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From Civvi Street to Combat Chef, to Veteran and Dietitian

How I got to where I am now…

I may be the UK’s only ex-Army Chef Dietitian. I absolutely loved my time in the Army, but decided to leave and follow my other passion to become a Dietitian. I love being a Dietitian and helping and working with people.

When I Was a Kid…

As a kid, I was always interested in food and cooking, with the classic of making mud pies! I would often then go into the kitchen to help mum with her baking…sometimes without washing my hands (as kids do)! I remember wondering why she would never eat my culinary delights (- funny that!)! But making pastry was ace at cleaning my dirty paws! Yuk! I loved cooking with my mum and Nan – they were both good cooks – Cooke by name, cook by nature!

kid cooking cookies

Careers Lessons at School 

At school as part of work experience I completed a few weeks working in a busy posh hotel kitchen – it was a fantastic experience and a right buzz. I’ve always been good at art – this also runs in my family, and in my final year of school I remember trying to decide what I’d do with my life. Such a big ask of a teenager. I thought I’d go to art college, but mum couldn’t afford it. During my final year at school, we had “Careers” lessons. Part of this entailed practising going for an interview. The school had managed to get a variety of people from different industries.

Interview Day!

I remember sitting outside the room waiting to be interviewed, not knowing what to expect or even who would be interviewing me; would it be a chef, would it be a solicitor or a banker…The door opened and out stepped a huge bloke that filled the doorway, wearing a khaki coloured suit with stripes on his upper arm, amazingly shiny boots and a shiny peak cap. ​

He invited me in and to take a seat. As I stepped into the room, I saw another bloke sat at the table, dressed the same as him. I was going to be interviewed by two soldiers! I felt nervous, but felt even worse when I saw that it was two soldiers. I remember talking to them about cooking and art, but also all the “phys” (“fizz”) (-short for physical training) they do, all the adventure training and travelling abroad! I was sold – I was going to join the Army!

Warrant Officer Soldier

Joining the Army

I always loved going for runs with our dog, going swimming, going to step aerobics with Mum and going out for bike rides (- Mum would sometimes drive out with me and my brother, with our bikes in the back and she’d drop us off so we could cycle home). This was totally out of the blue – it wasn’t as if I was following in the footsteps of my mum or dad or anything. I think Mum was gutted (but maybe also proud). A few months later I was an Apprentice chef, getting “beasted” as a kid soldier (but not a cadet) (– I was under 18yrs old so wasn’t even a Private, as in an adult recruit).

Grateful to the Army

​I’ve so much to be grateful to the Army for, and numerous experiences I would’ve never had as a civvi. I am a qualified chef with numerous qualifications in catering and food safety. If it wasn’t for the Army, I probably wouldn’t have been able to afford to learn to drive until in my twenties, but I done this through the Army for free! Cheers!

Army field kitchen

I’ve travelled to numerous places all over the world…some good, some bad, and been on some ace “sunshine tours” and learnt to scuba dive and paraglide…gaining a few more quals along the way! Rough with the smooth (!), as it’s not all been a bed of roses, such as in training I was bullied for being a skinny lil teenager – clearly this wouldn’t be allowed nowadays. I’ve been beasted until I felt like I was going to proper pile in, but you have to dig deep and find that inner strength to carry on. You may think what do I know, I was only a chef, but as a chef, you were “a soldier first, and a chef last”.

Military Skills

You have to be competent with military skills, such as handling and firing weapons; map reading; drill; and nuclear, biological & chemical (NBC – now changed to CBRN (chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear)) warfare. To get promoted I had to not only be good at my job (in order to get recommended for promotion), I had to go on additional catering courses (which involved military skills), but I also had to pass military courses, that included running around up and down hills in full kit with helmet and weapon; getting ragged around in full NBC kit, including respirator (sweating and making your cam cream dribble into your eyes underneath your mask – ouch); commanding my team to complete missions that included ambushes and section attacks.

I’ve been on Op Tours and been in some hairy situations and lost a few mates along the way. Having that inner strength and being able to rely on your team is essential, both in the military and as a civvi – life can throw rubbish at you, but you have to learn how to cope and manage. Many people that have not been in the military have never had to push themselves so hard – they’ve never been so physically and mentally exhausted. I think being in the Army has made me a more confident and stronger person than I would’ve been, had I have taken the alternative route, and stayed as a civvi.

Army field catering

Army Chef

As an Army chef, I learnt a little bit about nutrition and how to minimise the effect of storage and the cooking process on nutrients. I think a lot of people assume chefs have nutritional knowledge, but they don’t – unless they’ve done a separate course to study nutrition (and not all nutrition courses are based on sound science). I found nutrition and the impact of storage/cooking fascinating – I guess this played to my “sciencey” side – I really enjoyed science lessons at school. I was good at these subjects.

As I progressed through the Army, I needed to know more and more about nutrition, allergenic foods and GM (genetically modified) foods to ensure we as chefs, were compliant with the military standards.

We used to have annual inspections (and spot-checks) where the kitchen would be inspected for health and food safety, etc., but also our food service would be checked and tested. I felt I didn’t know enough about nutrition and food allergies and Coeliac disease, so I started researching it and done Open Uni nutrition courses as a starting point. This further stimulated my interest in nutrition and then I discovered dietetics!

I realised being a Dietitian would encompass numerous interests of mine, such as nutrition, cooking, health, disease, science and medicine. It was just a matter of when would I change careers. This was a big decision. I loved the Army, but was also keen for a new challenge and keen to get stuck into becoming, and being a Dietitian!

I’m also grateful to the Army for training me to be a chef. The “improvise, adapt and overcome” attitude of the Army is also true of Army chefs. We weren’t just slop jockeys!

I’ve been in a location on Tour and for various reasons, such as poor “viz” (visibility!) meaning the heli couldn’t land, so I didn’t get my resup (resupply) of rations. You then have to make your rations last as long as possible until they can get them out to you.

Making Something Out of Nothing!

You can end up adapting recipes and trying to make something out of nothing, making three meals per day, plus night rations and snacks.

magic

The lads never appreciated the difficulties – they would just expect their food to be there. I always wanted to do my very best by the lads – food is morale (or not, if you’re a rubbish cook!), food is comfort and is a break in the day, when the lads have been out grafting and you can see the sheer exhaustion written over they’re dirty, sweaty, faces. Whether in camp or out on Exercise or on Tour, I always believed chefs had an important role…an “Army marches on its stomach”, or so my Grandad would always tell me!

Unfortunately the lads didn’t always appreciate the scoff and would complain, even if the food was amazing. However, on Op Tours you don’t always know what they’ve been through. They may’ve had an awful day, so I always took it in my stride…not that they specifically complained about the food I had actually made. The lads used to say they could always tell which chef was on duty depending on the quality of the food!

Improvised Cookery

I learnt about improvised cookery, building make-shift cookers out of whatever we could find; or container cookery, where we would par-cook a suitable food, preheat a Norgy (Norwegian container – a big thermos container) and place the par-cooked food inside, collapse the field kitchen, bug out (scarper), go to the next location and depending how far away and the anticipated cooking time, we would open the Norgies and test the food for temperature, taste, etc. We done this so we could feed the lads without delay, due to having to re-setup our field kitchen.

Prior Experiences Shaping My Future

I feel all these experiences, both catering and military made it much easier for me to transition to being a skint student studying to become a Dietitian, living off a tight budget but still managing to have a healthy and balanced diet. But also helps me to pass on my knowledge and experience to patients that have limited budget, limited cooking ability, limited kitchen facilities (- however, not that I’ve had to build a mud cooker for myself as a student or recommended for a patient to make one!), and coming up with ideas and recipes for patients. I think every Dietitian should be able to cook – you need have a genuine interest in it and be able to walk the walk, to be able to help and assist patients/clients.

I am proud to say I am an Army veteran and I am proud of what I have accomplished. I think you can achieve anything if you put your heart and mind to it. I left school and joined the Army, left the Army and went to Uni – I had no A levels, only 9 GSCEs (A*-C grade, so not a total thicky!!), so I didn’t think I would get into Uni, and it turned out I didn’t need to do a Foundation degree either, so that was a bonus!

I completed my undergrad in human nutrition, done back-to-back with my dietetics degree (-think I was burnt out after all those years of studying and very keen to get back into full-time employment!). I qualified as an HCPC (Health & Care Professions Council) Dietitian, got a job in a fantastic hospital with a great team and then went back to Uni a few years later to do a sports nutrition degree.

After finding out I had got a place on an Sports Nutrition accredited course, I found out I was pregnant. This meant my daughter was born just after starting the course! This was a tough time too. I feel like I have to pinch myself because I now have 3 degrees under my belt, and one of these achieved whilst bringing up a small baby.

Future

Because of all this, I love working with the military in my capacity as a clinical and sports Dietitian – helping them improve their nutritional wellbeing in health and disease, and improve their physical performance, promoting a “Food First” approach to help reduce inappropriate (and sometimes harmful) supplement use. I feel I am well placed to do this, because I know what it’s like to be a soldier – I have first-hand experience and can appreciate that it’s more than a job, it’s a lifestyle, which can be exceptionally tough at times.

Dig in!

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