We Grill – Sergeant James St Claire-Jones
Sergeant James St Claire-Jones is head chef at the Village Hotel, Solihull but also serves as a volunteer in 167 Catering Support Regiment. As an army chef, he has cooked for British troops around the world, fed thousands at the 2012 London Olympics and cooked for the Queen! He also made it to the semi-finals of the BBC’s Masterchef 2014.
What is 167 Catering Support Regiment?
It is a bit like a military agency used by the British Army to deploy chefs around the world and for events in the UK too, such as the 2012 London Olympics and Royal Ascot. Everyone in the regiment is a trained soldier who is put on a two-week intensive training course to learn cooking basics; cuts of meat and veg, sauces etc. I’m a chef by trade but not all the lads are. Some are lorry drivers or engineers but they get stuck in and learn on the job. At the moment there are over 200 chefs in the regiment and they get posted out across the world whenever the British Army needs them. You are contracted for 19 days a year but you can sign up for more days if you want.
What made you sign up?
I studied catering at Solihull School but in 1990 I signed up with the Army reserves as an infantry soldier. But after five years serving I realised I wanted to concentrate on my career as a chef. I worked all over the place; restaurants, hotels and gastro pubs building my way up from commis to head chef. But I missed the banter, the camaraderie among the lads in the forces so I decided to join the regiment and have just been given my 10-year medal. Now, I have the best of both worlds.
Where’s the most challenging place you’ve cooked for the regiment?
Antarctica. Cooking in a tent at minus 50 was pretty full on! I went for a four-month placement in November 2011 to cook for three separate Antarctic expeditions; the crew working on the Sport Relief challenge of the former Blue Peter presenter Helen Skelton who skied to the South Pole, a group of multi-millionaires who came to ski and the competitors of a 800k race. I had basic rations; fresh and dry, so had to be very careful how and what I cooked. Each day we drove to a new camp so my priority was making sure everyone had hot drinks and soup while camp was set up. My main concern was feeding everyone enough calories though. Just breathing at that temperature makes you lose weight, so making sure they were fed enough was paramount. I made porridge for breakfast – bacon butties once a week – and then soups, stews, steaks and chicken for dinner. It was an amazing but challenging experience. Water would freeze solid after a couple of minutes and because the butter was so hard I had to shave it off!
Where have you been posted to?
America, Cyprus, France, Gibraltar and the Falkland Islands to name a few. It’s a great way to see the world for free – and get paid! Other times I could be in London but it doesn’t matter where I go, because for me it’s all about making a difference to the lads I’m feeding.
Is there a difference between preparing a civvy menu and one for soldiers?
Yes. Customers who come to the Village Hotel are paying guests who want a dining experience. With the regiment one day I’ll be cooking for lads who’ve come in straight from the field. They may have been standing in a trench knee-high in water all day so they want something warm and hearty that’s not only going to warm them up, but rebuild their morale. Other days I’ll be preparing canapes for the Officers’ Mess or cooking high energy flapjack bars for the special forces unit who need up to 6,000 calories a day per man! Hygiene is high on the agenda. Of course that’s true in a civvy kitchen, but in the army if you poison a soldier you could potentially knock half the battlefield out of action.
What skills does someone need to be an army chef?
Because for most people it’s a second trade, you need the passion to learn. It is hard work- very hard work at times – so you need to really want to do it! Discipline, flexibility and a love of variety is essential too because one time you may be cooking for the Royal Marines or for thousands at an event like the 2012 Olympics! On on the twist side, the discipline I’ve learnt from the army helps in my civvy job – my hotel team call me the sergeant major because I’m very strict when it comes to timekeeping, uniform upkeep etc.
Is it dangerous?
Not in the sense of being shot or blown up, but when I was in the Antarctic I broke my tooth and the paramedic had to do a patchup job with a piece of metal! So it is dangerous in the sense of there’s no back-up. But our catering lads wouldn’t be put on the front line – our job is to feed the lads on the front line. Obviously some lads can be posted to war-zones like Afghanistan or Sierra Leone but those are longer deployments which you have to volunteer for. My longest deployment was for the 2012 London Olympics where I worked for six months – I resigned from my head chef position at Jamie Oliver’s in The Bullring, Birmingham to do it.
Would you recommend a civvy chef to sign-up?
Without a doubt! I can’t understand why anyone wouldn’t want to do it. I can’t see any negatives. The travel, the money, the banter and teamwork make it one of the best experiences you can have. You also make friends for life.