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Robert Rees: Policy maker

26 January 2006

Robert Rees has got so many fingers in so many pies that it's difficult to describe exactly what he does. Suffice to say the MBE he was awarded on 1 January was in recognition of his tireless work in seeking to initiate change and improvements in the British food culture via his membership of a host of regional and national working groups on food procurement, health, education and food safety.

"Even my mother doesn't understand what I do," he jokes. Although he may not have the nationwide fame of Gordon Ramsay or Heston Blumenthal, he has a high profile in his adopted county of Gloucestershire, where he is known as the Cotswold Chef.

It was never Rees's intention to become embroiled in policy issues: he started life in the county as successful chef-proprietor of the Country Elephant restaurant in Painswick, which he sold in 2000. His move from working chef to committee supremo was a gradual process that almost took him by surprise.

"Basically I'm passionate and knowledgeable about food and I'm a facilitator - I help to bring people together to make things happen," he says. It is easy see how Rees, 37, achieves this. Not only is he a great communicator, but he is also enormously charismatic - traits that probably stem from a happy, middle-class upbringing. A public school education and frequent foreign holidays combined with cheeky chappie characteristics honed in his native Essex make a potent mix. Think of an older, upmarket Jamie Oliver.

So what propelled Rees into his current life, sitting on public bodies such as the Food Standards Agency, the British Nutrition Foundation and the School Food Trust?
"I started to get very tired running the restaurant and began to hope that no one would come in - I knew then that I needed a break," he admits. A local newspaper advert asking for businesses to help develop projects in schools offered him his new challenge. "I did a demonstration for 60 primary school kids and found it truly inspirational," he recalls.

One thing led to another, and Rees eventually became involved in setting up a new GCSE course in catering at Maidenhill School in Stonehouse, Gloucestershire. "The only way to bring about change in the way our
kids eat is by developing a whole-school approach to food and that means getting food into as many subjects on the curriculum as possible," he says, passionately.

For many people the school campaigning would have been enough, but not for Rees. Added to his natural ability to inspire schoolchildren about food, he discovered a love for showing off and waxing lyrical about British produce - a fact not only spotted and capitalised on by Gloucestershire Tourism (which has used him to host numerous lunches) but also by VisitBritain (which has recruited him as a roving ambassador) and by Trade Investment UK and Food from Britain. These days, it's not unusual for Rees to demonstrate the best of British produce in such far-flung locations as Delhi, Bangalore, Hong Kong, Singapore and Abu Dhabi. In March he will be cooking at the British Embassy in Tokyo.

"I love the work I do abroad - the produce really speaks for itself and makes my job so easy," says Rees, whose interest in local food started in 1999 when he paid his first visit to Stroud Farmers' Market. "Up until that point I'd never knowingly used local produce before. I couldn't believe what I saw - the most fantastic quality and variety of food from about 45 Gloucestershire producers."

Food ambassador

As his interest in the provenance of food grew, so did his involvement in promotional bodies, including Taste of the West, South West Food and Drink, and Food Links. He is currently the food ambassador for Gloucestershire Food Vision, an organisation that is integrating every aspect of food policy in the county - in the education and health sectors as well as the hospitality and tourism industries.

A major public appointment came in 2000 when Rees was chosen to join the 14-member board of the newly formed Food Standards Agency (FSA), led by chairman Professor Sir John Krebs. "When I first walked into the room, I thought, shit, I'm really out of my depth here with professors and MBE holders, but I quickly learnt an awful lot."

But Rees realised that as an ordinary member of the public in touch with farmers' markets and the like, he could contribute by communicating to key stakeholders the FSA's messages about food safety and labelling.

It was at about that time that Rees decided to sell the Country Elephant. With a divorce recently behind him, it was time to concentrate on his new professional interests.

The FSA - of which he was a member for four years - provided him with a small annual income of £8,000, which he supplemented by cooking for dinner parties. Today his main income is from running cookery courses - under the Cotswold Chef brand - at his newly refurbished kitchen in his home in the tiny hamlet of Far Oakridge, overseas demonstrations and small payments from one or two of the public bodies on which he sits. "I have to be careful to balance the policy work with the work that actually pays," he smiles.

Much of this year will be devoted to two major projects - the Gloucestershire Chef Excellence programme, which Rees is currently setting up with Gloucestershire Hospitality Education and Tourism, and the School Food Trust, set up by the Department of Education and Skills last year to provide independent advice to schools and parents to improve the standard of school meals.

Skilful workforce

Central to the Gloucestershire Chef Excellence programme is the premise that the county requires a well-motivated and skilful workforce in order to maintain and develop its hospitality and tourism industries, which employ 19,700 people and earn £590m a year for the local economy.

Backed by a £90,000 grant from the Learning and Skills Council in Gloucestershire, the programme - aimed at chefs de partie, sous chefs and head chefs - could help the county's restaurants, hotels and pubs become the best managed in the UK, Rees says.

"In putting the programme together, we are working with the industry to provide what it wants - an NVQ level 3 package and beyond, presented in a very sexy, engaging way. We will cover a wide range of subjects and include a head chefs' forum, where delegates can network and swap best practice."

A key element of the programme will be the Institute of Leadership and Management's Introductory Certificate in First Line Management, with training delivered by the Forest of Dean College and Gloucestershire College of Arts and Technology. The first 30 students are being recruited, and the course is expected to get under way later this year.

Rees's appointment to the School Food Trust no doubt resulted from his involvement in schools - with regard to meals being served and food education - since the late 1990s.

"I hope we can help bring about a transformation in school meals and a culture in schools that doesn't just value learning to eat, but realises you need to eat to learn," he says.

Central to all of Rees's work is his belief that British food culture is the best it has even been. "I'm not just talking about the excellent artisan products we now have all around us - I also mean the improvements that have been made in mass-produced food," he says.

But what of the future? He has a job for life in food education, training and promotion, and at present that suits his personal life. He and second wife Renata, who is head of rural policy at the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs, had their first child, Jack, just before Christmas. "I want to spend as much time with him as possible," Rees says. But one day he would love to run another restaurant. "The danger of working on so much policy stuff is you can become one of them. It is important not to lose touch with reality."

Robert Rees: a snapshot Rees was born in 1968 and raised in Essex. His father was a foreign exchange dealer in the City and his mother a home economics teacher. "I was lucky enough to travel the world with my parents and stay in some wonderful hotels," he says. "Staying at the Sonesta Beach hotel in Bermuda at the age of 11 and being served afternoon tea from a beautiful silver tea urn by a chef wearing what I thought was the tallest hat in the world, I knew then that I wanted to become a chef."

After enjoying a private education at Forest School in Snaresbrook, on the edge of the Epping Forest - "the only reason
I got in was that I impressed the headmaster with the fact that I could cook tarte tatin" - Rees attended Westminster College from 1984 to 1987.

His first job was as first commis at the Royal Crescent hotel, Bath, before arriving in London in 1989 to join Le Gavroche. He returned to the Royal Crescent in 1991 as chef de partie, before spending a year at the Hyatt Regency in the Cayman Islands. Back in the UK, he returned to Bath, this time to the newly opened Bath Spa as senior sous chef.

Rees's first head chef position came about when he was headhunted to run the kitchen at Splinters restaurant in Christchurch, Dorset. The experience eventually led him to buy his own restaurant in 1994 - backed financially by his brother, John - the Country Elephant in Painswick, Gloucestershire. In subsequent years the restaurant achieved two AA rosettes and a Michelin Bib Gourmand. Rees sold the restaurant in 2000 to concentrate on his burgeoning activities in the field of food policy.

Setting up a training scheme Rees says the Gloucestershire Chef Excellence programme could be replicated throughout the country. It provides the following tips for launching a new training initiative:

  • Ensure you are fully informed about all national policies on training and ensure your scheme meets all local, regional and national requirements.
  • Choose the right partners - you need people who can deliver the training you require.
  • Be as open as you can - encourage people to see what you are doing.
  • Create a blog site to encourage chefs and other interested parties to let you know their training requirements.
    See www.chefexcellence.blogspot.com
  • Develop a good relationship with the local media. Don't just send them a press release - invite them in to see what you are doing and talk to them about your strategy. They will help you on your journey.
  • It will take time, but don't give up… and have fun.
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