Durham County Council’s County Durham Care Academy is helping people with a wide range of skills find careers in health and social care. PETER BARRON talks to a former Army chef now loving his job preparing meals in a care home…

WHILE touring the world as a chef in The Army for 14 years, Darrell Lyne loved being part of a team, knowing he was performing a valuable role.

Today, he finds himself in very different surroundings, having swapped war zones for a peaceful corner of County Durham, where he’s serving up home-cooked meals in a care home.

And yet, he still loves the team spirit, and sense of purpose, that makes working at the Acorn Grange residential care home, in West Cornforth, so enjoyable.

“In some ways, it couldn’t be more different, but it’s also very similar in other ways because there’s still that great camaraderie and spirit of working together to achieve something that matters,” says Darrell, who made the career change with the support of County Durham Care Academy.

The Care Academy was set up five years ago to help independent adult social care providers develop a valued and  skilled workforce.

“I thoroughly enjoyed my time in the forces, but I’m loving what I do now because cooking’s always been my passion, and it’s so rewarding to be helping look after people who deserve the best,” says Darrell.

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He grew up in Kent, the middle of three children, and can’t remember a time when he didn’t know how to cook. “It was just something I always enjoyed – I suppose it came naturally,” he says.

His dad served in The Army, while his mum worked as a care assistant during the week and in a catering company at weekends.

“The care home and catering company were next door to each other and, as a kid, I used to pop in and help my mum, making cakes and things,” he recalls.

Straight from school, he took an apprenticeship in the Army Catering Corps and, four years later, won The Army’s Under-21 Chef of the Year title. The prize was a six-month placement at Clarence House, the residence of The Queen Mother, on The Mall, in London.

“The Queen Mother had her own private chefs, but I gained invaluable experience, working with top chefs, preparing meals for the household staff,” he says. “It was an amazing time. I saw a lot of the members of the Royal Family, especially the then Prince of Wales, now King Charles III, and I learned so much.”

Darrell’s service in The Army also included tours of Northern Ireland, Germany, Canada, Cyprus, Norway, Belize, and the first Gulf War. There were plenty of “hairy moments” along the way, including being injured when he was in a wagon that hit a mine crater, and overturned, in the desert near Kuwait.

After leaving The Army, Darrell got a job working with computers in an engineering firm in Leicestershire, but it wasn’t long before he found a way to continue his love of cooking. His mum was a keen bowler, and, through her connections, he started to look after the catering for local bowls clubs.

Darrell had always enjoyed his visits to the North-East during holidays and, in 2012, he and his partner decided to relocate to County Durham. The couple wanted to buy a house after their mothers passed away, and property prices were much more attractive in the north.

Darrell joined a catering company, working as a chef manager in canteens within large North-East companies. However, when the Covid-19 pandemic struck in 2020, he was made redundant, along with many others in the hospitality industry.

He took a job, working from home on the Census, but he began to suffer from heart problems soon afterwards, and couldn’t work for a while.

That led to the intervention of a support organisation, Reed In Partnership, which helps people back into work after health issues. Darrell gradually became well enough to take a part-time role in school catering, and, as his health improved further, he was ready to return to full-time employment.

That’s when Reed In Partnership contacted County Durham Care Academy.

Russell Nichol, Durham County Council’s commissioning officer for the Care Academy, was sent Darrell’s CV, saw that he’d had an interesting career in catering, and spoke to him about whether he’d ever considered using his skills in the care sector.

Darrell was supplied with useful information, and Russell arranged an interview, which led to a job in a care home in Durham. Following the closure of that home, Darrell wanted to stay in the care sector. To help him achieve this, Russell arranged an interview for Darrell at Acorn Grange, before providing advice and support that helped him get the job.

“It’s really satisfying to help direct people with all kinds of different skills and experience into roles in the care sector that they may never have considered before,” says Russell.

“Care Academy is an open resource, continuing to provide support beyond that first contact, and it’s great to be able to help someone like Darrell find a job that he finds fulfilling.”

Darrell started at Acorn Grange last August, working 8am to 5pm – four days a week –cooking breakfasts, dinners, and hot evening meals for residents and staff.

“It’s not what I would have expected because you don’t realise how attached you get to the residents,” he says. “It feels like one big family and it’s reassuring to know that, in later life, people are treated in the way they deserve.”

Darrell also enjoys the fact that he’s still able to pursue his passion for cooking, but without the same pressure often found in other areas of catering.

“There’s not the same intensity as working in a kitchen in a busy restaurant, or in The Army, so it gives us the time to be flexible with the residents. If they don’t like something on the menu, we can usually come up with something else for them. After all, they’ve earned the right to have what they want!”

Darrell’s clearly content in the latest phase of his career and is “enormously grateful” for County Durham Care Academy’s guidance.

“I’m a round peg in a round hole, and the Care Academy was instrumental in helping me to think about something new,” he acknowledges.

“Having the chance to cook for a living, while being part of a dedicated team that’s making a real difference to people’s lives, doesn’t feel like work – it’s a privilege.”

  • Find out how you could start your amazing career in care with the County Durham Care Academy. There’s free training and one-on-one support to help you make the switch to a fulfilling career in the care sector you can be passionate about – like Darrell.