‘I don’t know what it is about kitchen life, but there’s never really a bad day'

The Staff Canteen


Ryan Hopper and Shaun Dalton discuss their careers being veteran chefs and their experiences in and out of the Armed Forces

With Armed Forces Week coming up The Staff Canteen spoke with Ryan Hopper and Shaun Dalton to find out about their time as chefs in the Armed Forces and how Compass has helped support them since they left.

Ryan Hopper, Regional Executive Chef – ESS Defence, Craft Guild of Chefs Public Sector Chef of the Year 2019

For Ryan, a job in hospitality was never really a goal or something he had ever planned for. But, after learning that university life and further study weren’t for him, he started working in a butchers, which he thoroughly enjoyed.

However, he still wanted more and thus, thanks to a friend in the Royal Navy, he joined as a chef serving for 24 and a half years.

At first, he found he struggled to adapt to the Navy but after a few months he learned to love it.
He said: “You're a very tight-knit team and it becomes your life. So, the Navy side of life wasn't such a big thing, it was the chef side that was bigger for me.”

During his time in the Navy, he spent 10 years as the team captain for the Naval Service Culinary Arts Team and then was selected into the Combined Services Culinary Arts Team for his final six years of service. Two of these were spent as team captain, during which the team achieved double gold at the Culinary World Cup and a gold and a silver at the Culinary Olympics.

After leaving the Royal Navy he took up a few jobs, including becoming Haven Holidays' first in situ head chef, before taking over the Craft Guild Academy's Culinary Team and taking them to the Culinary World Cup. It was here that Ryan would be introduced to Compass and a very short while later join their team.

Shaun Dalton, General Manager Chartwells Independents

Unlike Ryan, hospitality had always appealed to Shaun as he was always a very friendly and, in his words, "hospitable" person. He also already had a fondness for cookery from time spent cooking with his grandmother and mother.

Because of this, and the changing industrial landscape that he left school into, catering college seemed like the obvious next step. As part of his training, he was put on a placement in the only rosette restaurant in his hometown of Newcastle Upon Tyne, which he stayed at for three years after leaving college. 

Whilst he was working at this restaurant, the team went down to Hotel Olympia or as it's now known, The Restaurant Show. It was while at this show that Shaun "was absolutely amazed watching the British Army team of chefs cook" and got talking to a recruiter at that event. Only two months later he was away on his basic training.

He stayed in the regular Army for two years before leaving to travel the world as a cook. In fact, during his career as a chef, Shaun has cooked on every continent - yes even Antarctica when he was out on an expedition there. But after travelling, he came back to the UK and joined the Army reserve system, as he missed the camaraderie and support network he found in the Army.

As a civilian chef, Shaun has worked in most sectors but currently works in catering for education through Chartwells Independent (part of the Compass Group UK & Ireland) where he has run the catering for some of the most prestigious boarding schools that Chartwells works with.

Working with Compass as a veteran

It was clear to see from talking to both the chefs that they thoroughly love their jobs and the opportunities they had through them. Both chefs also mentioned their love of the diversity and variety that came with the job.

Ryan specifically said: "I know people do thrive and strive on consistency, but I like the challenge of everyday being unique. I like to be challenged. I like to challenge back."

He also described how he likes to see the different team makeups and bringing people together as a team.

“I don’t know what it is about kitchen life," Ryan said. " But there’s never really a bad day. A less good day maybe, but there’s always a laugh and there’s always joke and that, for me, is important."

For Shaun, it also allows him the flexibility needed to continue being a reserve soldier. 

"I was looking for a job that was Monday to Friday; good hours, still earning a good salary, but giving me the time and the scope to fulfil my commitment to the regiment and obviously, Compass Group UK & Ireland has signed the Armed Forces Covenant. So, they do give me an extra ten days, paid, to go off and do my reservist work."

He added: "From the managers downwards, it's just full support."

Ryan explained there is a really good military support network within Compass and that the instructions from management are always very clear and understanding.

On diversity in the group, he said: "I work in a very strong team, we're a good mix. There's a 50/50 split of ex-serving and never served, so there's a good mix in understanding of what we do in our food offer.

"There's a good gender balance across my patch as well and Compass are strong promoters of this, with amazing chefs in the business."

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The Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 20th June 2022

‘I don’t know what it is about kitchen life, but there’s never really a bad day'