'We are seen as a preferred employer and we are seen as a career of choice'

The Staff Canteen


You would be hard pressed to find many people quite as committed to hospitality as Nick Vadis.

"I always fancied being a chef," he said, being the son of a Cypriot chef - and the Mediterranean culture of sharing large meals with family at home - encouraged him along the way. 

Originally from Fairfield in Manchester before he moved to Nantwich Cheshire, the culinary director at Compass Group UK and Ireland joined the Navy when he finished high school because he knew that it would broaden his horizons.

"It was a small town, everybody just stayed there. If they went to work, they went to Crewe Works and worked on the railway, or Rolls Royce and worked on the cars, or they just did mundane jobs," he explained.

"It didn't seem like any focus for me. I thought, 'd'you know what, I need to get away, I'm going to join the Navy.'"

However, he soon realised that the life of a helicopter mechanic wasn’t for him. When he told his superior, he was asked what he would rather do instead.

"I said, 'I want to be a chef.' Being a chef at the time was the lowest of the low, so once he'd picked himself up off the floor and stopped laughing at me, he let me be a chef." 

"I never looked back, it was the best thing I ever did," he said.

24 years later, Nick came out of the Navy with a raft of experience, a teaching degree and a profound appreciation for the structure and diversity of prospects it had offered him.

He carried that ethos into his next role at Cambridge University, where he helped open an executive training centre and conference facility. Though he enjoyed his first job as a 'civvy,' the realities of the role - the hours, the commute - didn't work for Nick and his family, so he decided to make another change and secured a job as the executive chef for British Airways.

It was only later that he realised he had been working for Compass, as it is the airline's contractor, and that as a company it was striving to provide a real, high-calibre hospitality experience.

Nick furthered this aim by creating the 'sleeper service' as we know it, whereby first class and club flyers are offered pre-flight meals, of higher quality than on-board food and allowing them to sleep once on board. 

His feeling of being part of something great was strengthened when Nick was sent to stage at Le Gavroche. 

"It was only three days, but I remember doing service there on the last night. The following night I was doing service at British Airways - I always remember looking over the stuff that was going over the pass - and I thought, 'you know what, it's not a million miles apart.' 

“You're not going to get any stars in a workplace environment, but it just reconfirmed that what we did on a day-to-day basis in either the private dining, the executive dining or the staff feeding was good," and that "Compass and its trajectory is ambitious for food. Food is our hero," and although it does provide facilities management services as well, "we're a food company first."

Nick secured the job of executive chef at Compass in 2007 and was later named chef director, and, in 2012, culinary director. He has by no means rested on his laurels whilst at Compass, nor does he intend to.

Encouraging fresh talent to join the hospitality industry, and specifically contract catering for Compass, is no mean feat considering the current staffing crisis, but he is all ears, and has an exhaustive list of reasons why it is one of the best employment opportunities around.

It’s not just geographic location or type of offering, either; the benefits for anyone wishing to work at Compass are many – employees are offered a career plan, training, flexible work, a safety net, rewards schemes, and more, all without sacrificing the tight-knit atmosphere of being part of a brigade in an independent restaurant.

"There's a lot more cross-pollination between sectors," Nick explained, which helps with retention and letting people move around within the group accruing different experiences. 

"It's a game changer - we're giving people more opportunities to develop within." 

"Most young chefs, just like me, they don't know what they want to do, they know they want to cook and they know they want to be treated fairly, to have a good work-life balance. Going back 20-30-40 years, that wasn't thought about."

"People nowadays, they want more out of life." 

"Compass gives them that. Contract catering has come of age, we do the Brits, we do the Oscars, we do all the big sporting events around the world that you can think of, we've got a Michelin star restaurant with Jason Atherton [City Social]."

"Some of the stuff we're doing in the city is equal to restaurants within the private sector; we operate within the banking sector, on oil rigs - you can go anywhere. 

"We are seen as a preferred employer and we are seen as a career of choice." 

The change in how contract catering is perceived has even made it into colleges, where until two decades ago they only ever spoke about hotels and restaurants, he explained. 

"Now they're talking about it, because it's good hours, the money is comparable - and in a lot of areas it's better - and your training and development is better." 

"Compass is full of people who care, they really do care about the next generation." Even donating some of its educational levies to other firms, he said, "that's what it's all about for me. It may be massive, but it's all about family." 

What does Nick have to say to chefs who want to work for the independent restaurants striving for excellence, like Noma or Eleven Madison Park? 

"Don't get me wrong, there's nothing wrong with chefs wanting to do that, but there aren't that many jobs within Noma, there aren't that many jobs within Eleven Madison Park,” he said. 

“You wouldn't stay there forever - you go in, you do a stage, you do a period of time there, because you'll invariably be a one-trick pony there." 

"You'll be doing one element, just doing the garnishes on that fish course and you'll be doing it for four months. To me that's quite mundane, you're not being expressive, and creative, because until you get to be the head chef, you're not going to be influencing the dishes too much.

"That isn't for everybody, and sadly there aren't enough jobs for everybody to want to go and work there, people have to go and work somewhere else in the industry. 

"Coming into Compass right now - and coming into this sector right now is an opportunity, we're onto something new. Every contract caterer has been through the same pain and some might not come out quite as strong, but we've got all the levers in place to make this a fantastic business as we move forward." 

Whilst the pandemic might have caused people to think differently about hospitality, he said, "we're coming out of this now and it is absolutely the right time to come to us. We're in growth, we're expanding, we're giving more training and development, we're investing more in our people - to me, this is the juncture to come on board." 

"If you're ever going to get on the bus and come on the journey with us, this is the time to do it. We're growing and we want to take you with us."


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The Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 11th October 2021

'We are seen as a preferred employer and we are seen as a career of choice'