The Caterer and Hotelkeeper Interview – Sara Jayne Stanes

04 May 2012
The Caterer and Hotelkeeper Interview – Sara Jayne Stanes

Chocolate expert, food and wine writer and, since 2006, chief executive of the Academy of Culinary Arts, Sara Jayne Stanes was last year's winner of the Catey Special Award for her outstanding contribution to the industry. She tells Janie Manzoori-Stamford about her drive to improve food education and her continuing love affair with chocolate

You've been at the Academy of Culinary Arts 25 years and chief executive since 2006. What have been its major achievements in that time?
The apprenticeships have been a major achievement. They were introduced in 1989 by Peter Taylor, who was senior lecturer at Bournemouth & Poole College, and Michel Bourdin at the Connaught, who already ran an apprenticeship programme that was considered to be, like the Savoy apprenticeship, among the best in the world.

There was a need among other academicians to run apprenticeships but they didn't have the facilities or the budget of the Connaught to spend five years training.

So we decided to go back to the old way of doing things in which students are indentured to the industry - in this case members of the academy - while they do their training. That's how we started the "experiment".

Chefs Adopt a School is very special, too.

Who has been involved in the academy over the years?
The Roux brothers have been there from the start. Richard Shepherd has made a substantial contribution for more than 30 years and continues to do so, and Brian Turner's phenomenal powers of communication and respect from the industry have helped to maintain the status of the ACA to drive it forward. John Williams, now chairman, lives and breathes his kitchen at the Ritz and is a leading role model for all chefs as well as brilliant with the apprentices.

There's Philip Corrick and the RAC, who have been the backbone of so much fund-raising over a decade… and, likewise, Martyn Nail is another hero.

Paul Heathcote, Terry Laybourne and Steven Doherty are all leading lights in the North who fly the flag for the academy, while Alan Hill and Jeff Bland give so much time to the Scottish branch.

A number of chefs who graduated from the ACA's Apprenticeship Programme, including Adam Byatt, Peter Vaughan, Jeremy Ford and Simon Boyle, are all now academicians and running their own businesses and taking on their own apprentices.

But the ACA is about the whole dining experience. Silvano Giraldin, Sergio Rebecchi, Didier Garnier, John Cousins and Diego Masciaga are leading lights in the exquisite art of service. And how they make it look easy: like ballet dancers gliding across the stage of the restaurant floor making you feel as though you are the only person in the room that ever mattered. It is regrettable - though not irreversible - that restaurant service has not had the same limelight and recognition as chefs.

We could not be where we are without other industry luminaries such as Roy Ackerman, Willy Bauer, Ramón Pajares, Bev Puxley, Harry Murray and Sir Garry Hawkes - and there are so many more.

The academy is the sum total of its members, and I would like to thank each and every one for giving so much of their time and skills to make it what it is today - making a difference to so many young lives by passing on their knowledge of food, cookery and service.

Tell us about Chefs Adopt a School.
It started in 1990 as a result of chefs saying there weren't enough committed young people coming into the industry, even though that's what the apprenticeship programme was about. But the apprenticeships were for 16-year-olds, and I wondered how schools felt about the hospitality industry in career discussions with the children.

It didn't take long to discover that cheffing and hospitality were considered the absolute last resort. In fact, they were actively discouraging children from even thinking about it.

A secondary school teacher recently told me that hospitality is still largely discouraged as a career choice but, interestingly, the children are talking more about wanting to do it.

Is it where you would like it to be, and do you have the resources for it to be even bigger?
We reach about 20,000 children every year, mainly from primary schools, but that's a drop in the ocean when you consider there are around 3.5 million primary school children across the country.

Over the past 22 years we've built up a solid understanding and a lot of experience of the way to deliver food education to children. But even if every single member of the academy were to regularly visit their school, we'd still be a million miles away from having that loud, shouty voice that the Government is going to listen to.

We started Plan for Growth, which is about training chefs who are not members of the academy. We could train about 500 chefs a year over the next five years, and having 2,500 more chefs would mean we could reach around half-a-million more children. We've got a lot of support from parents and teachers, and we've started working with education caterers Caterlink and Harrisons because they've already got strong links with many schools.

I could look at Chefs Adopt a School and say that in a way we haven't made a huge amount of progress, but I don't think about that because our glass is always half-full. Of course, we could always make more progress, and we will. We never stand still as there is always so much to do and more children and schools to "adopt" across the country.

Is membership to the academy limited, and if so, what to and why?
It's for head chefs, head pastry chefs and restaurant managers - preferably practising. This means that they are in a position of seniority and are able to get involved in the academy.

It's good if they are able to take on an apprentice. They need to be at the top of their game, really, and they need to believe in what the academy does. I know it's a cliché to say it, but it's not about what the academy can do for them, but what they can do for the industry.

It's not just about putting the fact that you're a member on your CV; though I'm sure that goes on, and I rather hope it does, actually. It's much more about giving something back.

What is it about the industry that you love?
A really busy kitchen has a huge amount of excitement. If you go in during a service, you can feel the adrenalin and you can understand why chefs want to be chefs, because it's a fantastic way to demonstrate your creativity and please other people.

That's something I've seen throughout the 25 years I've been doing this. Every single member of the academy has that running through their veins.

I'm not saying that doesn't happen in other industries, but I spent my first 20 years producing television commercials and theirs was a very different sort of creativity: a self-indulgent creativity.

What prompted the move into the food industry?
I decided I wanted to put my professional film-making experience together with my passion for food, which, according to my mother, started when I was about four and I made a rather inedible sandwich. I always wanted to know where food came from, how it was made.

How do you juggle your many roles within the academy with your work with chocolate?
Some people ski, horse-ride or play golf. But I don't do any of that; I do chocolate. It all started when I was doing research for the films that I never made and I saw Michel Roux demonstrate three courses, the last of which was a chocolate truffe gâteau.

I remember thinking that I didn't like chocolate very much, but that's because I didn't know what chocolate was. I assumed, like most people, that chocolate confectionery was chocolate. But this was proper chocolate, and when I tasted it I thought it was absolutely wonderful.

I remember asking Michel what it was, and he said, "Er, it's chocolate!" I realised that, but it was not like any I'd ever tasted, and he said that obviously I'd never tasted chocolate before. It was such a revelation that my curiosity got the better of me. As with all food, I wanted to know more about it, and that's how chocolate took over my life.

Do you spend as much time working with chocolate as you would like?
A great deal of my "chocolate time" is now spent on the Academy of Chocolate that I started in 2005 with some very like-minded people. Its purpose is to raise the awareness of real chocolate as opposed to chocolate confectionery and the journey of the cacao bean to the chocolate bar. We run events, awards and a conference - and talk a lot about chocolate.

I'm currently revising my book (Chocolate: the Definitive Guide) for its third edition, and this time I've been promised it will be a very beautiful book. Between 1987 and last year, when I stopped, I calculated that I have made hundreds and hundreds of thousands of chocolate truffles.

I joke that I've got truffle elbow from dipping the set truffles into tempered chocolate. Other people can make really good truffles but I still think that I make some of the very best - I couldn't have made that many without thinking that, otherwise there would have been no point doing it. I don't miss the sheer hard labour. But I still love "real" chocolate.

You were appointed OBE in 2007 in the Queen's Birthday Honours List, how proud did that make you feel?
Exhilarated. It was odd because I'd just come back from Venezuela looking at cocoa plantations when a woman from 10 Downing Street called to ask if I'd had a chance to read their letter because they needed a reply. I was transported to a state of disbelief as I had not seen any correspondence - it was a very exciting moment. Of course, I was honoured to accept.

What are your proudest personal achievements to date?
Meeting my husband was quite cool. That was as a result of Michel Roux. We've been married 18 years this year. And the Catey was quite something. People kept saying, "Weren't you expecting it?" but do you think I would have gone up to that stage without putting on some lipstick and brushing my hair if I'd had any idea at all? Absolutely not.

I heard [Cateys presenter] James Nesbitt talking about the Ark and I assumed he must be referring to someone else. But then I heard something about chocolate, by which time Brian Turner, Richard Shepherd and David Foskett were all staring at me. And then I suddenly realised it was me.

In retrospect you can think of all the things that you should have said. When I got the video back, there I am mumbling about it being a team effort and I thought, "Good god, girl, couldn't you think of anything slightly more intelligent?"

If you could change one thing about the industry, what would it be?
The Government doesn't recognise its importance. They say they do, but it seems to be all lip service and the actions speak louder than words. The facts are there - the industry is growing; it's the fifth-largest contributor to the economy… but it just isn't taken seriously enough, which is demonstrated by the lack of value placed on food education.

It's not just about food and cookery, but food in the context of our lives; food in a holistic way, from plant to plate. It connects agriculture, the environment, animals; each bit of the journey is an important part of the industry and the economy.

Academy of Culinary Arts timeline
1980 Originally set up as the UK outpost of the Academie Culinaire de France by Michel Bourdin (president) and Albert Roux (vice-president)
1983 First Commis Chef of the Year
1987 First Meilleur Ouvrier de Grand Bretagne (renamed the Master of Culinary Arts in 2000)
1989 First academy apprenticeship launched in association with Bournemouth & Poole College
1990 Chefs Adopt a School launched
1993 Second apprenticeship programme launched, in association with Thames Valley University
1998 Renamed the Academy of Culinary Arts following a vote and a growing British membership
1999 The Prince of Wales becomes a patron
2004 Mutton Renaissance campaign launched in association with the Prince of Wales

Sara Jayne Stanes CV
1987 Joined the Guild of Food Writers
1999 Published Chocolate: the Definitive Guide
2004 Awarded Honorary Fellowship by Thames Valley University
2005 Launched Academy of Chocolate
2005 Published Chocolate: Discovering, Exploring, Enjoying
2006 Made Honorary Freeman of the Worshipful Company of Cooks
2007 Appointed OBE in the Queen's Birthday Honours
2011 Included in People 1st Top 100 Women in Hospitality
2011 Won Cateys Special Award
2012 Became Patron of the Edge Hotel School

Filmbank Distributors

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Filmbank logo
Filmbank Distributors is proud to sponsor the Cateys Special Award. As active supporters of great hospitality and service, we were delighted to see Sara Jayne Stanes recognised for her contribution to the hospitality industry as chief executive of the Academy of Culinary Arts.
Filmbank is the distributor of the acclaimed TV series Michel Roux's Service, which is available as a special DVD set.

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