Behind the drama of Royal Ascot, it’s a family affair

By Will Adams -

And that’s a wrap on Royal Ascot 2022! An incredible week of horse racing, spectacular fashion, and delectable fine dining. To celebrate, we went behind the scenes and spoke to Gemma Amor, award-winning culinary maestro and Executive Chef at Ascot Racecourse.

As executive chef at Ascot, Gemma Amor has days at the races like no other. They’re long, intense and there’s the odd bit of mopping, but that’s how you serve perfection to 40,000 people in one day. She explains how a family ethos grounded in respect helps her team support an event like no other.

Royal Ascot has to be seen to be believed. I’ve been here for 27 years and I still can’t get over it. If you don’t like horse racing, come for the spectacle. And if you’re serious about food, well you can’t move for Michelin stars. My team design menus, find great local produce and serve food and drink of all kinds. They staff the kitchens run by celebrity chefs, fry great fish and chips and even cook for The Queen.

I first came here in 1996 when I took a seasonal job before catering college. I tried a few hotels after that, but nothing beats the buzz of the Royal Box. I’ve worked at Sandown and Newbury racecourses too, but Ascot is in my heart.

 I was the eldest of seven children, so I’ve always known how to make myself heard. What I didn’t always know was how to lead, and that’s where Sodexo came in. They accept that there are different styles and helped me grow into mine.

I got the best advice from my mum, which was to treat everyone you meet with respect. My amazing head steward has worked here longer than I have, but I’ll treat a colleague who’s here for a week in the same way. I need everyone to feel part of the family, because our staff numbers can jump from 30 to 300 in the space of a few days. And if that means me and my head chefs busting out the mops when the pressure’s on, we’ll do it. It’s the only way to deliver on such an epic scale.

There’s plenty of women with Michelin stars, but I can count the number who are household names on one hand. The high-end restaurant scene still feels pretty male dominated but working in fine dining here is different.

I’m not saying the hours are more sociable, because it’s a world that comes alive at night, but if you’re passionate about a career in this sector then it’s a fantastic place to be.

I went from commis chef to head chef and now executive chef, which means I do more design and planning than cooking. Covid-19 affected the hospitality sector quite badly, so we went down to the bare bones at one point. But our client still needed us because we cater for their on-site team, so we pulled together and got it done. Turns out I can still make a decent cream tea.

I learnt the skills I need for my current role by watching those around me. Like the importance of a good rapport with your client, how to get your costings right and recruit the best people. These are skills I’d never have developed had I stuck to my first plan and become a pastry chef. And they’re skills that will never go to waste.

Sodexo has nurtured my career for 27 years, so I’m now paying it forward. We’re training about 30 catering students here at Ascot, and it’s a part of my job that I love. The gender balance isn’t 50/50 yet, but it’s better than when I was training.

They’re learning about food, about service and about sustainability too. We get our preserves from Highgrove and our lamb from within the Royal Estate, and we’ve got meetings coming up about cutting our carbon footprint even more. It’s a great environment for young people.

My advice for budding chefs…

It's quite easy to spot the students who aren’t sure about the choice they’ve made. But I always tell them it’s okay, just keep learning. There’s nothing wrong with being an all-rounder because it’s how you’ll find what you love. 

I also tell them not to focus on what they think is holding them back. I’m quite severely dyslexic and yet here I am, in my dream job, loving life. I just have one note of caution about working at Ascot.

Once you’ve cooked spectacular food for The Queen, nothing else cuts it.

gemma
 

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