Ducking under the quaint beams of a 17th-century pub is no mean feat when you’re 6ft 3in. But for chef Tom Kerridge, who towers over the bar, this is home – and he loves every brick. It’s also, thanks to Tom, the only pub ever to have been awarded two Michelin stars.
The Hand & Flowers in Marlow, Buckinghamshire, is now a destination for foodies from all over the world, desperate to taste the fare rated so highly by an institution more associated with haute cuisine and fancy restaurants.
‘I’m much more of a white trainers and jeans kind of guy,’ laughs Tom. ‘But all I’d ever worked in was Michelin-starred restaurants and establishments with high-end cooking. So I thought, “Why can’t you do food of the same quality but with pints of real ale?”’
He and his wife, sculptor Beth, opened for business at The Hand & Flowers in March 2005 and within a year he’d won the first star; the second was awarded in October 2011. But Tom’s keen to point out.
‘We don’t for a single minute cook for the guide. Selfishly, I cook food I love to eat myself – gutsy food like lumps of meat and beautifully cooked slabs of fish, which is why I’m really rubbish at doing vegetarian food or salady dishes.’
With his no-nonsense approach and his gentle giant’s geniality, it was only a matter of time before Tom, 40, landed a TV series. In BBC2’s six-part Tom Kerridge’s Proper Pub Food, he shows us how to cook the sort of dishes you’d see in some of Britain’s best gastropubs, ranging from treacle-cured roast beef to date and toffee pudding.
Was it daunting trying to overhaul the tarnished reputation of the gastropub, which has been sullied in recent years by average food and poor service?
‘It was the opposite. Even at gastropubs that people would deem rubbishy, they’re not microwaving lasagnes; there are people cooking,’ says Tom.
‘I was actually inspired by a meal I ate at a pub called the Trouble House in Tetbury in Gloucestershire, cooked by Michael Bedford [now at The Butchers Arms in Oakridge Lynch, also in Gloucestershire], who had a Michelin star at this pub. I thought, “Oh my God, you can achieve stuff, but in an environment that’s comfortable, with staff in jeans.”’
The couple started looking for premises, found the then failing Hand & Flowers and remortgaged their house to raise the £25,000 to get it going. So what makes Tom’s food so fabulous?
‘I’m classically French-trained but I believe in British ingredients. I think we’re in the trap of wanting to cook things Mediterranean-style with aubergines and courgettes all the time, but the reality is we’re good at growing root vegetables like carrots, turnips and potatoes. So I find good ingredients and then cook in a style I like – I’m not into that whole crunchy veg thing. Vegetables are there to be cooked, and I cook them whole, so you lose less flavour.’
In between the recipes on the show, Tom visits some of his suppliers to provide tips on how to source the best ingredients, such as which cut of beef to use for your Sunday roast
‘A lot of people say you’ve got to use rib eye or sirloin, but I prefer fillet because there’s no waste. It’s easy to cook too – I marinate it in black treacle for 24 hours then sear it in a pan, where it takes on this lovely caramelised flavour.
‘Then I roast it in an oven at 55°C for about 45 minutes so you’ve got beautifully pink meat. Even if you leave it in the oven for two hours because you’re chatting, it won’t overcook.’
Tom’s parents separated when he was 11 and his mother had two jobs to make ends meet – as a secretary during the day and washing up in a pub in the evening – so Tom had to cook dinner for his younger brother Sam.
‘It was fish finger sandwiches and Findus Crispy Pancakes, but then on a Sunday my mum would do a roast,’ recalls Tom.
‘If we had enough money we might have a Bernard Matthews turkey roll, but if we didn’t she’d bake a roll of sausage meat as if it was a joint. We loved it. It didn’t feel like we were missing out on Sunday lunch, even though it was very cheap.’
After a brief stint acting when he left school at 15, including starring as a borstal inmate in a 1991 TV adaptation of Agatha Christie’s They Do It With Mirrors, his mother suggested catering college. ‘The moment I found a kitchen, I knew it was the right place – a load of naughty boys dossing about with fire and knives,’ he laughs.
After college Tom worked in top restaurants including London’s Stephen Bull under Jon Bentham – who he credits with teaching him how to get the full flavour out of ingredients while keeping cooking simple – something he puts into practice at his pub.
‘There’s no point messing about with airy-fairy food – it’s got to taste of what it is. If it’s a garlic sauce, it has to taste of garlic. If it’s a red pepper sauce, it’s got to taste of red pepper. That’s what proper pub food is all about.’
Tom Kerridge’s Proper Pub Food, Monday, 8.30pm, BBC2. The accompanying book is published by Bloomsbury, £20