Sharon Armstrong is Assistant Manager for North Yorkshire County Caterers and was mentor to Kath Breckon, 2016 winner. She talks pasta, promotions, and her passion for fresh food...
Why did you enter the competition?
I’m really passionate about food and for me it was a way to show people that school food isn’t pre-made or from a packet. All school meals in Yorkshire are cooked fresh and I wanted to get this message out there.
How was the experience for you?
For me, it was an amazing experience that challenged me in many ways. The competition shows the standard of food and cooks working in school kitchens and I learnt so much about my own skills and from the other chefs taking part.
It was also an amazing launch pad for my career. When I won in 2004, I was a Catering Manager at a secondary school and following the competition I quickly rose through the ranks and now I’m an Assistant Manager overseeing 79 primary schools. I have SCOTY (School Chef of the Year) and my increased profile to thank a lot for that.
What was your winning menu?
I drew my inspiration from working in Whitby and the fact that the replica ship Endeavour was in the harbour at the time. My menu – The Whitby Experience – really came from that: Captain Cook Pasta with Fruity Salad and Garlic Muffin, followed by Dracula’s Delight with a Jet Biscuit.
What did winning mean to you?
Winning the competition was an incredible experience that has led to so many wonderful opportunities.
I’ve made some fantastic contacts throughout the industry, have been interviewed by numerous local papers, magazines and radio stations, and have even contributed recipes to a national newspaper.
But more than this, it has helped to shape my career and set me in good stead for my promotion to Assistant Manager. Not only do I now get to work with chefs across our region every day but I’ve also mentored many of them through the LACA School Chef of the Year competition, and have just been confirmed as a judge for the 2018 competition.
Why should school chefs enter the competition?
I’ve always encouraged my staff to enter. It’s a fantastic competition and a chance to raise your profile within your school and local community. Many of the chefs I’ve mentored have found it gives them a big confidence boost, provides them with the chance to build on their skills and makes them appreciate just how high the standard of their cooking is.
It’s also really good for career progression, as you get to meet chefs, caterers and headteachers from all over the country. As the winner, you also get to attend lots of industry events, not just limited to the education sector either, so you can learn from chefs from a variety of backgrounds.
Why should chef managers enter someone from their team?
I know it can seem a bit daunting to managers. You’re worried about the impact it will have on the rest of your team and the amount of time out of the kitchen competitors will need but I would honestly say the benefits outweigh any negatives.
Having a chef in the finals of SCOTY is a fantastic endorsement not just for the individual but for their team, the school and the LEA. It can put you on the map and really helps to raise awareness of the quality of school catering amongst parents, governors and even local councillors and MPs.
In my experience, entering SCOTY can provide a massive moral boost to a school’s catering team and they really pull together to give their colleague all the support they need – both around the competition and afterwards when they might need time out of school to attend events. There’s a great sense of pride from the whole school; headteachers around the region will be aware of the quality standards being set in your school and we’ve even seen increases in school meal take-up as parents gain a better appreciation for school dinners.
What tips do you have for chefs entering next year?
Get buy-in from your manager. Their support and encouragement will take you a long way.
Make sure your menu is nutritious and is something that children will want to eat – after all, there are children on the judging panel!
Also, be committed and prepared to practice. But most importantly, don’t take it too seriously! Have fun and enjoy the experience.
See the full video of Sharon's insight into the SCOTY competition and why you should enter this year: