Belfast Telegraph – ‘I don’t work for Michelin stars, but they are nice’

Tom Kerridge describes himself as “not a Michelin star kinda guy”, which might appear odd coming from the man famous for being the first chef in Britain with two Michelin stars for food produced in a pub.

It all becomes clear when he explains how he has transformed the nation’s notion of pub grub.

His now-famous pub – The Hand And Flowers in Marlow, Buckinghamshire – is a traditional, rustic English pub where he wants his patrons to feel at home while enjoying gourmet food.

It’s a wear-your-wellies-if-you-want kind of place, where, without any effort, you can enjoy the best award winning food without the formal fine dining atmosphere.

It’s about keeping things simple.

Kerridge (40) explains: “I’ve worked in Michelin-star restaurants my whole life but I’m not a Michelin-star kind of guy. I wanted to open a restaurant where people feel comfortable.

“If you want to come to the Hand & Flowers and sit out in the garden in shorts and flip-flops, that’s absolutely fine. But you’re still going to eat Michelin-star food.

“It’s to do with the public perception of what Michelin star food is and what the reality is.

“‘It’s not about starched table cloths and posh restaurants, it’s about great food.

“I’m more comfortable in my jeans and trainers than having to dress up and I think people are changing and are more relaxed these days.

“There are times and occasions for dressing up smart, but I think more and more people want to eat out every day and as an industry we need to be catering for that but at the same time show that you don’t have to compromise on good food.”

Kerridge is THE celebrity chef of the moment in the UK – his own series on BBC 2 started last week, Proper Pub Food and a new book by the same name currently climbing the best sellers list.

He added to his long list of accolades last week with the prestigious AA Chefs’ Chef of the Year award which he said he was “proud and overwhelmed” to receive.

He is Belfast-bound next month when he will be demonstrating his skills to the local industry as part of the Hospitality Exchange 2013.

Now in its 14th year the event on October 15 and 16 in the Ramada Plaza Belfast is the province’s largest tourism and hospitality conference. Kerridge is one of a line up of chefs who will be doing a live demonstration at the hospitality showpiece.

Joining him in a newly extended Chef Kitchen event, will be two local chefs who are no strangers to television themselves: Noel McMeel, Executive Chef from the Lough Erne Resort who recently cooked for world leaders at the G8 summit, and Ian Orr from Browns Restaurant Group and Northern Ireland representative in this year’s Great British Menu.

Belfast Telegraph restaurant critic, Joris Minne will take on the James Martin role, with wine expert Denis Broderick matching the chef’s creations on the day.

Tom has never been to Northern Ireland but has two Belfast chefs working for him and says he is looking forward to visiting the city.

He says: “One of my good friends is from Belfast and two of my best chefs – Andrew Provan and John Joe Kyles are Belfast boys. They’ve been working for me for over a year and they both work very hard. They have that attitude that most Irish chefs seem to have, especially the chefs from Northern Ireland, to just get in there and get on with it.

“I’m looking forward to showcasing what we do and if anyone can pick up anything from it then great and I’m looking forward to picking up some things too.”

Before learning his trade training with some of the best chefs in the country he had a brief and very successful foray into acting in his mid teens.

He was a natural and could easily have become a big star but said he hated the whole idea of putting on a performance.

Growing up in an estate in Gloucestershire it was to “keep off the streets” that he joined a local youth theatre company, where his talent was spotted straightaway.

He recalls: “There was an agent there to see someone else and I guess I stood out in the crowd a bit because he signed me and two weeks later I was filming in a Miss Marple Christmas special for the BBC.

“I did other bits and bobs for about a year and a half but I didn’t enjoy it very much. It wasn’t really my thing showing off or pretending to be someone you’re not.

“I’m quite happy to talk to people and do cookery demonstrations but I don’t like that whole putting on a performance thing.”

It was out of necessity that he got his first taste of cooking when he was a teenager.

His parents divorced when he was 11 and his mum held down two jobs to keep him and his brother and Tom cooked dinner while she worked.

At 18 he got a job as a kitchen porter and said he knew instantly that he wanted to cook.

“Just that atmosphere of being in a kitchen and the work hard attitude and discipline and the fun really appealed to me. I just knew it was the right thing for me.”

After catering college he aimed high and trained with some of the best chefs in the business: “If I was going to do something I always was going to do it quite well so I tried to work with the best chefs to learn as much as I could,” he said.

He started off as a commis chef in Calcot Manor, moving on to work for Stephen Bull and then Gary Rhodes at Odettes.

From there he had a spell at Monsieur Max in Hampton before moving to Norwich to take over the running of the Michelin-starred Allards.

His ambition to run his own place came about when he decided to take over a rundown pub in Marlow, The Hand And Flowers with his wife Beth in 2005.

Within a year he claimed his first Michelin star and in 2012, won a second, a first for a pub in the UK.

His celebrity profile started to build with TV appearances on shows such as Market Kitchen and Great British Menu.

He holds the accolade of being the only chef to win the prestigious main course title twice on Great British Menu.

He has returned to the series as a mentor, accompanied by Phil Howard, who was a guest at last year’s Hospitality Exchange in Belfast.

His early performance skills – whether he enjoyed them or not – have made him a brilliant entertainer who is in big demand to demonstrate at live events.

He insists that for him it has never been about celebrity.

He says he still finds it difficult when people comment on how much he has achieved.

He says: “Its weird but I don’t feel as if I have achieved much.

“It’s just about working hard and trying to get better every day at what we do and enjoying it.

“I’m pretty rubbish at business. For me it is about enjoyment and if I enjoy something I will do it and with that has come success.

“It was never about making the business a driving force in anything it was just about making sure we are good at what we do and enjoying it every day.”

The secret to his food lies he says in his ingredients.

“We are very very good at shopping.

“We are always trying to find the best produce we can from simple vegetables like potatoes and broccoli to fine fillet steaks and great fish.

“We treat is as it is supposed to be treated with love and respect. It’s all about the quality of the produce.”