The NACC Care Cook of the Year contest was 21-year-old Alex Morte's first ever chef competition. Katey Pigden tells how he earned the title
And at the age of 21, chef de partie Alex Morte, who has been working at the care home since it opened in 2014, is the youngest person to have walked away with the national title. In his first-ever competition, Morte stood out as the "clear winner" at the National Association of Care Catering (NACC) Care Cook of the Year 2016 final on 8 June. He represented the South East region for the NACC and also won the highly commended main course award for his dish of grilled hake, charred asparagus, pea purée, crispy dill potatoes, crispy bacon and grilled vine cherry tomatoes.
For dessert he produced a dark chocolate and salted caramel delice with a chocolate tuile. Morte said: "I decided to use hake as it's a bit different, but for the other elements of the dish, I used a classic combination of flavours. I produce similar food at work and the most important thing is that the residents enjoy it. They are all very happy about the news and my boss is very happy - it's a very happy place."
The competition, which has been running since 2000, saw a total of 12 chefs battle it out at Barking & Dagenham's Technical Skills Academy. They had just 90 minutes to produce a nutritionally balanced and innovative two-course menu suitable for customers in a care environment at a cost of £1.50 per head based on three servings. The judges were looking for innovation, costing, suitability for the care environment, adherence to nutritional guidelines, taste and menu balance.
Despite Morte's lack of competition experience, he remained calm and confident throughout and demonstrated excellent cooking kills and technique, resulting in well-presented dishes offering a real depth of flavour.
Alex Morte's winning dishes
Morte developed a strong passion for cooking throughout his childhood and started out as a kitchen porter when he left school. He progressed to making desserts and began an apprenticeship at the now-closed Dining Room in Hersham. Having worked his way up to sous chef, Morte then moved to a gastropub in Hampton Wick before joining the team at care home Coombe Hill Manor under head chef Matt Dodge. The care home has between 90 to 100 residents and the chefs cook breakfast, lunch and dinner each day and support residents with special purées and soft diets.
Morte said: "I couldn't be happier to have won. It's a great feeling and I'm absolutely over the moon. I was nervous at first, but once I got into the kitchen and started cooking, I found it a really enjoyable experience."
"It's taken a while for it to sink in properly but I think it finally has now. It was great to see all the other chefs in action and to learn from them. It gave me a different perspective; overall it was a very enjoyable day."
He added: "I typed my name into Google the next day and it was a fantastic feeling seeing all these stories about my win pop up. I think everyone goes into the final thinking they can win and I was happy with how the food turned out. I was hoping to win but also prepared for the worst. Then my name was called out for the highly commended main course, so I knew I was at least going home with something. I'm looking forward to the year ahead and taking part in demonstrations on behalf of the NACC."
The judges also presented Martin McKee from the Midlands region with the highly commended dessert award for his white chocolate mousse, coconut sponge and passion fruit curd. McKee was also named NACC Care Cook of the Year 2016 runner-up, while Alan Cash of Mildenhall Lodge, Care UK, also from the South East region, took third place overall.
Neel Radia, national chair of the NACC, offered his congratulations to Morte and praised the other 11 finalists for ensuring such fierce competition. He said: "This year saw an unprecedented number of entries from across the UK. Every year I am amazed by the culinary skills displayed by the chefs, which is testament to the high standards in the care sector. This fantastic competition just gets better and better. Alex should be incredibly proud of his title. All of the competitors are great ambassadors for the exciting and rewarding care catering sector. They all demonstrated great expertise and understanding of the complex nutritional, dietary and dining needs of those in a care environment."
He added: "Catering for the elderly and vulnerable comes with specific challenges, including the risk of malnutrition and the impact of reduced appetites and eating difficulties caused by conditions such as dementia and dysphagia. Care caterers do an incredible job in overcoming these challenges, creating exciting and appealing meals to ensure the wellbeing of those entrusted to their care.
"The NACC Care Cook of the Year competition gives us a fantastic platform to celebrate and champion the talented and dedicated chefs in our sector."
The winners and finalists
- Peter McGregor, Perry Manor Care Home, Worcester
- Martin McKee, the Hawthorns, Aldridge
- Ryan Blake, Sunrise Senior Living of Mobberley, Knutsford
- Julian Gabrielli, Sunrise Senior Living of Hale Barns, Altrincham
- John Grover, Meallmore Ltd, Ivybank House Care Home, Polmont, Falkirk
- Stuart Middleton, Meallmore Ltd, Meallmore Lodge, Daviot, Inverness
South east region
- Alan Cash, Mildenhall Lodge, Care UK, Mildenhall, Suffolk
- Alex Morte, Signature Senior Lifestyle, Coombe Hill Manor, Kingston upon Thames
South west region
- Christopher McDonald, the Check House Nursing Home, Seaton
- Anthony Proffitt, Kimberley Court Care Home, Newquay
- Kevin Beebe, Y Plas Care Home, Carmarthenshire County Council, Llanelli
Simon Harris - Claremont Court Nursing Home, Newport
Winner Alex Morte
Second place Martin McKee
Third place Alan Cash
Highly commended (main course) Alex Morte
Highly commended (dessert) Martin McKee
Words from the 2015 winner
Oliver Smith, head chef at Wetherby Manor, Hadrian Healthcare Group "Winning the NACC Care Cook of the Year 2015 competition was definitely a defining moment in my career. So many great opportunities have opened up for me and I have experienced and learned so much more in one year than I could have ever imagined. "Sharing my expertise through culinary demonstrations is a new dimension to my working life, and not something I had considered before. I have presented in front of large audiences at the NACC Training & Development Forum 2015, Food Matters Live, and I also went to a seminar about dysphagia in Paris. Although nerve-wracking at first, this has been a great way to increase my knowledge and confidence.
"My success has also raised my profile at work. The competition recognised and confirmed my culinary skills and knowledge of catering in the care sector, and as a result I have taken on greater responsibilities, which I am relishing.
"I now have a new perspective and approach as a chef in a care environment. My understanding of conditions such as dysphagia and dementia has grown significantly thanks to the people I have met and the events I have attended. Because of this I am more driven by the residents' needs and enjoyment rather than the budget, spending more time with them to identify any issues and find solutions. This has made a real difference to the residents and made my job even more satisfying.
"My advice to Alex is to seize every opportunity offered to you. Even if it's daunting, embrace it and give it your all. Learn from everyone you meet and everything you experience. A year from now you will be proud of what you've achieved and how far you have come."
- Flavours, colours and textures
- Nutritional content
- Working practices
- Awareness of client group
- Use of Premier Food brands (competition sponsor)
- Simon Fooks, liveryman, Worshipful Company of Cooks (chair of the judges)
- Juan Pahl, curriculum manager of food studies and hospitality, Barking & Dagenham College
- Oliver Smith, head chef, Wetherby Manor and NACC Care Cook of the Year 2015
- Louise Wagstaff, senior culinary advisor, Premier Foods
- Andrew Archer, managing director, Dewberry Redpoint
- Katey Pigden, senior reporter, The Caterer
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