GQ – Nice one, chief! Tom Kerridge is back on TV with his Best Ever Meals

GQ: Two Michelin stars, one of the most acclaimed pub restaurants in the UK, a couple of best-selling cookery books, hugely successful TV show, Guardian food columnist… you are a proper celebrity chef now. How the hell did that happen?
Tom Kerridge: I still find it bizarre. No, not just bizarre, massively bizarre! Because I only have one business, and it’s this restaurant [The Hand And Flowers] and I love it very much. When we started there was myself, two other guys in the kitchen, my wife running front of house and my best mate behind the bar. Nine years later and we have 50 members of staff and it has become a serious operation where people have to book months in advance, and travel miles and miles to come here for a weekend. So the business itself has just grown and grown, but all the other stuff – the TV, the books, all of that ­- has come about because I’m a two Michelin-star chef in a pub! What’s bizarre is that I get recognised every day of my life now, and yet I have been a chef for 22 years and it wasn’t always like that. And in turn, the success of the other stuff has helped us build up the business. I have to say though that the term ‘celebrity’… I mean, I’m a fat, bald bloke with a West Country accent. That doesn’t sound much like a celebrity to me.

A celebrity and a sex symbol
I don’t know about that. It is cool though. What I think is great is if people like you for the thing that you are passionate about and do well. I’ve got nothing against the people that get famous from Big Brother, or whatever, but to become popular for something that you do well is great.

TV really makes all the difference, in terms of popularity, doesn’t it?
Oh definitely. And the best shows are brilliant for all the right reasons. As a nation, Britain has improved so much in the awareness of food and cooking. We care about what we buy now and where we buy it from. And we are interested in how to treat food, how to cook, all of that. You only have to look at the success of the Great British Bake Off to see how fascinated we’ve become with it. Those homely, good-cooking television shows are fantastic.

Those shows also introduce people to chefs and restaurants
Absolutely. Not every family owns a Good Food Guide, or aMichelin Guide. When you see someone on Saturday Kitchenand you think, “Oh, I quite liked him and his food looked nice”, it might encourage you to find out more and go along to their restaurant. It might not happen straight away, but the next time they are in Birmingham they might go and book at Glyn Purnell’s restaurant, or when they are in Cornwall they might try and eat at Nathan Outlaw, or Paul Ainsworth. What’s great about those food shows is they aren’t just about food. You get to see the personality of the chefs and they are all real people. They aren’t TV characters, they’re personalities in their own right.

Where did TV start for you? Was it the Great British Menu?
That was one of the first. Really, the thing I started off with wasMarket Kitchen. That was the first thing I did as myself and I really enjoyed it. It was a cooking show with real credibility, and appearing on that really helped the phone ring. We were still a young business back then and we needed all the help we could get. I’m fortunate in that I like people and I like being around people, because I think if you aren’t like that you aren’t going to be very good on television – you have to enjoy communicating with people and sharing the things you are passionate about. After Market Kitchen, I did Great British Menu and in the first year I went on to win it, which was brilliant. After that, it started to snowball.

You’re a natural on TV. What do you put that down to?
I am very lucky in that the way I am on camera is how I am as a person. I would say that I have always been very comfortable in my own skin, even as a little kid. I’ve never been bothered about walking into a room where I don’t know anybody, and like I said I love talking to people. That is a massive bonus with TV. The best lesson to learn is that you have to be professional, and you do have to do the essentials, but if you can get to a point where you are relaxed enough to think: “Actually, I don’t really care what people are thinking”, then you’re on the right track.

Do you think doing youth theatre and TV when you were young helped?
Oh, without a doubt youth theatre helped. I came from an all-boys comprehensive school in the middle of three council estates, so it was quite a rough and tumble place. If you wanted to get through school unscathed you had to be quite a tough character. My school was also heavily into sport, so lots ofrugbycricket and football, which is great for kids because it encourages teamwork. As a kid growing up, my mum and dad divorced when I was eleven, my dad was registered disabled and very ill, so I didn’t really have a father-figure in my life – so it helped me to be in a male environment and I was comfortable being part of a team and I became more extroverted. Going into youth theatre gave me the opportunity to stand in front of people and talk and hold their attention. Whether you were a good actor or not didn’t even matter… the skill was being able to stand up and feel comfortable. It’s funny, because when it came to me doing my first cookery demonstrations at 28 or 29, taking all my own pots and pans and ingredients to a village fete and cooking in front of a load of Women’s Institute ladies buying cakes or whatever, I had all that experience to fall back on.

Chefs have to be able to do so much more than cook these days, don’t they?
They really do. Those days when Marco Pierre White didn’t talk to anyone – which was great for him because back then there were only a handful of chefs who were in the media really – are over. Today, even young, up-and-coming chefs have their own agent, PR company, etc and they haven’t even got a restaurant.

Did you ever think about acting as a profession?
No… it was more of a mistake really. What happened was that when I was young and there wasn’t any rugby training, me and my friend Neil used to hang around on street corners drinking cider and being brought home by the police. We weren’t really naughty, we were just being kids, but my mum thought it would be a good idea to take us to a youth theatre. She’d drive us from Gloucester over to Cheltenham, and I was interested. The reality, though, was that we were two rough lads from an estate in Gloucester going to the beautiful middle-class town of Cheltenham where there were loads of pretty girls from nice schools. So from our point of view it was quite cool, and I think most of the girls quite liked that too. But I wasn’t in the theatre very long when an agent came to see someone else in a play we were doing, and she asked if I wanted to be on the books as well. The thing was, I was a big bloke even then and I think she thought she could get me work. And she was right because within about three weeks I was shooting the Christmas special of Miss Marple. I must have spent a year doing bits and bobs of TV here and there, and as a 17-18 year old getting £500 for a week’s work was pretty good.

But you were never bitten by the acting bug?
No. I enjoyed it, but it wasn’t something I could see myself doing for the rest of my life. At 18, I ended up getting a bit of work in a kitchen and I knew, as soon as I was in that environment, it was for me. The thing with chefs is that they are all the naughty boys you used to know at school, and it was just all familiar to me. We would have a laugh and a joke, but there was also the discipline and dedication that always appealed to me. Kitchens are full of mayhem and chaos, and bad boys who spend too much time driving their cars around at night, and it just suited me. I felt at home there, with those people, and it was a structure in which I could learn – and as soon as I found cooking I wanted to know everything.

I suppose it also comes back to that team thing, which you also enjoyed
Exactly. The biggest misconception people have about chefs is that they are just one person. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. Restaurants are all about the teams, people working together efficiently in a small space and getting the best results again and again.

What are you like in the kitchen, Tom?
I wouldn’t say laidback, but I make a kitchen a nice place to be. I remember working in kitchens when I was younger and I would have a sick feeling in my stomach going to work, because I knew it was going to be horrible. I hate that. Here, we try to make the restaurant a nice place to work. It is very hard, very busy and everyone works long hours and pushes on and it is serious graft. It is hot and sweaty and you burn yourself and cut yourself, but it’s an environment that you learn from and thrive in and that you love. And we will have the TV on, theChampions League will be on, the World Cup was on, we’ll have all the cricket on, or the radio will be on throughout the day. If someone is working really hard for me, I want to be able to make it a space that they enjoy. A lot of chefs love football and I love football, so I like to have it on… having said that, I can’t imagine many two-star kitchens that would have the football on during service!

Did you have a target when you first opened here?
When I first opened, I wanted somewhere that didn’t compromise on the quality of food, but was going to be a place where everyone who came here felt comfortable. If you want to come here in jeans and trainers, you can. If the sun is out in summer and you want to wear shorts and flip-flops, don’t worry. But whatever our guests wore, we would never compromise on our food at all. For me, too many chefs and too many restaurants are too precious about what they serve. They create what they see as a temple of gastronomy and it becomes an experience of how fantastic everything is, rather than ‘just come and have a nice time’. That’s it… it’s that simple. For me, if someone comes in, says hello, has a drink at the bar then something to eat and leaves thinking, ‘I’ve had a lovely time’, that’s perfect for me.

Do you have a cooking philosophy?
I suppose the thing I set out to do is to always make the best dish we can. Every time. And what I have learnt is that when it comes to ingredients – doesn’t matter if it is lambpork, orvegetables – everything takes ages to get to a point where it is at its best. That is just a reality. And if you try and rush them, miss out stages of maturing, whatever, you will end up with an inferior product and that impacts on the flavour. But here’s the thing – if you go through all the right growing, breeding and butchering processes and the ingredients you have are perfect, it can all be ruined with bad cooking. So for me, although the cooking is a big part, it’s nothing compared to the time and love and respect of ingredients that has to come before. That’s the hardest thing for a chef to understand.

You must have been a bit confident
Well, two years before I had held a Michelin star at a restaurant in Norfolk called Adlard’s, so I knew I had that level in me. So my theory was, if I could cook a fillet of beef to Michelin-star level, that same animal also has a shin so if I can show that cut the same amount of care and love as the fillet, Michelin just might be interested in my new place. But when we opened and the reality of running a business hit us, cooking for guide books just goes out the window. All you care about is the bottom line, what you are spending and what your making. It’s an odd scenario, because you have to work out what people want and how you can deliver that so that you get their custom. At the same time, you have to believe in what you are doing, trust in yourself, that your food and your ideas are good enough. And if they are, people will come.

But you have to be pragmatic
Of course. We have always been very price-conscious. Even now, we have a set lunch which is £19 for three courses. We are still aware that we have to attack the high street… the pizzachains etc. If you want fish ‘n’ chips here at lunch time, it will cost you £16.50 – at a two-star place, that is brilliant! So we were sensible, and then fortunately the accolades came. But let me put it into perspective: it’s only in the last year that I’ve paid myself a salary from The Hand And Flowers. For the previous eight years everything was just reinvested in the business.

And did you have bad years?
Oh yeah, terrifying. The recession hit in about 2007-2008, and we lost meat suppliers and butchers who couldn’t ride out the storm with us. We were still busy, we knew Marlow was a good area, we knew we would get through it, but it was a really difficult couple of years.

So you still had bookings?
Yeah, but we had to fight and be even more competitive. We had one star then, but we put on a set-lunch of two courses for £10. That meant we were fully booked for every lunch but we were making no money. But what it did do is generate a busy-ness and a buzz, and people still came and liked coming because there were people and it was good. So we stuck with it and kept going, and then people started coming back in the evening.

What was the lowest point?
There was a point where we set up a little stall in Marlow town on a Saturday morning. I would finish service on a Friday night and around 11.30-12 rather than go to bed, I would startmaking bread. So I would bake all through the night, and then my wife would sell it on the Saturday, and I would carry on in the kitchen ready for Saturday lunch. Basically I would work a 48-hour shift. That stall would generate around £250-£300 profit, and that would be mine and Beth’s money for the week. But that’s what you do when it is your own business. The other benefit from that is your staff see you working flat out, doing two days straight, and it helps them to buy into what you are doing and they believe in you.

Your style of cooking and the relaxed nature of The Hand And Flowers really struck a chord. Why do you think that is?
It’s funny because so many dishes that are on the menu today have been on the menu since we opened. My point is, we never opened to be a fashionable place. We set out to make good food done well. We never followed a trend. For me, everything on the menu is food I like to eat. What I want is every time a dish of food we make is passed over to the customer, the chef that made it should feel a little bit of sadness that they’re not going to be eating it themselves. That is how much love my chefs have for what they are making. The thing is, there are now 15 pubs with Michelin stars. They are producing amazing food that isn’t over the top and all about fine dining. They are places people can go, relax, have fun with family and friends, and eat really brilliant food. Fine dining is great and it has its place, but you wouldn’t just pop into Nobu, or a Mayfair hotel. You wouldn’t pop into Hélène Darroze with your kids and say, ‘Any chance of a bit of lunch?’ Don’t get me wrong, they would love to have you and would treat you exceptionally well, but the mentality in this country is that you wouldn’t pop into a fine-dining restaurant for an informal bite to eat.

How have you changed as a person over the past few years? You are, quite literally, half the man you used to be…
I am, you’re right. The thing was, in my thirties I was a big, big drinker… I mean, I drank a lot of beer. It was part and parcel of owning a pub, you work long hours, and I really enjoyed it. If I’m honest I’ve never been that into wine. I like wine, but it doesn’t really excite me. But ales… the way they are brewed, the process, the different varieties, I am a massive fan. And when you work really hard, you need a release and beer was mine. I would finish service about 11.30 at night and then get on the beer. Then I would be up again at 7am, and the problem is after six or seven pints of beer, the next day you tend to want to eat a sandwich or half a camembert, or whatever… It was my 40th birthday last year and in July I stopped the booze completely. I had a few drinks on trip to Singapore and a few atNew Year, but apart from that I’ve been teetotal. It has made a massive difference to my life.

Was it a health thing? Getting to 40?
I suppose a bit of both really. I got to 40 and I did think, what do I want to do next? And I had found myself on my day off wanting to go for a drink at a pub, rather than going and doing something. And that made me question where I was at.

Did you worry that you might have a problem with booze?
No, I didn’t worry… but I recognised the signs. It wasn’t affecting work, but it was impacting on my life. It’s weird, because I look back and I think I am not sure I would have been able to achieve what I have with this place without having that release. I couldn’t have worked so hard and with such drive, without having that pressure relief from drinking. So I don’t regret it for a minute. But I am much happier living the way I do now. I swim over a mile every day now and I need that as much as I used to need a beer. I am filming the next TV series soon and the first thing I said to my PA is: “You need to find me a pool near the studio.” And I know I’ll be itching come eight in the evening to get to the pool to get my swim in. Whereas before, at ten at night I’d be wanting a pint.

Has it changed your approach to cooking?
No, no. In terms of eating, I have cut out carbs, so I have lost well over ten stone. But in terms of the rest of my cooking, I still love big hunks of meat, I like using dairy, and those things are fine for my diet.

No ‘bad boy potatoes’ though
[Laughs] That’s right. No bad boy potatoes. I still cook ’em and they are still a massive part of what we do, but I just don’t eat them any more. I get Aaron, who’s my head chef and really skinny, to eat them.

Tom Kerridge’s Best Ever Dishes starts on BBC2 on Friday, October 3rd, at 9pm. The book to support the series is out now (Absolute Press, £25).