As part of a new career spotlight series we’re interviewing chefs from across the UK. Our third interview is with Gemma Evans-Hurley – Culinary Lead Projects for three large diverse sectors of Compass Group UK and Ireland, the UK’s leading food and support services provider.
Tell us about how your chef journey started
“I’ve always been very ambitious,” Gemma explains. “I was diagnosed as a child with dyslexia and it’s something I have learnt to live with and more importantly overcome.”
“I never let it hold me back, but you learn pretty quickly when you start your training, that you need IT, maths and a whole host of other skills to be a chef – it’s not just a case of picking up a vegetable and a knife and off we go!”
Gemma decided Westminster Kingsway was the only place for her, it was her best opportunity for success, learning from the very finest. As 16-year-old ambitious young woman, Gemma explains: “from the day I walked through those doors I felt like I was at home”. Incorporating front-of-house, pastry, professional cookery management and finally achieving a Level 3 Diploma, she left college as a confident chef ready to take on life’s challenges.
Eager to learn on the job, Gemma did a stint at Aldo Zilli’s Zilli Fish restaurant in central London, a spell at Pétrus under the brilliant Marcus Wareing, and then spent three years in Spain working in a 1,000 cover-a-night à la carte restaurant.
When she returned to the UK, she stepped into contract catering and never looked back.
“I knew ordinary restaurants weren’t for me – I have competed since college, I love high-end dining, but doing that every day isn’t what puts fuel in the fire for me. I enjoy being creative, using my initiative and being able to firefight and bring creativity to life. That’s what keeps me going as a chef – it’s all about the detail for me.”
While most chefs try their hand working for several contract caterers before finding the right fit, for Gemma, “It’s only ever been Compass.”
Aged 21, she walked into her first role as a sous-chef at the head office of an energy services provider, she recalls not knowing what to expect going in on her first day. “All I remember is leaving that office thinking ‘this is what I want to do forever’!”.
Discovering that there was a whole world in hospitality preparing restaurant quality food with ‘normal’ working hours, she said: “was mind blowing. To this day it is something that I will never forget.”
Always striding for progression Compass has supported Gemma throughout her journey. She gained an advanced Level Apprenticeship in Hospitality Supervision and Leadership Level 3 diploma, which lead to her next role as Head Chef at a major printing solutions business.
It wasn’t long before Gemma got recognised for her passion and determination and soon moved into a Group Executive Chef role for a multi-media company, responsible for sites nationwide. At the age of 24 Gemma spent a lot of time travelling the country, training teams, supporting with new mobilisations and heading up client VIP functions.
Eager for a new challenge, she moved across to Chartwells, the education sector within Compass. Her time at Chartwells saw Gemma oversee groups of schools, support new business bids, and work with nutritionists to create innovative menus in line with School Food Standards and allergens.
“I worked with some fantastic teams, chefs and suppliers” The most rewarding part of the role was hosting educational events which ranged from assemblies with primary school children, parent dinners and designing masterclasses for food tech students to create their own menus, table plans and dishes. “Seeing the passion and pride on the students’ faces will stay with me forever.”
Finally, Gemma went back into B&I as Head Chef of Harrods staff food court. Running a team of 92 – a brigade of 15 chefs, five kitchens and two cafés – feeding approx. 3,000 employees, 7-days a week for two years. “I never grew tired of turning up to work in such a prestigious building. Christmas time was just magical watching those iconic window displays being revealed, and the smell of the bakery in the food halls.”
As of March last year, Gemma stepped into the central functions team as Culinary Lead Projects, working across three major sectors within Compass Group UK & Ireland – Sports and Leisure, Business and Industry (B&I) and the Restaurant Associates portfolio.
Gemma supports Culinary Director, Ryan Holmes, who is also responsible for the three sectors. She explains:
“I support him with all of the culinary projects and innovation – it’s an exciting time to be at Compass as we’re busy implementing our road map to climate net zero by 2030!”
“Ryan is a great mentor, he gives me self-believe, which is something I’ve always lacked. He is calm in his approach to everyone and everything, plus he’s extremely knowledgeable and I learn so much from him.”
Gemma has come further than she ever hoped she would and is still moving towards her target of becoming Compass’ first ever female culinary director.
Asked what advice she would give her younger self, or indeed, anyone considering a career such as hers, she said:
“Be fearless, trust in your ability. Don’t hold back and you’ll be amazed at what you can achieve if you really apply yourself. I would never have anticipated the journey that I have been on.”
Exceptional food by exceptional people
Every day, Compass Group UK & Ireland (UK&I) connect their clients and customers to truly exceptional food. Their culinary professionals go beyond the plate to bring tasty menus to life with impeccable flavour combinations and sustainable ingredients.
As an outstanding employer Compass Group (UK&I) pride themselves on matching talented culinary professionals to chef jobs with extra flavour. If you are interested in finding out more, click here.