Nick Vadis: Sky, Land and Sea
60 years ago, a boy deciding to cook for a living was not exactly accepted within society. Yet, the day Nick Vadis decided not to be a helicopter engineer and instead become a chef, was the greatest decision of his life.
Growing up and school
Born Manc, Nick’s childhood had a huge influence on his future and career. His mother was a primary school teacher, while his Cypriot father was a chef and owned restaurants over Manchester and in Wales. And his father brought the Mediterranean lifestyle to the household; it was always a full house, filled with loved ones and there was always a table full of food.
“Even when you didn’t want food- you’d get food. So food did play a large part in my childhood,” says Nick.
His guilty pleasure as a young lad was olives. While his friends were devouring sweets and crisps, Nick would sit there finishing off a bowl olives like there was no tomorrow. At school, Nick admits he wasn’t at the back of the class, but certainly was not the academic high flyer and so, he attended an all-boys secondary school. Even though Nick was itching towards a culinary career, then, there was evident gender-roles taking place and Nick would have never been allowed to study domestic subjects, he would only be allowed to take on metal work and technical drawing.
“It was very sexist in those days, although I liked food and liked eating, I was never allowed to go and cook. I could only make a metal gate or a wooden stool. Women went that way and men went the other and that’s the way it always was. It’s quite strange to think about now.”
While day-dreaming in the class where he didn’t want to be, he would always find his gaze settled on his Maths teacher’s calendar of the Royal Navy, stuck on the wall. He was intrigued by the photos of the warships and the sea, and the adventure it may bring with it and that the pictures looked nothing like home. While in Liverpool shopping with his mum, it was pouring from the heavens but something took to light; a banner, featuring a silhouette of a solider with a flat cap and bell bottom trousers and an attractive woman on his arm, reading the words ‘Join the Navy and See the World’. The very next day, Nick and his mother went into the Royal Navy recruitment stand, and the soldiers asked Nick ‘when can you join?’
After completing his exams, he set sail to work for the Royal Navy. Nick’s heart was still set on working as a chef in the navy, but his fellow soldiers just laughed in his face. They felt he was too well-educated to be a cook.
“The chef or the steward was always seen as the lowest skilled job. The lowest of the low and it just wasn’t a career of choice, it was more of something you were forced into or if you were a non-achiever.”
How helicopters were not his calling in life
He began his career as a helicopter engineer, and he admitted that he ‘absolutely hated it’. Nick trained as an engineer, but all the while couldn’t take his mind off what he really wanted. So, he asked his employer whether he could re-categorise as a chef. He recalls, “It didn’t take them too much persuading. I went off and did my chef training for 12 weeks and never look back from that day.”
Nick spent 25 years serving the Royal Navy, and experienced and achieved incredible things in his time there. Working from ship to ship, winning awards in culinary competitions with the navy, to teaching as Chef instructor and then being promoted to Warrant Officer (who was in charge of the whole cookery school).
As Nick says, he was a late developer, because he completed his degree in teaching in his early 30s, going on to achieve a BA 2.1 in education. This is what came in full-circle, Nick had combined his mother’s job with his father’s job, highlighting the impact his parents had on his career. And in 1999, he felt it was time to leave the navy.
Although, in the navy, Nick never sat still, he networked and tried to build his culinary experience as much as he could. “I wasn’t one of those guys that just stayed with the military- I went out and staged in hotels, and restaurants. I wanted to experience what happened on the other side of the wall so to speak. So leaving the military wasn’t a big deal because I already had these connections.”Chef Nick then moved to Cambridge university to start a brand new business that was a conference facility/hotel, where Nick sourced his own chefs and got the business off the ground and running, which is still ongoing today.
From ships to planes
After 2 and half years, Nick saw an advertisement for an executive chef for British Airways. He’d conquered the sea; next he was to conquer the sky. Nick joined just six days after the tragedy of 9/11.
“British Airways were great, they were really proactive and wanted to make change. During that time I ran Waterside and about a year in they gave me the whole group.” This is where he got creative with his catering ideas and where he, arguably, invented of the ‘sleeper service’ on British Airways flights. Where in first class, you can enjoy a three course meal on board before you fly, a service that is still prominent today.
Compass Group and Le Gavroche
To finally, his job at compass. Nick wasn’t really interested in moving from British Airways, he loved the travel and the opportunities, but it had been 7 years and if this was the opportunity that was left to make a difference- this was it. To apply for the job, he had to work at 2 Michelin restaurant Le Gavroche for three days, under Michel Roux Jr and the late Albert Roux.
“It was a great eyeopener, they were both integrated with our business, and every time we’d have lunch together and it was almost like another interview for an hour, with them both grilling you.”
Culinary Director and chef opportunities
Nick Vadis is now the Culinary Director of ‘Compass Group’ a contract catering company and the main focus of Nick’s job is chef careers, training and apprenticeships, which he admitted was his ‘sweet spot’. Nick believes contract catering has become of age, and it is seen as a preferred employment because at Compass, they have so much strength and depth to what their portfolio offers to young aspiring chefs and clients. Also, that contract catering is not a second-rate career, it is one to be excited for. At compass, they’ve worked in iconic places such as the Brits, the Oscars in America and for premiere league football stadiums.
“I see the chefs what we’ve created through Compass Group and it’s a way of giving something back, by helping the chefs gain a qualification, and aiding their knowledge and helping them train. We invest in them and their careers.”
“It’s about giving chefs opportunities, because if you don’t give them opportunity they’ll go elsewhere looking for them. They feel invested in, and you know what? I’ve had a really good career in catering, I feel very lucky with all the opportunities I’ve had.”
Awards and competitions
Over the years, Nick Vadis has collected essentially, a room full of awards and titles. Such as; being announced Chairman of the Craft Guild of Chefs, competing and instructing the England team for the catering World Cup and Olympics and winning the gold in 2016. Which out of Nick’s gleaming career, taking home the gold was the icing on the cake.
Catering and NHS
Since the pandemic, Compass has taken a shift and has focused on a new project with the NHS, whereby they sell food to the NHS and bring value to their contract. Since hospital food has received such bad press, it was up to Compass to improve the food throughout the organisation for: patients, staff and visitors. Alas, Nick has created an NHS Chef Academy and trained over 100 chefs in the last 8 months. Furthermore, Nick and Compass have introduced a ‘NHS Chef of the Year’, with regional finals to take place over the next month in order to select a winner. To bring light to NHS chefs and not let them be swept under the rug. As Nick says, food is medicine, and to invest in NHS chefs is a step in the right direction.
Why Choose Hospitality?
“Could I see myself doing anything else? Absolutely not. I’ve no regrets, the best thing I ever did was go and say to somebody I don’t like fixing helicopters. I’d say, stay true to your heart and it was catering that was in my heart. First and foremost it’s not easy, it’s not a 9-5 job but you don’t get something for nothing. It’s never dull and it’s never boring and it’s full of rich, colourful and interesting people”
“… and you know, it’s what gets me out of bed in the morning and as long as it makes you want to get out of bed in the morning then, it’s worth doing.”