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The man with the plan

EXPERIENCE and an understanding of eating out in restaurants are the foundations on which you can teach a young person to cook, according to David Pitchford, chef-proprietor of Read’s in Painter’s Forstal, Kent.

If anyone should know, he should. The two most recent winners of the Young Chef of the Year competition, Mark Sargeant in 1996 and James McLean in 1997, have both spent the most formative years of their training at Read’s. It is quite a remarkable achievement for a 48-seat restaurant, albeit a Michelin-starred one.

The fact that Sargeant and McLean carried off in successive years what has become the most prestigious and lucrative award for young chefs in the UK has a lot to do with the encouragement and coaching provided by Pitchford.

Sargeant, who recently returned to Read’s for a fill-in stint after leaving his last job at Coast in London, has no doubts that he wouldn’t be cooking as well as he is now if it hadn’t been for Pitchford’s constant encouragement to achieve his potential. He entered the Young Chef of the Year while working at Le Soufflé restaurant at the Hotel Inter-Continental, Hyde Park Corner, London, having left Read’s, where he had worked for three-and-a-half years, the previous year.

“David gave me the push to do the Académie Culinaire de France’s Annual Awards of Excellence, which I was very nervous about, but it put me in good stead for the Young Chef competition,” says Sargeant. “He opened my eyes to good food by organising for the staff to eat out. Eating in other restaurants teaches you how to cook. You come back eager to re-create the food you’ve tasted.”

McLean, now junior sous chef at London’s Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park Hotel, is equally enthusiastic about his mentor. “David pointed me in the right direction and is the reason I got as far as I did,” he says. “He has an incredible knowledge and understanding of competitions and was always 100% supportive. When I decided on the dishes that I was going to cook in Young Chef, he spent time with me talking through the ideas and provided me with all the ingredients to practise with. I can’t thank him enough.”

In training both chefs and front of house staff, Pitchford believes you can get no better understanding of how a restaurant operates than by being a customer yourself, so he organises trips to the best and most innovative restaurants in the country.

Of course, such outings are expensive, and to finance the meals Pitchford initially asked his staff to contribute £2 weekly to the “grub tin”, a sum which has now increased to £3. “We’ve been everywhere,” says Pitchford. “Le Manoir, the Waterside Inn, Le Gavroche – we’ve even been to France. Our most recent meal out was at The Square in London, and next time we’re going to the Oak Room at Le Méridien, Piccadilly. The staff end up doing between two and five trips a year, depending on where we go to eat.

“It is a great learning exercise. We’ve only ever had one real disaster, which in fact turned out to be a positive experience. We held a post mortem afterwards and the staff were adamant that they would not allow what they’d experienced to happen here.”

McLean, who worked at Read’s for nearly three years, says he would never have been able to afford to have eaten at so many inspiring restaurants without Pitchford’s initiative. “It was fantastic,” he says. “You can’t get the same information from a book that you get by actually tasting a chef’s dish.”

Pitchford believes that at Read’s he can provide young chefs with a training equal to that of any major hotel. “Hotel chefs would probably disagree with me, but in the right sort of small restaurant, chefs can have a very thorough training,” he says. “We do all our own butchery and fishmongery here, so the chefs deal with all the ingredients from their most raw state right through the cooking and serving process.

“Everybody here does everything, including pastry, which for most chefs can be their Achilles’ heel,” he says. “The training happens on the job. Every morning I draw up a list of chores for the day and each chef can choose whatever job he likes from the list. The most self-motivated ones tend to choose jobs they haven’t done before and I’ll show them how to do it.”

Sargeant explains how the system gave him a good all-round training. “I started on pastry, moved on to the veg section, then ended up on the sauce and fish,” he says. “In a big place in London, you tend to get stuck on one section for a whole year, and the pastry is shut away somewhere behind closed doors. Here, you are constantly getting ideas from what others are doing around you.”

Pitchford’s present brigade numbers five, including himself. He and Sargeant do the main courses and fish, while Glen Trower is the pastry chef, trainee Paul Gavin, who does day release at Canterbury College, helps between the sections, and Robert Whitcombe is the porter.

Entering his chefs into competitions has provided Pitchford with an additional means of training. Preparing for the different stages provides a wonderful learning curve. It is something he has been passionate about ever since he himself won the Craft Guild of Chefs National Chef of the Year in 1986, the first competition he had ever entered. Rona, his wife, was his commis chef. “I was encouraged by Brian Price, who was a senior lecturer at Ealing College and himself a previous winner in 1972,” he says. “I always remember he said that ‘while perfection is difficult to achieve, there is no harm in pursuing it’.

“I’ve encouraged chefs like Mark and James to enter competitions because it’s a good way of making them believe how good they are. It is also a great growing-up exercise. The success that Mark and James have achieved has led to publicity and offers of work on television, something which they have to learn to handle properly.”

Read’s itself has benefited from the spin-off publicity, as it did when Pitchford became National Chef of the Year. “We’ve received better publicity than you could ever pay for,” he says.

But doesn’t encouraging staff to enter competitions ultimately mean that they are going to be poached from you? Pitchford accepts this, but recognises that they are going to leave you eventually anyway, and it is better for them and the image of the restaurant that they go away well-trained and successful. n

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