Tom Kerridge is one of the new wave of celebrity chefs. He tells Sarah Freeman about the debt he owes to Marco Pierre White and why he’s now teetotal.
Tom Kerridge is much the same chef viewers last saw on television cooking his way through a calorific Christmas dinner.
He’s just finished another busy lunch service at the Hand and Flowers, which he opened with his wife Beth almost 10 years ago, and as he talks of his new book, the West Country burr is unmistakable. However, there is one difference. As he shared the secrets of his spiced orange cake with plum sauce and Christmas pudding ice cream, Kerridge looked like a man who liked his food. These days he’s a little slimmer and it’s not just the sweet stuff he’s given up.
“I’ve been on a different diet, where I basically just eat protein and grapes. But the big thing is that I’ve given up booze. I knew I was drinking too much for a while. Chefs are notorious for their tendency to drink a lot, but in an industry full of drinkers I was one of the biggest of the lot.
“I won’t lie. It was hard at first, any habit is hard to break. When I gave up smoking 20 years ago I just woke up one morning and decided I wasn’t going to have another cigarette. I did the same with the drink. I knew there was no way I could just cut down. I had to stop completely. I’m an all or nothing kind of guy.”
While it’s that attitude which got him in trouble with drink, it’s also the reason for his success. Along with his wife Beth, Kerridge, who will be appearing at Chatsworth Country Fair later this month, opened his first gastropub The Hand and Flowers in Marlow in 2005 and within a year he had won his first Michelin star. Two years ago he made it a double – becoming the first pub to have ever been awarded two stars.
The judges were impressed with a menu which currently includes potted artichokes with cured pork, summer truffle, trompette and rye and a spiced tranche of cornish monkfish with roasted cauliflower, peanut crumble and verjus - all a long way from the baked beans on toast and fish fingers he used to feed his younger brother.
“My parents got divorced when I was 11. We lived with my mum who ended up with two jobs just to make ends meet, so I cooked for me and my brother out of necessity. It wasn’t anything exotic and I can’t honestly say that’s where my love of cooking began.”
In fact it began a few years later when at 18 he got his first job in the kitchen of a local restaurant in Gloucester.
“I just loved the environment, I loved the banter. It felt like a lot of naughty boys thrown together in one room with a lot of adrenalin and a lot of sharp knives. I’d never felt excitement like that before.”
Marco Pierre White also helped a little. At the time the Leeds-born enfant terrible of the kitchen was in his ascendancy. He’d won two Michelin stars in consecutive years at Harvey’s in Wandsworth Common and was just about to earn his third for The Restaurant Marco Pierre White in the dining room at what was then the Hyde Park Hotel. He’d also just published White Heat. Part cookbook, part memoir, the moody photographs taken by Bob Carlos Clarke showed White smoking in the kitchen and sitting in a garden, a dead baby shark across his lap.
“Marco Pierre White changed cooking and he changed my life too. My mum bought me a copy of White Heat for my 18th birthday and it was a revelation. Before that cookery books had been little more than text books, but here was a real glimpse inside the kitchen. It showed you the camaraderie, it showed you what it meant to be a world class chef. I’ve met him a couple of times since. For me it’s the same as meeting royalty. He is just phenomenal.”
After catering college in Cheltenham where Kerridge says he learned basic cooking techniques and developed a passion for seasonal produce, his real education began. By the end of the 1990s he was working as sous chef at Rhodes in the Square under Gary Rhodes and after a spell at Odettes he got his first head chef post at Bellamys Dining Room and his last was at Adlards in Norwich.
“I didn’t set up on my own until I was 30. I wasn’t naive. I knew that I had lots still to learn. When we finally decided that we were ready, the one thing I knew was that I wanted to create somewhere I would feel comfortable eating. There’s a place for fine-dining restaurant, but for me it had to be a pub.”
Kerridge’s signature dish – a souped up version of a hog roast, accompanied by a stuffed pig’s trotter – tells you a lot about his approach to cooking. It’s about taking classic British dishes and making them sharper and more refined. He may not be of the Heston Blumenthal school of alchemy, but he does believe restaurants like The Fat Duck at Bray have helped revolutionise cooking in this country.
“We need these people who are pioneers, who push the boundaries of cooking. A few years ago no one had heard of waterbaths, now everyone uses them. Over the last 10 or 20 years, British chefs have shown that they are not afraid of change and that they are up for embracing new technology. I won’t name them, but that’s not true of some other countries.
“Ultimately though it has to be about both style and substance. It’s why I like Michelin. Being awarded a star is a sign of personal achievement and it’s good for the business in terms of being able to attract the best calibre staff, but I also like the fact that they reward consistency and they are not influenced by fashions or trends. Food critics look for stories, that’s their job, I understand that they want the next buzz, but Michelin take a step back from all that, it’s about the strength of produce that you use.”
A regular on the Great British Menu and guest chef on last year’s series of Food and Drink, Kerridge has built himself a public profile which will be further boosted when his next series Best Ever Dishes goes out in the autumn. The accompanying book is out later this month.
“Apparently I used to say this is the ‘best ever dish’ quite a lot on the last series, so that’s where the idea came from. Being on television makes a big difference, but I’ve always said that I will never do anything purely for commercial reasons. I do things because I want to do them, not to make a profit. I know some chefs find it hard to balance those kind of commitments with being in the restaurant, but I’m lucky. I’ve worked with the team at the Hand and Flowers for years, so they make it work whether I’m there or not. In fact the only heartache is for me, I miss it a lot, it’s where I’m happiest.
“At the moment I think I’ve got the best of both worlds and television is very similar to the catering industry. On the bottom rungs of the ladder there are people who don’t earn an awful lot of money, but they do it because they love it.”
Viewers warmed to Kerridge’s down to earth style, but his ease in front of the camera should probably not come as a surprise given he was a bit of a child star. “Ah that, honestly it happened a little bit by accident,” he says of his first foray into show business. “A friend and I joined the local youth theatre, we were getting a bit wayward and I think our mums thought it would be a good distraction. Three weeks later I was filming an episode of Miss Marple. It’s a claim to fame, I suppose, but I never took it very seriously.”
Kerridge admits that he’s a workaholic and describes running the Hand and Flowers as his life. So given his imminent trip north, what’s his best ever Yorkshire pudding recipe? “Ok, here goes, 450g plain flour, 750ml of milk, eight eggs. Mix it together. That’s it.” When I suggest that sounds like enough mixture to produce industrial quantities of puddings he pauses for a moment, before admitting: “I guess you’re right, but you can never have too many Yorkshire puddings, can you?”
As he said, he’s an all or nothing kind of guy.