How I got here: Q&A with star chef Chantelle Nicholson

18 February 2022
Originally from New Zealand, Chantelle Nicholson is an award-winning chef, a sustainability champion and the owner of a new socially conscious restaurant in Mayfair.

Her big break came in 2004, after impressing at an amateur cooking competition, leading to one of the judges - head chef at London’s iconic Savoy Grill - offering her a job in the restaurant.

Chantelle accepted and moved to the UK, and has since worked in various leading restaurants, and recently earned a green Michelin star for her commitment to sustainability.

Last week, Chantelle joined School Food Matters at Northolt High School for a cooking session, including a masterclass in cooking cauliflower fritters using the Lemon Sweetness paste created by students as part of our Fresh Enterprise programme. We sat down with Chantelle after to ask her questions about how she got to where she is today.

  • Cooking session with Chantelle Nicholson
    Cooking session with Chantelle Nicholson
  • Cooking session with Chantelle Nicholson
    Cooking session with Chantelle Nicholson
  • Cooking session with Chantelle Nicholson
    Cooking session with Chantelle Nicholson
  • Cooking session with Chantelle Nicholson
    Cooking session with Chantelle Nicholson
  • Cooking session with Chantelle Nicholson
    Cooking session with Chantelle Nicholson
  • Cooking session with Chantelle Nicholson
    Cooking session with Chantelle Nicholson
  • Cooking session with Chantelle Nicholson
    Cooking session with Chantelle Nicholson

When did you first discover you wanted to be a chef, and what was it about this career that appealed to you?

I was studying law at university. Partway through the course I thought, I want to do something else that is interesting and creative and using different skills. I started working [in a kitchen] full-time while I was finishing off my degree. It just felt a lot more rewarding than what I was studying.

From a young age, I was always cooking. We did this a lot as a family, but I also had an aunt that was an amazing cook, baker and preserver, and another auntie who had moved to America, bringing a different influence, and things we had never really tried before.

What is your most and least favourite part of the job?

I would say my most favourite is the fact that I get to create, and that every day is different. There's so much variety. It's doing things with your hands as well as using your mind. I don't really have a least favourite. I even like spreadsheets. I like the business-side as well as the food side.

You went from employed chef to owning your own restaurant. How did you make that leap, and was that part of the dream when you were younger?

At one point I did dream of owning a restaurant back in New Zealand. Making the leap took a huge amount of hard work, commitment and sacrifice. But I think there are other amazing, rewarding paths to take - so many different things to do that lead to so many different parts of the food industry.

What advice would you give to a young person wanting to pursue a career as a chef? How should they get started?

Just do it. You're never going to waste any time, because there are so many other skills you learn along the way, whether it's time management, organisation or teamwork. Even if you decide, partway through, that you don't want to pursue a career as a chef, these skills will be incredibly helpful in any path you take.

The best way to get started from my perspective is to just approach a restaurant that you like. That's what I did way back in the day. I just went into a café I liked, handed them my CV and said 'I've got no experience, but I really love to cook'. Thankfully they took me on. If you show that you're really interested, then you're 90% of the way there.

Only a quarter (26%) of chefs in the UK are women. This figure has increased in recent years, but is still very low. What are the possible reasons for this? And how can this be improved?

I think there are some practical reasons. Having children is a big factor, and there is a way to go in terms of making that work alongside a career as a chef. Traditionally, it used to be that these were male-dominated environments, but I think that's changed now. I think that the portrayal of the industry [as aggressive and shouty] in media and on TV has been quite damaging and will not entice women into the industry. Perhaps some parents see these programmes and discourage their daughters from going into it. Happily, most kitchens, especially now, aren't like that. That's why it’s important for us to talk about careers in food. There's something for everybody in hospitality.

How important is it that all children learn about food from a young age? And what role do you think schools need to play in that?

I think food education is vital. Children need to know where food comes from, how hard people work to grow and produce it, how it gets to our plate, and what it does when we put it into our bodies. Teaching about nutrition is vital: if you eat an apple versus a bag of crisps, what happens to your body and how do you feel? There are lots of simple things that can be done to educate children about food and it's a super important part of growing up. I was very lucky that we had cooking at the schools I attended. It feels odd to think of not having that opportunity as a child at school.

Chantelle, we couldn’t agree more which is why School Food Matters provides fully funded food education programmes in schools. Find out more here.