When injured soldier Alex Krol entered a special cookery competition he wanted to learn to cook more than baked beans , but he ended up winning. Catherine Scott reports.
The former soldier, who was paralysed from the chest down 12 years ago, entered the Swinton Park Cookery School competition to learn to cook to help his partner Jayne look after Xander.
“Since he was born, it has become apparent that I am going to have to do more around the house and that meals such as beans on toast are no longer going to be acceptable,” explains Alex.
“I am good at timings but I am definitely not a cook. The chefs that I met were so passionate about what they did and if just a little of that rubbed off on me, I would be thrilled.”
It seems more than a little rubbed off as Alex ended up winning the competition, now in its second year.
The contest, a joint initiative with Phoenix House, Help for Heroes’ Northern Recovery Centre and Swinton Park Cookery School, saw 34-year-old Alex fight off tough competition from two other veterans to scoop the top prize, a week’s training in the Swinton Estate’s professional kitchens.
Alex was mentored by Rockliffe Hall’s executive chef, Richard Allen, and impressed the judges with his signature game dish of pigeon.
Judges Richard Townsend, of Gourmet Game, and Steve Bulmer, of Swinton Park Cookery School, commented that the standard had been exceptional this year but that Alex had demonstrated particular skill with both flavour and texture that set him apart from the other competitors.
Alex, from Merseyside, was paralysed from the chest down after a motorbike accident in 2004 caused severe spinal injuries and ended his military career with the Royal Marines.
“I was gutted to leave the Marines. I was young, ambitious and having the time of my life before my career was cut short,” he says.
For two years after the accident, Alex struggled with the idea of being in a wheelchair but, after realising that he was still fit, he took every opportunity to try new activities.
As a result, he has represented his country at the highest level as a member of the Armed Forces Para Snowsports Team; has gained his private pilot’s licence and is actively involved with a disabled flying charity called Aerobility which, through adaptive equipment, enables wounded, injured or sick service personnel and veterans to have a go at flying; and, earlier this year, he won a gold medal playing tennis doubles at the Invictus Games in Orlando.
“I still have that ‘can do’ mentality that is instilled in every recruit throughout Commando training,” says Alex.
He says that a lot of the techniques he uses playing tennis had come in useful for cooking, too.
“There were a lot of elements going on in my dish so I had to concentrate really hard but I knew, if I could pull it off on the day, it would be all right,” he explains.
“It sounds daft but it’s all about visualisation and regarding each stage as a chapter of a book – that’s how I approach tennis, too.
“Thanks to the training I was given by Richard Allen at Rockcliffe Hall, I now have the confidence and the skills to push myself to do more in the kitchen and try new things.”
It was the second time that the Cookery School has hosted the competition, which saw three competitors mentored by the North’s top chefs: Joshua Overington at Le Cochon Aveugle in York; Richard Allen at Rockliffe Hall, Darlington; and Steve Smith, of the Freemasons at Wiswell in Lancashire.
The contest was introduced to inspire veterans with a passion for food and to provide motivation to help facilitate a smooth transition to civilian life for those whose military career has ended through wounding, injury or sickness.
The first winner was Ted Grainger, from Brompton-on-Swale, mentored by Michelin-starred chef James Mackenzie of the Pipe & Glass in Beverley, with his signature game dish of venison loin with haggis pasty, celeriac puree, pickled brambles and parkin, with a Yorkshire sauce.
“I did wonder whether I should be putting myself in a situation where a trigger may initiate panic or anxiety or anger but with support from staff at Phoenix House, I decided to push my boundaries,” says Ted, who suffers Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
“The PTSD was locked away in a box and chained up for the competition. James Mackenzie’s confidence and relaxed attitude rubbed off on me. If it wasn’t for Help for Heroes, I would have completely missed this opportunity to learn something new, have fun and meet new people, while actually believing in myself that winning was possible which, indeed, proved to be true!”
Jill Grainge, from Phoenix House, said the aim of Help for Heroes was to inspire, enable and support individuals to lead active, independent and fulfilling lives through many forms of support.
“Vocational visits also play a vital role in this but Swinton Park has generously taken this to another level completely. Its competition gives the participants a unique insight into the work as a professional chef and an experience they never forget,” she said.
“Whether or not they use it as a fantastic step up into a potential new career, they will all have a renewed confidence about trying new things which they can apply to many other aspects of life on ‘civvy street’.”