Justin Clarke, Chair of the LACA School Chef of the Year Judging Panel

At MAGGI®, we are proud to sponsor LACA School Chef of the Year, a competition that celebrates the talent, passion and achievements of the chefs who feed our nation’s children every single day.  


Justin Clarke, Nestlé Professional Development Chef and Chair of the LACA School Chef of the Year judging panel, tells us why it’s time to combat old school perceptions about school food and why school cooks should be recognised as chefs in their own right.

As a judge, what does the competition mean to you?
For me, it’s all about celebrating the incredible talent and achievement of school chefs. Over the course of the 5 years I’ve been involved with the competition, I’ve witnessed some incredible talent, passion and skill. Day in day out, school chefs produce tasty and balanced meals for our children – often on very tight budgets – yet still we are faced with longstanding negative perceptions about school food. Through the competition, we want to change this. It’s time to elevate school cooks to be recognised as chefs in their own right.
Why does MAGGI support the competition?
As a business, we are passionate about nutrition, health and wellness, and these are the core values of the competition.  In some cases, a school dinner might be the only balanced meal a child gets each day so the importance of this can’t be underestimated.
Why should managers encourage school chefs to enter?
This is so much more than just a competition. It’s a platform for school chefs to have a voice – an opportunity for their work to be recognised and their accomplishments celebrated. The competition is a great way for chefs to build on their skills, knowledge and confidence, and they can bring this back to the team.
It’s also a fantastic endorsement for the school, the LEA and the region – the title is really respected and generates a lot of publicity. Many SCOTY winners find that their Headteacher is so proud of their success that they share the news far and wide, using it as an opportunity to reach out to parents and the local community to educate them on the high standard of meals being offered to their children. Equally, the LEA will look on the school and its catering team as an exemplar.
I would urge line managers to support and encourage staff to enter. You’ll need to give them the time to experiment and test their menus, and your feedback and critique will be essential. It’s a fantastic opportunity to work together on something that has the potential to positively affect everyone in your organisation, your school and your region.
What should managers do if they have more than one candidate in mind for the competition?
Holding your own internal heat for the competition can be the perfect way to identify your SCOTY champion and create a bit of local buzz. It will also give candidates the chance to have a dry run at competition conditions and the recipes generated can be put to good use on your school’s next menu cycle – it’s win win!
What are your tips for a winning recipe?
As a judge, I look for creative menus that are well thought through, show a clear understanding of the School Food Standards  , , and are balanced dishes that children are excited about eating!
Try to use pulses and vegetables in a creative way – two of my favourite dishes from last year’s competition were chicken curry using blended chickpeas, spices and herbs to make the curry paste and seasoned with fresh lime juice, and a beetroot sponge that was so tasty the pupil judges couldn’t get enough of it! Also consider vegetarian dishes and free-from options – it’s important to make dishes inclusive for all.
Don’t forget to consider how the food will look on the plate – kids eat with their eyes even more so than adults! At the same time, don’t go overboard on flavours – sometimes simplicity is best.
It’s also important to demonstrate clever application of MAGGI products – for example a potato bread using MAGGI Mashed Potato featured in last year’s competition and I was really impressed with how the chef had thought outside the box. I always tell people to visit the Nestlé Professional website to get to know the MAGGI ingredients before entering – consider how you can use them differently and research how other people are using them in unusual or innovative ways.”
How do you know if you’re SCOTY material?
If you identify with at least one of the following characteristics, then you could be the next SCOTY winner:
  • Outgoing
  • Want to better yourself / do more
  • Want to be recognised for your achievements, skill and hard work
  • Keen
  • Want to promote healthy school food
  • Passionate about what you do and local ingredients
  • Have a desire to innovate 
Why should chefs consider entering?
The SCOTY competition offers a lot of selling points, in fact I can’t really see a downside to entering! My top benefits for entering are:
  • It’s a great growth opportunity
  • It will boost your confidence
  • Experience from past SCOTY winners shows us that winning the competition can increase your potential for promotion – I’ve seen quite a few people moving up after taking part in SCOTY
  • You get to learn from other chefs, share ideas and bounce new recipes off each other
  • It will open your eyes to new ingredients and different ways of using them
  • You’ll make long-lasting friendships
  • It’s a great opportunity to network with other schools and organisations involved with school food
What advice do you have for chefs who are nervous about entering?
Try not to be nervous. You might not feel confident enough now but believe me I have seen how chefs blossom in this competition. You’ll be amazed what a boost it can give you.
As a SCOTY winner, you will be exposed to a world of opportunity packed with once-in-a-lifetime experiences. LACA and Nestlé Professional will support you throughout the entire process and you will make some brilliant friendships along the way. 
Seize the opportunity to challenge yourself, you’ll be so pleased you did.
See the full video of Justin's insight into the SCOTY competition and why you should enter this year:


Related Articles