A care home chef’s ‘traditional Highland fayre’ using locally available ingredients has seen him crowned Chef of the Year in a prestigious UK competition.

Stuart Middleton, the chef at the Meallmore Lodge Care Home just outside of Inverness, saw off stiff opposition from eleven other finalists at this year’s National Association of Care Catering (NACC) event held last week.

After 90 minutes of intense competition at the Barking & Dagenham College’s Technical Skills Academy, Stuart wowed the judges with his winning menu.

His Traditional Fayre with Flair - haggis, neeps and tatties followed by a dessert of Culloden Cranachan (a Meallmore twist on a classic) - was very well received.

And Stuart said he owed some of his success to the support he had received from the Meallmore Lodge management and staff, local dieticians from NHS Highland and especially his most enthusiastic helpers - the residents of the privately-owned care home. 

The judges praised Stuart for his excellent menu and approach that delivered on taste, skill and presentation and showed clear understanding of his clientele.

They were impressed by the authenticity of his dishes, his innovative interpretation of classics, the use of regional ingredients, his attention to detail, and the passion he showed through working with residents to create his menus.

Stuart said: “I’m overwhelmed to have won. I didn’t expect it as the calibre of the other finalists was unbelievable.

“I competed last year, but I was nervous and didn’t know what to expect, so I over-complicated everything. This year I simplified it. I engaged with my residents to create a menu they loved and that was Scottish through and through.  I definitely enjoyed the final more this year. What an amazing day!

“In my daily role, I have fantastic support from David Blackwood, our catering manager, and we have great links with our local dieticians. I’d especially like to say a big ‘shout out’ to Evelyn Newman from NHS Highland, who was always on hand with support and advice.

Stuart is a firm believer that nutrition and hydration are crucial to physical and mental wellbeing, particularly in a care home setting.

He said: “If you get a person’s nutritional care right, then all other clinical areas become easier to manage.  Nutrition is clearly linked to areas like skin integrity, continence and wounds etc.  There is also lots of work going on around foods and their effect on mental health also which really interests me.

“My role in care can simply be summed up as “I’m here to cook the food that people want to eat”. 

“Of course, there’s a lot more to it like nutritional balance and specialised diets, but these considerations can be off-putting and boring to the people we care for, so I do my best to involve them in fun and engaging ways.

“For instance, our ‘Strictly Come Dining’ events were a massive hit were our residents, relatives and staff get to sample new dishes and provide feedback by scoring the food,” he said, adding: “This is a real positive experience for everyone as it affords our residents the opportunity to try newer foods and decide if they will appear on our menus, rather than me serving it at a mealtime with the chance that no one likes it, and it becoming a negative experience for the day.”

These tasting sessions were just one of a number of ways to allow residents to feel a sense of ownership of the food that is served at the home.

“This approach was invaluable,” he said, adding: “I like to include a bit of theatre around my cooking, which is also a big hit with the residents.”

Stuart said his winning menu at the Care Chef of the Year Competition started out with asking the residents “What’s important to you around mealtimes?”

“The response was overwhelming.  ‘Family time’ was the answer.  So that got me thinking about the social aspect of dining.  We then discussed traditions and how ‘Scottish’ food should be the theme.  I was challenged to make haggis, neeps n’ tatties the winning dish.  I offered it up with a few tweaks during a tasting session, and they promptly sent me back to the kitchen to rethink.

“Eventually, I was told I have got it right, and indeed it was that recipe which won ‘highly commended main course’ in Dagenham.

“I also served my sauce in a Quaich which not only tied in with the theme, but created conversation at the table as residents passed it around to take some of the sauce. They loved it!”

Stuart was also helped with what to serve as dessert for the menu.

He said: “I needed a traditional Scottish dessert idea and one of the residents told me a story about her favourite dessert, Cranachan, and how it was traditionally served as individual items at the table. The idea was you could then have as much of each component as you liked.

“I loved this idea, as it would encourage conversation, independence and inject fun into mealtimes.”

He said played around with each of the different flavours of this classic Scottish dessert “a lot” until the residents – “my task masters” - were happy.

“The residents thought it was brilliant,” Stuart said, adding: “Especially as I had included Drambuie, which has deep historical connections to the area surrounding Meallmore Lodge!”

David Blackwood, regional catering manager at Meallmore, said: “We’re all extremely proud of Stuart’s win. He’s been so close to winning in previous years and it’s great to see his efforts finally being recognised.

“The competition challenges those who work in the care sector to develop new and exciting recipes. Not only does this keep their work interesting and allow them to excel in their career, it also ensures that residents in our homes enjoy a variety of delicious and healthy meals.”   

As this year’s Chef of the Year, Stuart’s simple advice for anyone who had to cater for someone in their care is: 

  • Take the time to get to know the person and what they like.
  • Use lots of different colours (of food) on the plate…think rainbow.
  • Don’t allow food to become an ‘industry’.  If it’s not fun… you’re doing it wrong.
  • Eating something is better than nothing… don’t overcomplicate the issue if someone is not feeling well.