Michael Weston-Cole is the executive head chef at Bowland Village Inns
Michael Weston-Cole found his way into life as a chef almost by chance, thanks to a minor staffing crisis at Burlington's in Lancaster on a Saturday evening in the late 1990s. The pastry chef failed to turn up, and Weston-Cole volunteered to step up from his pot-washing job and have a go himself. "The head chef showed me how it went, and after that I was hooked," he says.
That triggered a career in catering which saw Weston-Cole work under the influence of several top chefs, starting with John Benson-Smith, who became the head chef at Burlington's. "I was very lucky to land such an exceptional chef straightaway, and that set me off in the right direction," he recalls.
Weston-Cole spent two years working at different restaurants in the Burlington's group until the age of 18, when he landed his next job, at Jean-Christophe Novelli's Auberge du Lac at Brocket Hall in Hertfordshire as a chef de partie. "It was really picturesque and felt like there was always a film crew or some big event going on," he says.
But after two years, he heard that Peter Fairclough was set to join the Old Rectory hotel in Wiltshire, and he followed, spending 12 months there. "Peter's cooking ability was second-to-none and he taught me a lot," Weston-Cole says.
After another 12 months at Nutfield Priory in Surrey, Weston-Cole relocated back to the North after his mother lost both her parents in quick succession. Although unplanned, the move resulted in one of the most significant changes in his career so far. "A job at Lancaster House [part of English Lakes Hotels] came up. I thought: well, it's not what I have been doing because it involves banqueting and conference catering, but I'll take a look at it," he explains.
He made major changes at the hotel, doing away with practices such as bringing in frozen desserts, and producing the food in-house again. The hard work paid off when he was awarded the "Lancashire chef of the year" title in 2006.
In 2007, the board of English Lakes Hotels asked him to shake up the catering at the Bay restaurant at the Waterhead hotel in Cumbria, shortly after a £6m refurbishment there. "It was a lot easier than I thought it would be. I went in with a two-year plan and within 12 months it had turned around - we had 40-50 diners every lunchtime and 100 every night."
Last year he joined the board of gastropub operator Bowland Village Inns, where he is group executive chef.
Business is going well, according to Weston-Cole, despite the tough trading environment. "The businesses that struggle during the recession are the ones that just sit back and expect customers to come through the door. It doesn't work like that. You have to go out on to the street and drag them through the doors, if that's what it takes."
HIGHS… A month ago, Weston-Cole became a member of the Masterchefs of Great Britain, which has only accepted 250 chefs into its ranks in its 30-year existence. "When I was a young chef John Benson-Smith was a Masterchef of Great Britain and he still is now. I have worked for several top chefs now, almost all of whom were Masterchefs, and it was a target in my life that one day I would be one of these elite chefs, too. It was something I wasn't expecting for another 10-15 years," Weston-Cole says.
LOWS… When working as a young chef in London and the Home Counties, Weston-Cole missed his family and the North. "Although there were millions of people around me, it was the loneliest and most horrible experience of my life. But if I hadn't had those experiences, I probably wouldn't be who I am, where I am today," he concludes.
Family A long-suffering girlfriend of eight years
Drives BMW 318 coupé
Motto Don't wait for your ship to come in - swim out and meet the bloody thing