Standing the heat of any professional kitchen can be tough, but for Kevin Irvine, it is just another day in the office. Ashley Barnard of The Northern Echo reports.
THE man used to overseeing the feeding of more than 9,000 soldiers in makeshift kitchens in war zones has packed up his mess tins and set about honing his baking skills.
Kevin Irvine, 40, took on the role of head baker at the Veterans’ Artisan Bakery at The Beacon, in Catterick Garrison, in December last year after retiring from the Army, but the main part of his job is to train vulnerable exservicemen and women in baking to offer them a form of therapy and sense of achievement.
He said: “I spent two years in Cyprus as Garrison Catering Warrant Officer, three years in Northern Ireland from 1993, I was in Bosnia in 1996 and I spent six years in Germany.
“I finished my Army career in 2008 after a year in charge of catering in Afghanistan but, as a sergeant, I was desk-bound, responsible for ordering, welfare, management and logistics.
“The last time I actually served as a chef was in 2005. I joined the Army as a chef and wanted to be a chef, but as my career progressed I moved farther away from that.”
This may be why he said he found it refreshing to get away from bulk catering and start the laborious, but therapeutic, process of baking bread, cakes and biscuits from scratch.
He said: “In the Army I had to stick to a tight budget while making sure the troops got the full amount of calories and nutritional needs for the day.”
And as he was serving up grub in the remotest parts of the world, getting supplies in to camp was a perilous operation.
“There were occasions where lorries bringing in our supplies were hit by roadside bombs, so yes, there were fatalities,” he said.
“Food was also something that was less of a priority than water and ammunition, so if supplies of those were low, we would have to work with what we had while still trying to make sure the soldiers got the required 3,500 calories a day.”
He said the long hours, gruelling conditions and struggle with supplies were not always his biggest challenges. While in Afghanistan, he was tasked with providing Christmas dinner for hundreds of troops as a treat.
He said: “I was asked to provide the full works for a couple of hundred soldiers after they took over the Musa Qala area in Helmand province.
“We got a makeshift kitchen brought in by helicopter, and everything from turkeys and cranberry sauce to cheese and crackers shipped in from the UK.
“It was a huge job, with chefs working through the night to get it done, but we served them a full Christmas dinner in the middle of the desert.”
THEN, during a stint working in Kenya, a Company Sergeant Major came for work experience with Mr Irvine in his 72- degree kitchen, and told him he had a newfound respect for the chefs.
Mr Irvine said: “He said there was no way on earth he could do the job I was doing, so it was good he got to see how difficult our job was.”
When he approached the end of his Army career, he went on a general handyman course that included plumbing, bricklaying and plastering.
He said: “I felt like I was about to leave school and I had no idea what to do. I knew it would be tough to get a job, even though I had my chef skills.”
After completing 22 years in the Forces, he moved to Catterick Garrison with wife Stacey, who is a practice manager for an Army dentist there.
He said: “I saw the advert for the job in the bakery and even though I had no baking experience whatsoever, I thought it sounded really interesting and wanted to give it a go.”
AFTER starting as head baker, he has never looked back. The Beacon houses 31 homeless or vulnerable veterans and the bakery is there to try to encourage them to learn a skill to take into civilian life.
It is operated by The Clervaux Trust, a charity based in Darlington that helps disadvantaged young people get back on their feet by reconnecting them with nature. It runs a similar bakery in Darlington.
Mr Irvine said: “It is great to work with the veterans and try to give them a sense of achievement and something to get up in the morning for. One veteran, Charlie Campbell, has a real talent and is now hoping to go on and study catering.”
Mr Campbell, 20, said working with Kevin was great fun and said he was a good teacher.
He added: “I have always liked cooking, but I feel like I am learning a new skill now and am looking forward to taking it further. When Rosemary Shrager came to open the centre, she said I was one to watch for the future and wants me to go to her kitchen for work experience.”
Mr Irvine said: “This is what it is all about and Charlie is a great example of how this place can work.”