After clinching the LACA’s School Chef of the Year title this year, we caught up with 29-year-old Raheem Morgan to discuss his journey to the top.

Where were you born and raised?

I’m originally from Jamaica but I came over to the UK at a tender age and have been here all my life really. I was brought up in Lewisham in South East London.

Tell us how and why you became a chef?

I left school not really knowing what I wanted to do but food tech was always one of my favourite and strongest classes. I earned good grades and I realised that it was something I was good at and had a passion for. Catering college made a lot of sense to me so I enrolled at Lewisham College to complete my level 1, 2 and 3 NVQs and I have honestly not looked back since.

How did you get to be in your current role?

Prior to joining the school catering sector, I spent nearly a decade working in the fast-paced, fine dining sector for 4 and 5-star hotels and rosette restaurants. While working at the Park Plaza, I felt I needed some time to reassess where I wanted my career path to take me so I took a year off. I was planning on going back into the hotel kitchens but Chartwells got in touch with a role and it was something that immediately excited me. I had never really considered the education sector before but the more I thought about it, the more I knew this was the path for me.

What do you love most about your job and the education sector?

Everyday I feel like I am making a difference and having an impact on the children’s education, wellbeing and lives in general. It’s incredibly rewarding. The meals we provide might be the only hearty meal they eat that day so the job has become a huge passion of mine. Also, just cooking for kids and watching them try new things and enjoy their food puts a smile on my face. It’s as simple as that. I have been in the education sector for four years and it is a fantastic career path. The training and development is excellent and there are so many different routes up the ladder that you can take as a chef.

What was your experience of food at school?

School meals were vital for me growing up. I benefited from the free school meals programme so they were very important to my health, development and they are special food memories for me. I think the quality and choice of school meals has improved massively since I was a boy but I still think back to the school classics like the crumbles, the cakes, the custards.

How was the whole School Chef of the Year experience?

I had entered the School Chef of the Year competition in the previous three years and have finished runner up each time, so it was fantastic to go one better and take the crown on my fourth try.

How did you approach this year’s competition compared to previous years?

This time I took a different approach and tried to bring more of my fine dining and hospitality skills to the table. I really utilised the skills and techniques I used on a daily basis in some of the restaurant and hotel kitchens where I worked.
My previous year’s dishes were not as refined. This year I did a crispy Asian fishcake with edamame beans, a miso purée, a wasabi mayonnaise and a crispy garnish. Everything worked in harmony and it was a flavour-packed fish cake. My dessert was a deconstructed lime and coconut cheesecake with an apple and basil gel, cherry compote, apple and cinnamon crisp and a meringue.

What is your favourite meal of the day and why?

My evening meal is the one I always look forward to most. After finishing work, cooking in the evening is my relaxation time so I love to research dishes online and on social media and give them a go. Cooking for me is therapeutic.

What are your three kitchen secrets for chefs starting out in their careers?

  1. Enjoy the moment
  2. Be willing to learn and push yourself
  3. Grasp every opportunity to learn

If you weren’t a chef, what do you think you would be?

I was always good with computers so maybe a career in IT somewhere but art was my other passion. It was probably a close-run thing between art and catering but there is synergy between both. Creating and plating food is art to me. It’s about a vision and getting across that vision to the diner.

What is your favourite ingredient and why?

I love my spice, and cayenne pepper is one that has become one of my go-to spices. It provides depth, heat and can be used in a variety of dishes.

Who are you most proud to have cooked for?

I had a cook-off with Tom Kerridge at my school in December which was a dream come true. He is one of my all-time heroes and he is just an amazing guy. He’s so down to earth, friendly and you can see he really cares about food, catering and kids.

Is there anyone who you would love to cook for?

I would love to cook for Gordon Ramsey. I’ve been brought up watching him on TV so he would be the ultimate and I would love to show him what I can do.

What are your next goals, plans and aspirations for the future?

I don’t think I’m finished with competitions just yet and there are already a couple of others that I have my eye on such as Finishing Touches and Compass Chef of the Year.

Career-wise, where do you see yourself one day?

I love my work in education but like every chef, I do have a dream to have my own place someday. Something small, maybe in the countryside.

What’s been the most stressful time in your career and how did you get through it?

The most stressful time for me was when I was starting out in the industry. You leave college and arrive in these high-end restaurants and kitchens and it can be a bit daunting. When you’re so young, the stress and pressure can almost turn you away so you have to be determined. Once you push through those initial difficult days, it’s an incredibly rewarding career. You need to be motivated, determined and tough but at the same time you can’t do it without the support of the team around you.

How can the catering industry improve?

I think the pressure on chefs is far less than it was a few years ago. I think people in the industry are communicating better and that is going to be vital if we want to fill the skills shortage in the industry. The catering industry has to attract some new blood so we need to better portray the true benefits of being a chef, the career it can provide and the places it can take you. I think we need to start young and really capture the imagination of the kids. Cooking classes in schools – it’s about encouraging them slowly. We’re looking to introduce this in the next school year.