Supporting people to be the best they can be

The young man pointed to the side of his face where surgeons had inserted the metal plate. When asked if the police caught his attackers, he shrugged. No. “They were all wearing balaclavas”, he told me, flatly.

Matthew, 16, was one of 70 budding young chefs from local colleges competing at this year’s North East Culinary and Trade Association (NECTA) awards in Gosforth’s Grand Hotel. He had almost dropped out, after his assault. “Cooking helped me cope”, he said. “After a few depressing weeks, I jumped back into it. Right after surgery, I went straight back to college and started cooking [again].”

Douglas Jordan is a chef with decades of experience in top restaurants.  He’s the driving force behind NECTA.   “Would you come along and say some encouraging words, Jamie?” he asked me.  “Being recognised for their skills means so much to these young people.” 

The competition boosts the profile and quality of the North East’s hospitality trade. In a cavernous room bordered with banners promoting pizza ovens and kitchen equipment, Matthew and the next generation of Masterchefs and Michelin Star winners worked with Zen-like focus in makeshift kitchens.  Above them, extractor fans roared.  Around them, teachers, families, and friends watched the teenage cooks competed in their chosen category.  Cold starters, hot desserts, sugarcraft, cocktail making. Judges prowled, watchful. “It’s quieter than a Glaswegian funeral!”, exclaimed the announcer, in a heavy Scottish accent.

“Cooking is my passion”, said Jasmine, 19, from Newcastle College. She started four years ago and now gains experience – and wages – in a professional kitchen.  She’s calm, softly spoken, confident. “You’ve got to put a lot of work in to make your name”, she told me. Later, her chocolate orange fondant, flambéed with orange liquor won second place in the Hot Dessert category.

As the day went on, the medals, trophies, and awards mounted up on college tables and around necks. Rewards reaped from years of investment. Investment by, and into, these young people. Thousands of hours of graft spent in classrooms and hot kitchens. Carving out a future. Chasing a dream.

Clearly, the competition is about so much more than just who can make the best venison terrine or decorate a cake. “Getting students involved gives them a lot of confidence and broadens their horizons”, remarked Michael Dodds, Chef Lecturer at Newcastle College, and mentor to many of the day’s winners. “It’s massively beneficial for them.”

I left school at sixteen, the same age as many of the young chefs in that room. In the depths of the Thatcher recession, good jobs were scarce.  Now, as the elected Mayor of the North of Tyne Combined Authority, my primary purpose is to create jobs. Good jobs.

And creating jobs is exactly what we’re doing. Over 4,500 and counting – backed by our Good Work Pledge, which means fair pay, workers are listened to and looked after, and get the chance of training and progression.  Jobs for people like Jasmine, and Matthew – who would later win joint silver for his fish preparation skills, fastidiously filleting and presenting the cuts for the judges to scrutinise.  Who pushed himself to compete in a packed room, despite his horrific ordeal leaving him feeling anxious in crowds.  Whose resilience, grit, and dedication will be invaluable to any employer.

Walking around that hall, the camaraderie between the students was palpable.  The tension of the competition visceral.  Everywhere I looked I could see investment. A teenager who’d dedicated hundreds of hours into perfecting her craft. A teacher who’d spent years mentoring his students. Recruiters – from local companies such as the Inn Collection to national organisations like The Royal Navy – looking to invest in these young people’s futures. The event organisers putting their time and money into giving the next generation a platform, investing in their own replacements.

Phrases like “helping them reach their full potential” are so overused they’ve become clichés. But that doesn’t mean there’s no value in them. Everything in that room that day was about exactly that: supporting people to be the best they can. When asked what inspired him, Matthew replied “I try to make myself the inspiration”. And by the end of that day, he’d done exactly that.

*Originally printed in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 16 May 22