This feature is from our May-June 2013 edition.
Peter Morgan-Jones, Executive Chef, Hammond Care
By Yasmin Noone.
It was 1985 when the world of a humble, north-Welsh man collided with that of a blonde British princess to form a memory – a ‘cheffing’ career highlight – to surpass the rest.
Lady Di, affectionately known to the world’s admirers as ‘the people’s princess’, was at Windsor Castle to help host a grand state event of sorts. And Peter Morgan-Jones – now one of aged care’s most decorated chefs – was on duty at the castle prepping the food, pre-event.
In need of a good oven to bake bread, Morgan-Jones moved from the outdoor marquee and into the castle kitchen. Mind fixed on the cooking tasks ahead of him, Morgan-Jones was not expecting royalty to randomly stroll through the kitchen quarters. But then again, Princess Diana wasn’t known as one to stand behind class barriers.
“She came in and said to me; ‘Would you like a cup of tea?’” tells the international chef who fed the royals for over five years. “I said yes and she put the kettle on and just made a cup of tea. I was talking to Princess Di over a cup of tea!”
When Morgan-Jones returned to the marquee, he told his kitchen hand – a raging anarchist punk – of his chance encounter. The anarchist soon buckled under the excitement of the moment and confessed his desire to meet the princess too.
“We didn’t see her again during the event. But when everyone had left, me and the kitchen hand were still there, finishing up. She came into the marquee just as [the kitchen hand] was washing the pots and said, ‘Thanks boys. That was lovely.” Needless to say, Lady Di’s greetings also made the anarchist’s day.
The hand of fate
The resume of Morgan-Jones, executive chef and food ambassador for HammondCare, spans 30 years and well beyond the Windsor Castle kitchen.Not only has he catered Buckingham Palace garden parties with 8,000 guests, he’s managed 120 chefs on-site at Wimbledon Tennis Championships and worked in Wales, Germany, Papua New Guinea, London and even Bermuda.
“Cheffing wasn’t glamorous in those days but it is now,” says the chef who initially wanted to be a laboratory office technician and pursue his love of chemistry but went to hospitality school at age 18 instead. “It’s really hard work but being a chef has been amazing for me. It was like paradise, cooking for the really, really rich. In Bermuda, they’d come off their yachts [to dine at] the pontoon and then sail off into the sunset.”
HammondCare’s top chef has also cooked alongside some of Australia’s best known chefs since he arrived in the country at age 28 around 24 years ago. He’s worked at Bennelong at the Opera House, the Art Gallery of NSW, Gay Bilson’sBerowra Water’s Inn and the three-hat MG Garage with Janni Kyritsis. He’s run his own one-hat restaurant at Surry Hills’ Clock Hotel and even taught past Masterchef contestants cooking techniques.
Now, Morgan-Jones is the face of the HammondCare kitchen and food service for people with dementia. In January2012, he took on the position of executive chef with the organisation to cook with staff and residents in two central kitchens and up to 29 domestic-sized cottage kitchens.
So how did this food master end up in aged care, cooking for older Australians living with dementia? After all, like it or fight it, it is a sector with a public reputation for serving below-par meals.
Morgan-Jones says he fortuitously came across the HammondCare job advertisement when placing an advertisement for a head chef for his then-employer, the Trippas White Group.
“I looked at the job and thought, ‘wow, how good would that be to give something back to people and make someone’s life different, just by giving good, nutritious food? It was like I had an epiphany.
“So I talked to my wife. She said, it sounds really interesting. And I haven’t looked back. It’s been amazing.”
Cooking and caring
To say that thisrespected chef glided into his new position without any effort would be incorrect. The aged care learning curve, he says, was steep yet rewarding.
“I arrived at HammondCare all green with no experience in aged care…I was a bit overwhelmed in the first two weeks. There was a lot to absorb – heavy things. Then one of the managers said to me, ‘Can you feed Bob over there? So I went over and fed Bob. I looked into his eyes and he looked into my eyes. That’s all I needed. There was this thing going on and I realised, ‘this is amazing. You can’t do this in restaurants.”
Keen to learn as much as he could about how to improve residents’ lives through food, Morgan-Jones dived into the dementia care challenge. He completed a certificate IV in dementia, attended Dementia Design School sessions (annually) and seizes most educational experiences that pass his way.
“Your duty of care doesn’t just stop once you cook the food…It’s everyone’s duty to learn more about the person they are looking after.”
Caring about residents, Morgan-Jones says, is an important role of the aged care chef. For without it, he’d be unable to ensure his current diners experience the pleasure that quality dining and food can bring.
“My head is exploding with ideas about what I can do. The job is challenging and rewarding just because there’s so much you can do.”
For example, he explains, there was once a resident who was losing weight because she wouldn’t eat much. Thanks to Morgan-Jones and the staff, she is now on a tried and tested finger food diet which is working well.
The seasoned chef now is also “heavily into research and development”, using molecular gastronomy techniques to make texture-modified foods for residents to enjoy.
“I’m playing around using cream whippers and nitrous oxide.” He is also developing his own moulds and experimenting with agar (seaweed) to see how it can be used as a sort of jelly to encourage people with disphasia to eat.
Walking the talk
Morgan-Jones works with dietitians to make his diners’ food journeys an engaging experience; he is co-writing a book about cooking for people with dementia, and delivers guest lectures on food and dementia at conferences regularly.
“As a chef in aged care, the hours are better and it’s a better environment to work in. And the job is rewarding because you know you are ‘giving’…In restaurants, we feed someone’s ego. Here we are feeding for necessity. It’s just pure essence.
“Chefs should get out there and talk with residents and eat their own meals with them. I think if they do that, they’d have a bit of a shock. I do that every day. I have lunch with and even feed residents. I wonder how many chefs feed residents? That’s the thing that will actually make you have an epiphany – when you are in high care feeding an older person. You’ll think ‘wow, this is what it’s all about’.”
Morgan-Jones insists that despite the satisfaction his job provides him, it does take a certain type of chef to work in aged care; to forgo the glamour and seek the internal rewards that come with doing something good.
“They would have to leave their chef ego in the restaurant and kitchen, and have compassion for older people, before they can even consider the move to aged care.
“But to me, the biggest reward is that you can get so much more out of cooking in this environment than you ever do in a restaurant or hotel. The rewards are endless.”
AAA: Where did your love of food come from?
PM-J: I grew up on a coastal seaside town in north-Wales. I had a passion for food back then. We used to have fresh produce in the garden like crab apples, pears, gooseberries and rhubarb – a whole plethora of produce.
My mum wasn’t a good cook but my aunty was a great cook. When I was about eight years old [under her instruction], I entered an eisteddfod and baked an apple pie. I won and beat all the older country women…They weren’t so impressed with this little pipsqueak beating them.
AAA: What advice do you have for young budding chefs?
PM-J: You need to be very time-focused. Everything’s on a deadline. I’m constantly checking the watch and multitasking. What I’ve learnt with experience is that you need a lot of patience and understanding. And good communication skills are important.
You need to open up communication channels to talk and make sure you have orders standing on how to reach your goals…That’s all very important, as is technical ability and a passion for food.
AAA: How important is food service in the dining experience?
PM-J: Delivery is really an important thing. In serving and liaison, waiters in restaurants are your hands. So in aged care, that means not slamming down the plate, not having the radio blaring in the background and ensuring you are mindful of the customer’s dining experience.
This story originally appeared in the May-June edition of Australian Ageing Agenda. For more information on how to subscribe to the print magazine click here.