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‘In your Kitchen’ with Steven Cross

‘In your Kitchen’ is a new chef series brought to you by Premier Foods, where we go behind the scenes with talented chefs to learn more about their current role, cooking style and get their thoughts on industry trends. In the first edition of this series, we are putting the spotlight on the current LACA School Chef of the Year, Steven Cross.

Let’s get started with you telling us about your current role and career history

I am the head chef at Park Community School where I’ve worked for five years. My role has involved taking catering in-house and leading the school kitchen where we create delicious and fresh meals for over 900 students and 200 staff, every school day. Before this job, I worked as a chef in a number of roles from fine dining 2 Michelin-starred restaurants to The Royal Household. It’s important that I bring this wealth of experience into my current role. Students are regularly eating out with their families and have very sophisticated tastes. I run my kitchen like a restaurant, making sure the menus are always changing and that we are using local ingredients to create homely but worldly dishes. I’ve loved the move to school meals after wanting a change of pace in my life and to spend more time with my family.

Describe what it’s like to work in your kitchen

I would describe our kitchen as fun. There is a family feel to it as we have a good mix of chefs ranging from young apprentices to mums looking to fit work around their families. There is still pressure as we have a lot of meals to get out within a set time but it’s not quite as intense as working in a restaurant.

Tell us more about your approach to food

It’s important that I am creating menus that are on-trend. In school catering our competition is the high street, with young people eating out more than ever. Students are enjoying everything from Japanese to Portuguese and we must be able to offer a variety of dishes as well. It’s not just about creating a generic British menu like many would expect, we still do those kinds of dishes but giving students a good mix of food styles is important.

Why did you choose to work in the sector you work in?

Education catering was something that really interested me. I’ve always enjoyed working with kids and when I left school, I completed a project working with young people. I had always promised myself that I would look at other culinary opportunities when I was ready to start my family, as I wanted to be around for them as much as possible.

What do you love most about this sector?

I love trying to educate children into eating good food and encouraging them to try new things. When you see students getting excited about food you know you are doing something positive. Getting children to understand that food and cooking is a key part of life is important and something I take real pride in. I’ve got a fantastic group of Food Ambassadors who I meet with every single week. We discuss what the pupils want on the menu and I run a cooking club after school every Tuesday where we look at everything to do with food from sustainability to sourcing to health. My Food Ambassadors also help with catering for events whether that’s for an event at school or within the local area. We recently cooked at a Gala Dinner in Chichester which was £100 a ticket and had Christopher Biggins as a host. Events like this provide an incredible experience for young people to get involved with and will hopefully encourage them to see that working in the hospitality industry is an exciting career option.

What’s the biggest challenge facing your kitchen?

I think it’s getting the food out within tight timescales every single day as we are cooking for so many people. Cost is always a big challenge too as we have to create these dishes on tight budgets. Coming up with interesting menus, that compete with the high street but with a lower cost per meal is always going to be a challenge. However, it’s one I enjoy!

What is your biggest hope for the future for chefs?

I hope that in the future there are more chefs coming from a restaurant background into education catering to keep inspiring young adults and children and making sure this industry competes with the high street. The experience you gain from working in a restaurant brings so much benefit to a school kitchen and you can educate the next generation about their own lifestyle choices.

Tell us about your career highlight

Working in The Royal Household was an amazing experience for me. Windsor Castle was just incredible to work in with so much history and just unbelievable kitchens to cook in.

What advice would you give to someone considering a career as a chef?

If you have a passion for food and cooking is something you enjoy, I would say go for it. It’s a great career but you do have to love it to do it.