The Yorkshire Dales charity project that teaches war veterans to cook

Walking into Swinton Park Cookery School in Masham feels like walking into a professional kitchen.

Five chefs are hard at work, concentrating on creating two stunning plates of food. The atmosphere is one of calm endeavour as each man slices, chops, fries and roasts their choice of local seasonal game, much sourced from the Swinton estate itself. But these are not professional chefs, theses are injured veterans, all being supported by the Help for Heroes-funded Phoenix House Recovery Centre at Catterick Garrison. And they are not preparing lunch for paying guests, they are competing in a unique cooking competition organised by Swinton Park and Help for Heroes.

The Yorkshire Chefs for Heroes Competition is in its third year and was the brainchild of Swinton Park’s former executive chef Simon Crannage, and its owner Lady Felicity Cunliffe-Lister.

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“We decided six years ago that we wanted to do something for the wider community,” explains Lady Felicity. “Simon had been doing some work with Phoenix House helping veterans learn to cook Christmas lunch and so it made sense to develop this relationship further. We approached Help for Heroes to see if they would be interested in us running a competition that would see some of Yorkshire’s top chefs help veterans learn something they have never done before. We would love to see it extended across the country.”

Melanie Dickinson, recovery manager in the North for Help for Heroes, believes that the competition has far more benefits than just teaching the injured veterans to cook.

“Vocational visits play a vital role in helping veterans explore new career options, but the Swinton Estate has once again generously taken this to another level. Yorkshire Chefs for Heroes is a unique experience which participants never forget,” she says. “For some, it may provide a step into a future career; for others it may reduce profound feelings of social isolation, but all participants grow in confidence and develop skills which benefit both themselves and their families. For many of the veterans the injuries they have sustained are psychological and cannot be easily seen. They have lost confidence and self-worth.”

Indeed, the class of Yorkshire Chef for Heroes 2018 had a number of veterans struggling with psychological issues and they were accompanied by their caseworkers should things became too much, which I am glad to say they didn’t.

Among them was recently widowed Chris Allsopp from Sheffield who was determined to show his children that he can cope despite the loss of their mother Julie earlier this year. Learning to cook is a major step in this goal and one of the reasons he wanted to take part in the competition. He was mentored by Matthew Wilkinson from Rudding Park. Chris, 55, joined the Royal Engineers at 16 and was deployed on active duty to Falklands, Bosnia and UK based bomb disposal operations.

As a result of several accidents his spine and other joints were damaged. He was medically discharged in 2002 and subsequently diagnosed with PTSD, anxiety and depression. But Help for Heroes has helped fill the void after leaving the army.

“Since my wife died in April, my children worry more about me. Showing them that I can actually throw a proper meal together will put their minds at rest a little and hopefully make them proud.”

Royal Marine veteran Rob Storey, 47, was already proficient in the kitchen, but working alongside professional chef Richard Allen from Rockliffe Hall, has given him the confidence to try new dishes. The former Green Beret had a 27-year military career, but his right knee was seriously damaged in an explosion in Afghanistan in 2012 and was medically discharged last year. Since then, he has been supported by Phoenix House.

Keen cook Ian Humpleby, 49, is looking forward to recreating for his friends the partridge dish he was taught by his mentor John Appleby from the Blue Lion in East Witton.

“Normally I cook Asian food so I am really interested in being able to showcase a game recipe for my friends. It’s that thought that inspired me to enter, rather than a desire to win.” Since leaving the Forces, Ian has suffered from PTSD and struggled to find work. Moving to the Ripon area to live on a canal cruiser has helped, as has support from Help for Heroes.

“I wanted a quieter way of life,” he explains, “and now I am working with staff at Phoenix House Recovery Centre to try to find a job that I can do despite my mental health issues, because I suffer from anger issues, certain environments are not suitable.”

Ironically Shipley navy veteran, Glenn Ellis, 59, developed an allergy to game meats ten years ago but, by eliminating them – even his favourite Chinese aromatic duck – from his diet and then gradually reintroducing them in small quantities, he is now able to enjoy them again. He was mentored by Andy Lawson, executive chef at Bowcliffe Hall near Wetherby.

Less than four months after joining the navy, the then 18-year-old’s career in the Forces was ended by a perforated eardrum which permanently. affected his hearing and left him with tinnitus

Accepting that was tough, but Glenn forged another career as a gas engineer, surveyor and trainer until he started to suffer mental health problems. But it wasn’t until 2016 that it became clear it could be traced back to his hearing loss.

“Looking back, of course being told that I had permanent hearing problems and therefore couldn’t stay in the Navy – my dream job – was bound to have affected my mental health but it took me a long time to realise that all were connected and to accept what was happening – it’s only recently that people – men especially – have felt able to admit to suffering from mental health problems.”

Mark Ferguson credits his unruly behaviour as a child as the main reason for his interest in cooking.

Grounded by his parents each time he got into trouble at school in Guisborough, he spent a lot of time in the kitchen watching his mum cook and learning the skills that held in him in good stead when he joined the army. Based in Germany, he served in Canada and the Falklands before being deployed to Afghanistan towards the end of combat operations in 2014. At first he thought nothing of his inability to settle once back in Germany following his tour of duty. But to cope, Mark became increasingly dependent on alcohol and drugs. That, coupled with frequent displays of anger, led to the breakdown of his relationships and he attempted to take his own life.

“I knew that my behaviour was damaging my relationships with others but I couldn’t stop. I felt like there was no one who could help me.”

Fortunately for Mark, 26, his mother insisted he went to the doctor and he realised that it was mental illness that was causing his intense feelings of anger. He also began to accept that his Army career was over and started attending military-led courses at the Help for Heroes recovery centre in Catterick, in preparation for resettlement after being medically discharged in December 2017.

He was mentored in the competition by Swinton Park’s, James Cooper.

“I find that cooking is a way of dealing with my anger,” says Mark. “Confidence is key to success.”

And for Mark it seems to have worked as his dish of ballotine of pheasant saw him win the competition which will see him cooking for a week at the Swinton Park Estate and has given him a new focus for the future. He now wants to become a professional chef. “I haven’t stopped cooking since the competition. I can’t wait for my week’s training – it’ll be the perfect opportunity to push ahead with my dream of being chef.”