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Chef's Pass - inploi meets Helen Woodcraft and Matt Kemp

Chef's Pass - inploi meets Helen Woodcraft and Matt Kemp inploi Team | 19.09.2016

London is raising its food game. Over the past decade, the city has witnessed a remarkable boom in restaurant openings, offering world-class dining experiences; expanding the UK’s already burgeoning culinary food scene. Following the culinary forefathers (now commonly seen on various television cookery shows such as Great British Menu, Masterchef and the BBC’s most recent Yes Chef!), there is a new generation of top talent appearing on London’s restaurant scene. 

With all this talent, and profile raising, it is easy to assume that the London restaurant scene is thriving. And it is. However, there is also an ongoing challenge in hospitality staffing. According to Springboard, over half of available chef vacancies are difficult to fill as there continues to be a growing chef shortage in hospitality venues across the UK. Admittedly, working in hospitality is not like working in many other industries. More often than not, roles involve long (and often anti-social hours), and ultimate lifestyle implications that would not be suitable to everyone.

At present there are various governmental schemes to get people working in the hospitality industry; the number one solution being an increase in apprenticeships. The alternative option for job seekers (or those looking for a career change later in life) is perhaps to pursue a less formal hospitality education, one with a more practical, hands-on approach - learning through short-term training courses and gaining experience in working kitchens, cafes and bars. 

This week, we interviewed two of London’s top chefs, who are a testament to the fact that a less conventional route into the industry is not as risky or unusual as one might think. And that even at a later stage in your career, it is never too late to pursue a rewarding career in the London hospitality industry.

Introducing inploi’s Industry Innovators - Helen Woodcraft, Junior Sous Chef at Ducksoup in Soho, and Matt Kemp, former chef at Theo Randall’s River Cafe and Founder of the Underground Cookery School, based in Shoreditch. 

Helen Woodcraft, Junior Sous Chef, Ducksoup

Helen Woodcraft, Junior Sous Chef, Ducksoup

For both Helen and Matt, their love of food began at an early age, cooking with family, travelling overseas and watching television celebrities, such as Keith Floyd. Food always carried a social and emotional significance. Helen somewhat ‘fell’ into the restaurant industry. Having become disenchanted with her career in architecture, she tried her hand working front of house at a restaurant for a few months, before realising she would rather be on the other side of the pass. Matt equally loved cooking for family and friends, and with some great luck, timing (and friendly connections), was able to host a dinner for Theo Randall - owner of the River Cafe, London’s iconic Michelin-starred Italian restaurant. Working with Theo Randall, and in Helen’s case, Tom Hill - Head Chef at Ducksoup, both chefs were given a very practical culinary education. This time was formative and invaluable to both chefs, not only inspiring them to pursue a career in the field, but also teaching them the essential skills of professional chefs.

Matt Kemp, Founder, Underground Cookery School

Matt Kemp, Founder, Underground Cookery School

“I still believe the only way to learn organisational skills, and how to be prepared when working in a professional kitchen is by gaining practical experience.” - Matt

“I kind of looked around 6 months later and thought...'Blimey, I'm a chef...!?' And just carried on from there!” - Helen

At Ducksoup, the menu changes every two weeks. Inspired by seasonality, travelling abroad and the introduction of new ingredients and techniques, even after 18 months, Helen is kept on her toes, insisting that each plate of food should make the customer say "yum", and want to wipe round it with some bread!

Choosing to take a side-step in his career, Matt established The Underground Cookery School in 2003. The cookery school focuses on parties, team-building and corporate events, providing Londoners with a high-class cooking and dining experience. Classes are led by Matt, alongside newly-appointed Head Chef, Martyn Reynolds, teaching clients how to cook stunning fine-dining menus.

Ducksoup, Soho

Ducksoup, Soho

Although there have been highlights along their way, it seems that the journey rather than the goal is what keeps Helen and Matt motivated in their ambitions and profession. Memories are collective, most often formed from the shared experience. How mysteriously a service comes together through a telepathic ballet of chefs working together in a kitchen, whilst still managing to sing along to MagicFM, or watching a showcase film that summarises and embodies the hard graft, dedication and teamwork of past years.

Yes, there are late nights, stressful services, low-wages at the bottom and higher risks at the top, but ultimately, Helen and Matt wouldn’t choose to be doing anything else. 

Underground Cookery School, Shoreditch

Underground Cookery School, Shoreditch

We asked the pair what traits they believe are essential for becoming a chef. The list was extensive (but well-founded having come straight from the horses’ mouth!), and runs as follows:

  1. Resilience to pressure
  2. Organisation
  3. Physical and mental stamina
  4. People skills
  5. Love and care about food
  6. Honesty
  7. Integrity
  8. Technical ability
  9. Passion
  10. A desire to learn and keep up to date with trends
  11. A desire to better oneself

A few final words of wisdom...

“If you're serious, try to do some shifts for free in a restaurant you like. Ideally more than one - the working atmosphere and style varies a lot. Restaurant cooking itself doesn't have to be hugely different from cooking at home.” - Helen

“Try and work in the best possible kitchens, don't cut corners when it comes to technical ability, recognise an opportunity when it enviably arises and grab it.” - Matt

See more from our Chef’s Pass series here: Chef’s Pass - inploi meets Tom George, Tim Healey and Lawrence Hartley

Images courtesy of Ducksoup and Sauce Communications.

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