Tim Barker - head chef at the Hilton at St George's Park
PUBLISHED: 00:00 12 November 2019 | UPDATED: 15:33 13 November 2019
Feasts fit for an England football team - Tim Barker, head chef of the Hilton at St George's Park near Burton upon Trent, explains why great food is a recipe for success at this four-star hotel.
It definitely takes dedication and passion to become a chef - 16-hour days, pressure to deliver hundreds of perfect dishes in a hot working environment, all while trying to inspire a kitchen team of varying experience to produce a peak performance in order to offer the best customer dining experience. Not for the faint-hearted certainly, but an environment in which Tim Barker feels perfectly at home as Head Chef at the Hilton at St George's Park Hotel on the Derbyshire border, set in 330 acres and once home to the Bass brewery family.
Tim became acclimatised to the challenges of his future career from a young age, having watched his father in action as an Army chef. This role took him and his family all over the world, before a post at RAF Stafford brought them to the Midlands.
'When I was a child I wasn't much of a fan of school and when I was given the option of going to school or working,' Tim recalls, 'I did think about going into the Army, but it didn't really fit in with what I wanted to do, so I went to Stafford College to study catering. That's where I met my partner and I started work straight after.
'My first big job was at the Duke of Bedford's hotel in Woburn where I was a chef de partie. I stayed for five years and left as a junior sous chef. It was a new hotel and became a fine dining hotel.'
After that first post Tim worked in a wide range of restaurants all round the country, which included serving up Michelin-style food at the Woburn Estate, fine dining at The Priest House Hotel at Castle Donington and holding the position of Head Chef at Swinfen Hall Hotel. More recently Tim was Resort Head Chef at Alton Towers, an incredibly demanding role which involved providing meals for guests at all six resort kitchens.
'Chefs have to move about a lot as they work their way up the ladder from Commis Chef to Head Chef. There are seven positions and you have to go through each step, and if there isn't an opening you have to move on, so if a restaurant keeps a chef for two years they've done well.
'As Resort Head Chef at Alton Towers it was diverse and incredibly busy with never a quiet moment. Summertime really was 12 weeks of madness. We served 7,000 covers a day so processing orders and ensuring staffing was a challenge. At Christmas we offered four services a day of 2-3,000 covers in each hotel, so you can imagine how challenging it was to put out that volume of food. I admit that I used to be a bit "shouty" in the kitchen, especially when I was working at Swinfen Hall because you have to have that level of discipline when you're asking people to pay hundreds of pounds for a meal. As I've got older and become a father I think I'm easier going and more interested in nurturing people rather than feeling the need to shout and bawl.'
Becoming Head Chef at the Hilton at St George's Park in July 2017 has proved perfect for Tim as a massive football fan, offering him the opportunity to serve up meals to the senior England Football Team and travel to Russia with them during the 2018 World Cup.
'That was an amazing experience,' he recalls, 'and a huge display of trust between the Hilton and the FA in our ability to deliver what they needed. These are top sportsmen, used to eating in great restaurants with their own travelling chef who has full responsibility for their food. Russia proved quite an adventure as the hotel we were based at had a fairly basic kitchen with one oven, but the hotel staff were brilliant and really looked after us.
'Our working day would start at 6am and we would work through until 10pm. It was difficult to get much sleep though because it didn't get dark and the white light keeps you awake, making it difficult to judge what time it is.
'When the team were playing games, we would travel ahead of them to their hotel to get everything ready and you could spend three days travelling to Moscow. Once the team arrived, there would be three days of breakfast, lunch and dinner, so one chef would go to bed for an hour while the other prepped the food, then we'd switch over. As a keen football fan, the hardest thing was wanting to go and watch the team play, but it was a struggle to stay awake in the stands!
'Next year hopefully I'll be supporting the FA at the Euros and travelling with the team, which again shows the great relationship Hilton has built with them.'
When the Hilton at St George's Park isn't home to all 28 England football teams, the kitchen team caters for a wide range of guests, combining elite sport with elite business, hosting conferences and events for some of the world's biggest brands, including Nike, BT, Premier League, Continental, Molson Coors and Vauxhall, alongside families and tourists using the hotel as a base to explore Derbyshire and Staffordshire.
'I love living up here,' says Tim, 'as it's a beautiful area and as a family we really enjoy walking and often walk around Dovedale and Buxton. We also have some beautiful walking trails on site here at the hotel and whenever I have a chance I try to go out and have a walk along one of them.
'The Hilton at St George's Park is unique because of the wide variety of people we cater for, and within the hotel we have several eating areas from the 500-seater Sir Bobby Robson ballroom to our bar and restaurant and Executive Lounge - as well as offering room service to all 228 guest rooms.
'We're now offering guests a chance to experience more live cooking experiences, which is great for the chefs as it gets them out of the kitchen among the guests and builds up a rapport. When the England team come we cook everything live for them. Customers always ask, "Is this what the footballers eat?" So we have tried to incorporate some of their menu items on our guest menus.'
However, despite 25 years' experience in the trade Tim confesses making pastry still fills him with dread. 'My dad is an amazing pastry chef and I'm awful - it's my Achilles heel, so I stick to three desserts and one of them is the Deconstructed Rosewater Trifle which forms part of our New Year's Eve Masquerade Ball menu.
'My favourite thing to cook is fish. There are so many ways to cook it and it has to be perfect every time. Last year I won a competition where you had to cook chalk stream trout in three ways and the prize was a chance to fish in the river they came from and eat them at a local restaurant - which was lovely.'
Working alongside hotel Executive Chef Rob Harling, the knowledge and passion they bring to their kitchen continues to inspire the next generation of chefs and helped secure the venue the Hilton UK and Ireland Hotel of the Year Award in 2018. 'We're a close team,' says Tim, 'and you know you've done well when people from your kitchen go on to great things and several have gone to London to work in some extremely good restaurants.
'Everyone at the Hilton at St George's Park works together as a team and I genuinely love coming to work here. My family are used to my crazy hours now and I still love working with food.
'I enjoy eating out as I always pick up new ideas, though my aim is always to cook good food that leaves the customer full and happy - but hasn't cost them an average monthly mortgage payment!'
The Hilton at St George's Park is at Newborough Road, Needwood, Burton Upon Trent, DE13 9PD. Businesses can find details of conference and events facilities on 01283 576626, email firstname.lastname@example.org or log on to midlandsconferences.co.uk