "you ain't gonna do it kid".
I don't think I've ever worked so fast in all my life. I don't know how I did it, but I â¨finished on time. I felt enormously relieved and I was very happy with how my food looked and tasted. Then the real stress began - â¨waiting for the winners to be announced.
What was the inspiration behind your menu?
The inspiration mainly came from my absolute love of Indian cuisine. For as long as I can remember, curries have been a part of my diet. My dad was a policeman, so he used to make a big pot to take to work with him to share with the others on his shift. We always hadâ¨a takeaway from our local curry house, the Ajantha, which opened in 1990. It makes the best onion bhajis.
Over the years I have watched and read so much about Indian food that it has almost become an obsession. I constantly strive to cook new recipes and create healthy versions of the classics.
The feedback I had after last year's competition was also highly influential on my menu for this year. I was told to play to my strengths, and that is using spices, so this year I decided to put my heart on a plate and devise a menu based on my love of Indian street food.
Are these the sorts of recipes that go down well in your school?
We currently have three different types of curry on our school menu. They are very popular with the children and are an excellent way of getting 'hidden' healthy food, such as spinach and chickpeas, into the children's diets. When I trialled my menu on some of the children, it proved to be very popular.
What do you love most about your job?
I started in my school in 2008 and, having been in catering for a while, I felt prepared for the challenge ahead. What I wasn't prepared for was the diverse eating habits children have and just how important school meals are to them. Since starting in the school I have learned how crucial healthy eating is and how big a part it plays in the ability to learn.
When a child comes to you after eating their school lunch and says, "Thanks Miss, that was lush", I don't think there can be a better compliment. Knowing that child is now full up and ready to face the rest of the school day with a smile is pretty cool. Each day is different, full of fun and sometimes chaotic, but it has to be the most rewarding part of the job.
What are the biggest challenges you face onâ¨a day-to-day basis?
Having two children of my own, I am all too aware of the vegetable phobia that children go through. Dealing with two is tough, but multiply that by 80 and you could have a real problem on your hands. As a cook, it's a fantastic challenge to think of new ways ofâ¨disguising and championing vegetables to children. As adults we know the health benefits, but to some children they are "stinky, green and yucky", so finding ways of changing these views is a challenge I relish.
How do you help to maximise the uptake of meals in your school's dining room?
In order to achieve as high a turnover of children each day for school meals, I constantly look for new ways of presenting food so that it looks appealing to the children. I encourage them to let me know if they like or dislike something, so that we can change how we do things and make the children's dining experience a great one.
Why do you think the LACA School Chef of the Year (SCOTY) competition is important?
The competition is massively important to us frontline staff as it's an opportunity to express ourselves through food. Since entering the competition, I have gained so many new skills, made some amazing friends and gained a whole bag of memories that will last me a lifetime.
It is such a confidence boost to get through each stage and gain recognition from your peers for what is a hobby for me. It's quite special. SCOTY instils in me a drive to succeed and to do better than the last time, to encourage others to have a go and to follow our dreams. The last two years have given me some of the best experiences of my life. Without SCOTY I wouldn't be where I am now - feeling on top of the world.