John Roberts' career as a chef was pretty much written in the stars. His grandfather worked in the trade and his father was a chef in the merchant navy. As a child, Roberts would help him prepare food when the navy catered at events. Becoming a chef was just a "natural progression", he says.
Roberts began his culinary career, not working for the British fleet, like his father, but rather in Fleet Street as a commis chef, cooking meals for journalists on the early shift. He then moved to the College of St Mark and St John in Chelsea where he was responsible for co-ordinating and cooking lunches and evening meals for 350 students and staff.
While at Chelsea, he took a day-release course at Westminster Technical College to complete a City & Guilds in catering, but he found he got more from the job than the classroom. "I worked in a bakery to help pay my rent, so I learned more out on the road than at college. College basically just rubber stamped what I had learned."
Roberts is scathing about the level of knowledge that young chefs leave college with today. Although he recognises the "it wasn't like that in the old days" stance might rankle some in the industry, he says standards need to be addressed.
"I have taken on young chefs with NVQs (National Vocational Qualifications) and asked them to butcher some meat only to find that none of them has been taught it," he says. "These days, chefs pick up the phone and ask for certain cuts and it's done for them. I used to get up a 2am, go to Billingsgate market for the fish and Smithfield Market for the meat and then go back and butcher it all."
It may sound like a nostalgic rant from one of the Yorkshireman in a Monty Python sketch, but there is a serious point to what he is saying. While ready-butchered meat allows chefs to work more quickly, it also means they have a limited understanding of the meat they are using. "Many young chefs don't know a good cut of meat from a bad one," he says.
On leaving Chelsea, Roberts had a short stint at a banquet catering agency before moving to the oil giant BP's offices in Essex as a pastry chef. After two years he was promoted to sous chef, working with what he calls a "proper brigade" of staff and ordering food for more than 1,000 meals a day. He thought it was a job for life, but after 17 years he was forced to move when the company switched to a contract catering firm in the late eighties.
It was then he discovered the world of development chefs. Or rather, it found him. "I met a couple of development chefs who worked for Marks & Spencer (M&S) who invited me to its head office in Baker Street," he says. Although he anticipated he'd be working for the retailer, Roberts was instead offered a job at one of its biggest own-label suppliers, Northern Foods.
"The switch to manufacturing was very difficult," he admits. "In manufacturing you've got to discipline yourself by writing down everything you do. In a kitchen, if you want to add more salt you just taste it and add some. But in a manufacturing environment you've got to measure it and record it."
There was also a culture clash between the natural creativity of a chef and the technical nature of food scientists to be overcome. "At first it was hard working with technical people as they can be very blinkered," he says. "Chefs come in and try to remove the blinkers but you can get sucked into doing what they want, rather than what you want."
creativity vs saleability
Roberts also learned that there was more to being a development chef than coming up with novel product ideas. If creativity is not matched with business sense it's worthless.
"When I first came to Northern, I used the scatter gun approach, trying my hand at everything for the first six months. The company liked it, but it was not what the customer wanted." So Roberts adopted a different tack and took regular trips to Baker Street to chat with M&S about what it was looking for, with much more success.
"I discovered chefs are piggy in the middle. They have a relationship with both the customer and the manufacturer. They have to convince them both that an idea will work.
"It's like a race but there are a series of hurdles you've got to get past. The first hurdle is selling the idea to your colleagues, the second is selling it to the retailer. If you get past that hurdle, only then can you see the finish up ahead."
Overcoming obstacles and pressure is something he enjoys and there is nothing quite like the buzz of presenting a new product to a room full of people.
"The moment the product is on the table you can tell whether or not it is going to be acceptable -- people eat with their eyes," he says. To increase his chances of success, Roberts would invite people off the shop floor to taste his products, and even take them home to try on his neighbours -- "After all, these are the people that will actually buy it."
Some of the new product development successes under Roberts' belt include a nine-strong range of potato pancakes made by Dorset Foods for what was then Safeway. A 95% fat-free sausage for Pork Farms Bowyers, part of the Northern Foods group, is also something he is proud of.
But he's also contrite about the failures. One in particular was the development of a corn dog -- battered hot dogs on a stick -- for the UK which tried to emulate the popular corn dogs across the Atlantic. But it bombed here.
"In the States, corn dogs are really big, real football fodder, but it was totally different here. We spent lots of money on a machine to make them for retail, but they weren't a success."
Taking the rough with the smooth is part of the job, and Roberts is aware that it's not for everyone. "Patience is very important, as is being thick-skinned," he says. "You get knocked down a lot. It's no good being fiery like Gordon Ramsay -- he wouldn't last five minutes. You have to take on board all comments and be open-minded. I never stand and argue -- if you've got a room full of people to present a product to everyone will have different views."
Although he's been happy in product development, Roberts is disillusioned about the industry he left behind when he walked away from BP. He is not so keen to see his grandson continue the Roberts family lineage of chefs.
"Unless you get into manufacturing or you are at the top of your tree you don't get rewarded for the knowledge you've got and the hours you put in," he says.
He now hopes to work as a consultant development chef helping companies that have short lead times for new products, and has joined the Development Chefs' Network (DCN) to help. At 55 he says he might not be as attractive to companies as people half his age, but believes experience has a big part to play in development.
"Companies should employ more older people," he laments. "But then I would say that, wouldn't I?" FM