As Kuba Winkowski, Head Chef of the award winning The Feathered Nest restaurant in the picturesque village of Nether Westcote, on the Gloucestershire/Oxfordshire borders, prepares to enter the finals of a prestigious national culinary competition, he has taken time out to reflect on the past twelve months of his life.

“Preparing for the 2017 National Chef of the Year Competition, on top of the hours I already spend in the kitchen at the Feathered Nest, left me feeling totally burned out,” Kuba explains. “I have worked extremely hard for the past fifteen years and over the past six years, my focus has been on making The Feathered Nest what it is today. I have developed the menus and we have taken The Feathered Nest from a bistro pub to a renowned 3 AA Rosette restaurant with a reputation for excellence.”

“When you enter the catering industry nothing really prepares you for working the long arduous hours, coupled with the sheer hard work that is needed if you are ambitious and want to carve a successful career in the industry. Following the competition in October 2017, I was feeling totally burned out by the pressures my career had placed on me and I realised that I needed to make radical changes in my life if I was to continue building my career and enjoying my life.”

“Although I have a happy family life and try and spend time with my wife and young son whenever possible, I had got to the point that I wasn’t enjoying my work as much as I had been; I struggled to find inspiration and was losing enthusiasm and felt my head was in a cloud due to my negative attitude. Unless I did something drastic, I would not be able to achieve other culinary ambitions or give my family the quality time they deserve. It is very easy when you work in this industry not to take steps to lead a healthy life: finding time to exercise and eat a healthy diet is easy to overlook but it is crucially important to one’s long-term well-being. I realised the way I felt, I could not continue working the way I had been if I was to reach my 40th birthday without serious physical and mental health issues.”

“They say ‘Don’t trust a skinny chef’,” Kuba continues, “but I hope that having had a second chance of being a finalist in the National Chef of the Year competition with the final being held on the 2nd October at the Restaurant Show in London, I may have the opportunity to prove that a ‘skinny chef’ can cook! Over the past twelve months, I have lost over 4.5 stone and more importantly have changed my life completely. I started an exercise regime prompted by a physical test a personal trainer put me through. The results were shocking, so I considered my options. Working with a trainer was not one of them due to my limited time and the cost.”

“My exercise regime started with finding time in the afternoon to go for a 2 mile brisk walk around the village in which I work. This became interspersed with jogging and now I can run over 6 miles. Getting up earlier, I can do Pilates with my wife, swim and cycle to work two or three times a week. I also reduced what I eat. It is very easy when you are a chef to forget how many calories one eats each day when tasting the various dishes we prepare. When you finish your shift, you are unlikely to eat a healthy meal. Although I was eating good quality food through the day when checking the food being served in the restaurant, I was not eating a balanced diet. Initially I started by counting calories, now I eat a healthy diet having drastically changed what I cook for myself and my family.

Not only have I lost a lot of weight, I no longer suffer with a back problem which I had suffered for some time. My attitude to life has changed too. My increased energy levels have restored my enthusiasm and motivation and I have encouraged my young team to take time to join me on long walks around the Cotswolds and take part in afternoon gym sessions, as well as considering the long-term health benefits of taking a different life-style option. Since January 2018, the management at the Feathered Nest decided to operate only four days a week so we can give our team three days away from work, encouraging a healthy work-life balance. I know that there are many other chefs working in this industry who feel as I did twelve months ago, but perhaps do not understand how to take the first steps to make the transition. I am very happy to talk to them and can easily be contacted via The Feathered Nest website, email or Twitter @chef_kuba.

“Preparing for this year’s National Chef of the Year competition, whilst still very challenging, has been far more rewarding. The competition is open to all chefs over the age of 24 from across all sectors of the industry. The first stage back in February was to devise a creative lunch menu for two guests which had to be cooked within two hours. It had to have a plant based vegetarian dish using grains or pulses for the starter; a main course of lamb with two cuts and two cooking methods suitable for the summer season and a dessert of a modern approach to a classic ‘floating island’ including a seasonal fruit element.

A panel of leading expert judges then selected 40 chefs to take part in the regional semi-final when we had to cook our dishes. Competition was fierce, and I was delighted to be selected as one of the chefs who will be cooking the final on the 2nd October at the Restaurant Show in Olympia. Prior to the final, we attend a mentor day on 11th September which ensures the competitors are fully prepared for the task ahead. We are given a mystery basket of ingredients to use in the final and can ask any relevant questions. We must then devise a menu using a selection of these ingredients. On the day we have one hour to do any pre-preparation and two hours to cook a three-course meal for four people.”

“I am delighted to have reached the final for a second year and hope that with my different mental attitude and vastly improved physical stamina, I will do well this year. I am up against some fantastic chefs, so I know it will be a tough challenge. Whatever happens in the 2018 final, had I not been part of the 2017 competition, I may not have seen the light and seen how close I was to a totally physical breakdown. Now 12 months on I know a skinny chef is a happy, and hopefully, winning chef!”