The Big Interview: Tim Bilton

Chef Tim Bilton at his new restaurant the Spiced Pear, Hepworth, and with his family, below.
Chef Tim Bilton at his new restaurant the Spiced Pear, Hepworth, and with his family, below.
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Chef Tim Bilton looks to have it all; the restaurant of his dreams, a loving wife and two great kids and a television profile many would envy. But behind this success he has been fighting a private battle, as Catherine Scott discovers.

The Spiced Pear Hepworth is everything Tim Bilton ever wanted.

His own fine dining restaurant and tearoom, fields where he can have animals and grow fruit and vegetables inspired by his time working for Raymond Blanc at Le Manoir Aux Quat’Saisons where he can build a future for himself, his wife Adele and their two sons Henry, seven, and one-year-old Charlie.

“Being a chef is a lifestyle not a job,” says the 41-year-old. “You work all hours and at weekends, but you do it because it is your passion. I just love it.”

Many people will know Tim for the five years he spent at the Butcher’s Arms in Hepworth building up the run down pub into a destination gastropub which gained him much acclaim.

But the Butcher’s Arms was owned by Enterprise Inns and Bilton knew that he wanted to own his own pub. He is a true Yorkshireman and a believer in bricks and mortar as a way of securing his and his family’s future.

“We tried to buy the Butcher’s Arms three times but each time they turned us down. I knew I wanted my own place, somewhere to plan the next 20 years. Pensions are up and down, bricks and mortar is where you need to be.”

Although the lease isn’t officially up on the Butcher’s Arms until September, Tim went about acquiring the Spiced Pear which, at the time was called The Hepworth and before that Cragrats.However, just 10 weeks before the doors were due a bombshell was dropped on Tim’s carefully laid plans.

“We’d all been working really hard to get the Spiced Pear ready,” he explains. “My back started to give me a bit of trouble and so I went to the doctor to get some painkillers. While I was there I just happened to mention that I’d had a shadowy type spot on the white of my left eye and would he mind taking a look at it. It didn’t hurt but I’d had it for sometime and it was starting to itch.”

The doctor didn’t like what he saw and referred Tim immediately to an eye specialist at Huddersfield Royal Infirmary. The doctor there did some tests and said he wanted to refer him to a specialist in Sheffield.

Even then he wasn’t unduly concerned, his mind was on his new business. But when the professor locked the door behind Tim and his wife, he started to realise all was not well.

“He said he was 99.9 per cent certain that I had cancer,” recalls Tim. “The minute the word came out of his mouth I just had an out-of-body experience. I remember looking round and realising he was talking to me. Adele was asking lots of questions but all I could think was ‘I have a restaurant opening in 10 weeks I haven’t got time for cancer’.”

And that was pretty much how Tim dealt with the news. It is only now, three months on, with his new business already a success that the reality of what could have happened seems to have hit home.

He knows full well that he should have gone to the doctor’s sooner having had the spot in his eye for more than a year. He also knows that the cancer could easily have spread to his lymph glands, seriously reducing his odds of recovery, and that he could also have lost his eye.

“I know I am extremely lucky that I went to the doctor with something completely different that day and he recognised that it was serious,” he says. “I know I should have gone to the doctor earlier, but we men just aren’t very good at that. I never thought for one moment that it was cancer. We are told about other forms of cancer I check myself regularly, but people need to be aware and take action if they are worried at all.”

Three weeks after he was told her had a malignant melanoma in his left eye – a very rare form of cancer which affects one in 10 million people – he underwent an operation to remove the tumour. It involved taking away 40 per cent of the white of his eye under general anaesthetic which needed 30 stitches. He was told to rest, but ever the stubborn Yorkshireman, after the operation on Wednesday, he was home by Thursday and then back to work on Friday.

“I just had to get on, I wasn’t going to let it get in the way,” he says. But Tim’s body said otherwise and although his eye was relatively okay, the after-effects of the general anesthetic knocked him for six and he was forced to take some days off.

But the Spiced Pear still opened on time, with a celebratory party on May 18 where no one but close family knew what Tim was going through. He has to go for six monthly MRI scans to ensure the cancer hasn’t returned and just a week after we met he was due to have a radiation patch put on his eye for 24 hours to kill any remaining cancer cells.

“The doctor says I have to rest after that, so we are going on holiday for a week to make sure that I do.”

It is the first time in years that he can remember taking a family holiday and although he was looking forward to spending time with Adele and his two boys, he doesn’t find it easy to let go of the reins of the Spiced Pear even for a week.

“I have a great team here,” he indicates to the front or house and kitchen beyond. “We bought the core team with us from the Butcher’s Arms and they are as passionate as I am about what we do.”

Tim got bitten by the cooking bug at the age of 13. A working class lad from Knottingley he had no experience of fine dining. In order to pay for a season ticket to his beloved Leeds United he got a job washing pots at Swiss Cottage in Pontefract.

“I was completely transfixed by what the chefs were doing. I would wash up as quickly as possible so that I could use the rest of the time to watch them work.”

From pot washer he got promoted to the peeling shed where he would tackle a mound of carrots and potatoes, eventually working his way up through the kitchen ranks.

“I knew that was what I wanted to do and I still have that fire and passion to drive forward.”

On his day off he attended Wakefield College to get the qualifications he needed, but his break came when he did a two-week work placement at Le Manoir after which he was asked to stay on.

“It was incredible. I was 18 or 19 and there was Mick Jagger dining in the restaurant and I remember Albert Roux driving up in his car. Raymond Blanc was fantastic. I then knew this what I wanted to do.”

He worked in France and Italy but when his mother died when he was 22 he admits to having some wilderness years.

“I did start to question what I was doing and lost my way a bit.”

He decided to go into teaching and studied for his certificate of education. “I had left school with not one qualification and there I was graduating from university, it was a proud moment.”

It was while teaching catering students back at Wakefield College that Tim met and married Adele and when she was pregnant with Henry, he took an evening cheffing job at Bibi’s Italian restaurant in Leeds to bring in some extra cash. When they offered him the job of head chef he decided to take it.

“I still had this fire burning in my stomach. I thought ‘I’ve got to have my own place or I will look back and regret it’.”

So in 2008 he went to look at the Butcher’s Arms and could immediately see its potential.

“I had a sort of epiphany. I could see exactly how it could be. Then I had to go home and convince Adele that we should sell the house and invest in the pub.”

During the five years he was there Tim and the Butcher’s Arms won many accolades. He published his first cookery book, Bilton’s Basics and was asked to appear on the Great British Menu.

“It was emotional leaving,” he admits. “Adele and I did talk about possibly running them both, but in my experience that just doesn’t work.”

The Spiced Pear is intentionally about as far as you can get in ambience from the Butcher’s Arms. The latter was low ceilings and beams – a true English pub, whereas the Spiced Pear is light, airy and modern and Tim has plans for three boutique bedrooms.

It was also important that land came with his new project as over the next three years he wants to make the restaurant 50 per cent self sufficient.

“We already have four pigs who are clearing the land, and 20 chickens arrive next week. Then I am planning to put in some polytunnels so that we can grow our own fruit and veg. If I can replicate just a small percentage of what RB (Raymond Blanc) does at Le Manoir then I will be happy.”

Tim is more than aware, especially following his health scare, that family is vitally important.

“This is a young man’s game,” he admits. “But we only live a mile down the road, Henry comes in the mornings and plays in the fields with the animals. Having my own business means I can take time off on a Saturday afternoon to see him play football.”

Adele is working with him in the business and he says the support of his in-laws is invaluable. As for more television appearances, he says it is not top of his agenda. “I did enjoy being on the Great British Menu and it was great to bang the drum for Yorkshire and all the fabulous producers we have here, but it is very time consuming and distracting, I want to concentrate on the Spiced Pear. I’m not saying I wouldn’t do more television but it would have to be the right thing at the right time.”