Tom Kerridge has come a long way since the days when his Sunday lunch was courtesy of Bernard Matthews. “His turkey roll was big in our house,” says Kerridge, “and one of the supermarkets did sausage meat in a roll – mum used to bake that and serve it with peas and potatoes. It was a roast dinner without an actual joint of meat.”
Nowadays, the two-Michelin-star chef is more likely to be found serving the slow-roasted duck breast that won him the “main course” category in the BBC’s Great British Menu in 2010 and remains a signature dish at the Hand & Flowers.
When diners at his pub in Marlow, Bucks, ask to meet him, he invites them to the kitchen rather than ducking under the low 18th-century beams and encroaching on their table. “I’m a very large man,” he laughs, affecting a comically deep voice to match his robust 6ft 3in frame. “Behind the bar I’m OK, but it doesn’t add to the relaxed experience, having me standing over you, booming ‘Hoooow was your meeeal’?”
In every other sense, though, he’s making his presence felt. This year Kerridge, whose pub is the only one in the UK to have earned two Michelin stars, has gone from quietly successful to bowling over the food-loving public with his BBC show, Proper Pub Food.
That was just for starters. The 40-year-old then knocked Jamie Oliver and the new Bridget Jones off the top of the best-seller book lists with his first collection of recipes. And now the Hand & Flowers has been anointed the UK’s best restaurant at the 2013 National Restaurant Awards – another first for a pub.
Kerridge sits swigging a huge takeaway coffee, shaking his head. “It’s all gone completely mental,” he says, grinning. “Every Sunday afternoon, hundreds of people send me pictures on Twitter of my slow-cooked lamb with boulangère potatoes.”
A few weeks ago, while exchanging messages with Lily Allen, he realised things would never be the same. “Lily and her five million followers… She said something like ‘Tom Kerridge is such a dude’ on Twitter, and people from the past were getting in touch to say, ‘Look at you, best friends with celebrities – how far you’ve come!’.”
How far, indeed. Just three years ago, Tom and Beth, his wife of 13 years, were working 20-hour days, and he was baking bread through the night every Friday to sell at Marlow’s Saturday market to pay one of his chef’s wages.
But he has had far more on his plate than your average Michelin success story. “Considering where I started, the fact I’m doing this at all, that anyone wants a book signed by me, is unbelievable.”
Kerridge grew up on a Gloucester council estate in circumstances that could have led him down another path. His father, Michael, a draughtsman who taught at an art college, had multiple sclerosis and died when Tom was 18. But long before then, “he was not exactly what you’d call a good dad. There were issues with drink and ladies, so actually he wasn’t the best husband. He became frustrated with his life, and it festered him into a place where he didn’t want to be.”
When his parents divorced, Tom was 11 and his brother, Sam, was eight. “Before that, he wasn’t really around, and when he died I didn’t feel the absence because there was never really a father figure in my life.”
Young Tom learnt to cook out of necessity – he prepared his little brother’s meals after school – while his mother, Jackie, a secretary by day at the local education department, washed dishes at a pub to support them. “We were latchkey kids, but mum was the best mum and dad you could have. She worked so hard, still managed to come to all my rugby games, and had this non-stop drive to make sure we were all right. And she loved her job – there was no sense of ‘Poor me’. I wouldn’t want her to have done anything differently: my work ethic and attitude to life comes from her.”
But money was in short supply. “If we had real beef or chicken it was extra special, because we knew that mum must have a few extra quid. It never felt like we were doing it on the cheap, though, because she did it with so much love. Mum taught me to make spaghetti bolognese on Thursdays for Friday’s tea – that’s how I learnt that flavours improve and mature. At weekends she’d make tea in our garage for all the naughty boys on the estate, because at least that way she knew what we were up to.
“There were fights at school. It was surrounded by council estates, so it was idiotic territorial stuff,” he continues. “But I was the one who said, ‘Right, that’s enough now’ – or I’d go home. There’s a point when the police come round and tell you off, and another when they pick you up and take you to the cells, and I knew the difference – so Mum didn’t have to worry.”
None the less, he dropped out of his all-boys’ comprehensive school at 15, with two GCSEs. “I wasn’t academic. I was hopeless with numbers, all right with words but not spelling, and although I was good at rugby and cricket, there wasn’t enough that interested me to hold me there another two years.” He had what he calls “the lost years; dossing about until my mum joined me up for a youth theatre group, to keep me off the streets.
“I ended up in a Christmas special of Miss Marple, in a borstal scene; I was ‘Thug One’ in a play, then I played a thief. I thought, ha, I’m getting all these parts because I’m a big lad, but I didn’t have any desire to do it.”
Eventually, Tom’s mother suggested a catering school in Cheltenham. “It would have been easy for her to insist I found a secure job at the local building society, but she never did that. She said, ‘do what makes you happy’.”
While he has no regrets, he believes that the wasted years might have been better spent if non-academic skills had been recognised at school. “Any top restaurant kitchen is like a pirate ship from the 1700s – full of naughty boys, who weren’t academic, playing with knives. They’re the lucky ones who found someone who gave them a bit of self-belief, but many don’t.
“I’m just lucky that Mum set the tone, and my life is still run by strong women. Beth is the most incredible person. She comes from a self-made family who built a business from scratch; we both learnt that if you want something you have to make it happen – no one is going to do it for you.”
He hasn’t escaped unscathed, though. “I’m constantly terrified of losing it all. I’m not lavish, I’m not interested in wearing bespoke Ozwald Boateng suits, but when you’ve come from nothing, you never want to go back there; when you do get to the point where you have something, you value it more. The business is working; I’m not wealthy, but I have a beautiful wife, a nice house, a car and three brilliant dogs, and I know how lucky that makes me. We are fully booked for months, but I still wake up in the morning worrying that no one will come.”
Surely, judging by the reaction to Proper Pub Food, which returns for a one-off Christmas special next month, he need not fear.
Kerridge modestly disputes that his is the best restaurant in the country, but feels that pub food, done properly, has struck a chord at a time when the restaurant world is no longer imitating France and Italy. “We’re finally being proud of our produce and our own traditions – and they’re showcased by real pub food, which we also associate with comfort and a warm welcome.”
He may branch out into another British-style venture, such as a tearoom or a fish-and-chip place, and “will not let up for a minute” until he has paid off his mortgage.
Opportunities pour in, but he is determined to keep his integrity. “We got an offer from an airline, but they needed everything to be halal and kosher, and I’m known as such a lover of pork, it would feel wrong to take the money. You have to stay true to yourself.
“I’m a chef first. You’re not going to see me on Strictly, put it that way.”