After leaving his role as a chef in the Military 20 years ago, Jason Church was uncertain about where life would take him. Now, he has found a new career with pioneering contract caterer, Harbour & Jones.
What’s your Military background?
I joined the Military in 1989 as an Aircraftman in the RAF. Initially I was offered four trades and I chose to sign up as a cook. I completed my basic training at Aldershot and remained within the Catering Corps for the duration of my time with the RAF.
I left the RAF in 1996, by which time I had progressed to become a Senior Aircraftman.
How was your resettlement?
It was a real culture shock at first, having to pay for everything! In the Forces, all dentist and optician costs are covered so this was a big adjustment to make. I went to live with my grandparents initially while I got used to the civilian way of doing things.
In my first few civvy street roles I was working in kitchens with no discipline, which I found difficult. I then went to work in four star hotels where I really advanced my culinary skills, particularly in French classic cookery – for example, how to make a ‘jus’ using foie gras.
How did you get involved with Harbour & Jones?
After working in many four star hotels, I went on to work for almost every contract caterer going, including Aramark, Baxter & Platts, Sodexo and Restaurant Associates, where I built up a huge amount of experience.
It came at a good time. Trevor Hand (Company Chef at Harbour & Jones) approached me about a Hospitality Head Chef role at a law firm. I jumped at the offer and soon found myself as a part of H&J. I really enjoyed this role but decided after a while to try a career change, accepting a role in Health & Safety Compliance with a pharmaceutical company. I soon realised, though, that this wasn’t for me and that I missed the kitchen and H&J terribly.
I rang Director of Food at H&J, Gary Mckechnie, and we spoke about a number of suitable roles. I’m now pleased to say that I have returned to H&J as the Executive Head Chef at another prestigious law firm, where I completed a mobilisation to a brand new building in the first few months of the role. We offer fine dining, a Partners’ Dining Lounge, events catering and a staff restaurant to all the 1,200 employees on site.
In the restaurant we serve a breakfast and lunch service, for which there are also live theatre bars. There’s a real focus on fresh seasonal produce with H&J and plenty of support on-hand from the company chefs.
When catering is featured on television and the like, it often looks like quite an intense working environment. Are there parallels in this sense with the Armed Forces?
Working under pressure and working in a disciplined environment are parallel aspects of a job. The type of food, the quantities and the family environment are also similar. Procurement can be a challenge, as that’s all done for you in the Forces. I think the catering in an Officers’ mess is similar to fine dining within contract catering. Due diligence is also an element that ex-Military personnel can relate to.
Why are Harbour & Jones interested in speaking with Service-leavers? What are the skills and attributes they’re most interested in?
The industry could do with a few more highly disciplined chefs with an eye for detail. Service personnel are good at implementing structure, multitasking and working in a team. They tend to be meticulous, professional and focused. On the whole, these assets make us very well suited to contract catering roles.
Do you miss being in the Forces?
Yes, I miss the sport – and the camaraderie that is unique to the Military – although being a part of the H&J team is always energetic and a lot of fun. I don’t particularly miss the food in the Military; it wasn’t anything like the stuff we make now at H&J – there was a lot of shepherd’s pie and lasagne if I remember rightly! Things have probably changed now though!
What’s the best thing about being back on civvy street?
The independence, both financial and career-related, and the sense of freedom have to be the best things about being back on civvy street.