A CHEF IN KHAKI
It was in 1943 that I began training for my chosen profession of chef, putting my foot on the first rung of the ladder at a large West End hotel. By October 1947 I was approaching my 18th birthday rapidly, and had already undergone my medical for National Service at Acton, Middlesex, passing Grade 1 but being rejected for the Royal Navy (my expressed preference for service) as being “in excess of Naval
requirements”. Why I wanted to join the Navy is beyond me now, and as I would soon come to realise, I was totally unsuited to venturing on to the high seas.
Next, I had to wait for my call-up papers for the Army, so having been ordered to report to the Royal West Kent Regiment barracks at Maidstone, I found myself en route for my six weeks’ basic training on January 1 1948. This was also my first taste of leaving home and living with complete strangers as I learned new skills: until then, my only experience of this had been at scout camp, which could hardly be compared with army life in 1948.
When I reached Maidstone all the induction processes that went with the military began -documentation, kitting-out, a talk by the Commanding Officer, the allocation of platoons, barrack rooms and our own platoon NCOs who hopefully were going to turn these untrained youths into a disciplined unit and, as they said, they would do it if it killed us!
As we had so many new things to absorb the weeks went by
quickly, with everyone looking forward to the time after four weeks when they might – just might, if they were smart enough – get out of barracks for the first time since their arrival.
Soon after this, the units to which we would be posted were selected. Not unnaturally, as a would-be chef who had just started out on his career, I wanted to join, and remain in, the Army Catering Corps. I became quite despondent by tales from ‘old soldiers’ about qualified people in one profession being sent into something quite different. As 1 didn’t want to end up in the Pioneer Corps -no disrespect to that able body of men – I was delighted to receive orders tojoin the ACC at St. Omer Barracks, Aldershot.
The ACC was quite a new corps, having been formed at Aldershot only in 1941. Highly-skilled professional civilian caterers were brought in to organise the training and the catering manuals to be used in
the Army Catering Corps School of Cookery at St. Omer Barracks. Before this, each regiment had to rely on its own cooks who sometimes had received only basic training. I met several chaps I had known in the profession in London and one of them, by then a commissioned officer, suggested I join a course for hospital cooks as that offered better variety in food preparation than the ordinary mess cooking which, in those days, could be pretty basic to say the least!
In June 1948, after passing my trade tests at the Army Catering School, I was sent on 14 days’ embarkation leave before going to the Far East. After eight days at my home in Eastcote, Middlesex, however, I was recalled and found myself in a draft with other hospital cooks, posted to the British Army of the Rhine and attached to the Medical Corps.
Upon arrival at the Hook of Holland from Harwich, after what seemed to me to be a dreadful crossing – and it was only June! – I wondered what on earth had made me want to join the Navy! We travelled by train across Holland into Germany, where I was surprised to see that the devastation caused by Allied bombing and everything that followed until the surrender still remained.
Our destination was the transit camp at Bielefeld, where we spent a few days awaiting our final posting. Along with several others, I was going to the 6th British Military Hospital, BAOR 24, in Westphalia. Again, we travelled by train to Hamm station, where we were transported to what would be our home for the next 17 months.
I believe that what had been a German army barracks had been converted into what was a general hospital in every sense of the word, with wards for officers, families, Control Commission personnel, psychiatric patients and a VD ward (which unfortunately was usually quite full!). We were a well-equipped community with our own tailor, hairdresser and shoemaker – all local civilians – and other locals in the offices and kitchens.
The kitchens were well organised and quite spacious compared with some ordinary mess kitchens we’d seen in the UK, and the same went for our accommodation in small rooms rather than the ‘Crimea’-style barrack rooms we’d encountered at Aldershot and elsewhere.
One of my most frustrating experiences as a ‘chef in khaki’ came after promotion when I and others had to accompany the Field Hospital with a field kitchen for a week of manoeuvres at Paderborn. We’d just get
the kitchen set up on the field, with the stoves working, when in would come a dispatch rider with fresh orders, and everything would have to be dismanded!
When I look back now, I’m glad someone advised me to take the opportunity of learning more about hospital catering. While this wasn’t the haute cuisine to which I’d return after my National Service, it gave me an excellent chance to learn about catering for special needs such as fat-free diets, catering for young and sick children, expectant and new mothers and diabetics – the last of which proved invaluable as in later years I too became a diabetic!
In hotel catering one comes across many people with special dietary needs, and my National Service experience in this respect stood me in good stead during the rest of my long catering career when I returned to civvy street.
I was demobbed in December 1949 and returned to the West
End hotel I’d left two years previously to take up my career as a commis chef once more and later, at other hotels, as a chef de partie, sous chef and ultimately Chef de Cuisine at a large four-star hotel. Without doubt my time in khaki helped me to achieve this as I learned how to get along with people and, after promotion, showing others how to get the best from their efforts and helping them, in turn, to rise in their profession.
Most importandy, I learned how essential it is to treat people consistendy and fairly in order to achieve all this.
Peter E. Drinkwater