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Chris Wheeler – My Life in Hospitality

29 January 2010 by

Chris Wheeler is the executive head chef at Stoke Park Country Club and Resort.

Chris Wheeler told his careers officer he wanted to be a zoo keeper, but was informed he would have to be a vet.

"Catering was my second choice," he explains. "I suppose it's nearly the same though - feeding animals!"

After a nine-month cheffing work placement in France, Wheeler realised that he didn't want to do anything else.

"There is such a passion for food in France and it was infectious," he explains.

Upon finishing college, Wheeler had the choice of earning £120 per week at a local fish and chip shop or £50 per week working for Jean-Christophe Novelli at Le Provence in Lymington, Hampshire.

"Obviously I went to Le Provence - something to this day my father has never quite understood," he laughs.

Within a few months the restaurant was awarded its first Michelin star and after just a year, Novelli gave a 19-year-old Wheeler an ultimatum: step up from commis to sous chef or be sacked.

However, in 1993 the entire staff walked out of their jobs at the same time after the restaurant owner turned up one evening and demanded a customer leave so that he may have his table.

"Jean-Christophe walked out that night. The rest of us finished the service but we didn't go back," remembers Wheeler.

Despite being offered the job of head chef at the tender age of 20, he chose to develop his skills as a pastry chef at a Surrey hotel before rejoining Novelli's team at the Four Seasons Hotel in Mayfair, which proved to be a massive change in both lifestyle and workload.

"It was a shock to go from the country to London. We all had to step up a gear because we suddenly had so many restaurants to compete with," he says.

"But it was an amazing experience. We were awarded five AA rosettes, which is a fantastic achievement for a seven-day operation."

When Novelli decided to quit Mayfair for Clerkenwell to open Maison Novelli, Wheeler went with him. There followed a tumultuous period of dizzying highs followed by a crashing fall.

"After six successful months at Maison, we went crazy. We opened six restaurants in one year," he recalls. But four years later, all six businesses went bankrupt in one week.

In 2003, after a period of freelancing and unemployment, Wheeler decided it was time to set up on his own, at which point he went to Stoke Park Country Club and Hotel as executive head chef.

HIGHS… At Stoke Park, Wheeler was able to put his pastry skills to good use when he was asked to bake the cake for the 2004 Daniel Craig film Layer Cake, which cast and crew all tucked into at the end of shooting.

Le Provence provided Wheeler with some of his biggest career highlights.

"Every Monday we'd have the likes of Raymond, Marco - my heroes! - coming down to see us. I still have the photos," he recalls.

"Getting the first Michelin star was a huge high. We were so excited we jumped in the river - it was January so it was quite cold!"

When Fay Maschler came to review Maison Novelli, Wheeler had to don Novelli's white shirt and take charge of front of house.

"No one else spoke English," he explains. "It was the best experience. I really learned to appreciate the jobs of others."

As a result, Wheeler makes sure most of his chefs at Stoke Park spend a few weeks in a customer-facing role so they too can understand the bigger picture.

LOWS… Aside from periods of unemployment, Wheeler describes the closure of all six Novelli restaurants as his lowest point, particularly as they'd declined an offer of £5.5m to sell the chain.

"We'd worked so hard and we were doing so well, so it was really difficult when it fell apart. But we had spread ourselves too thinly.

"When I get depressed, I dig out and look at that offer letter."

Family Fiancée, twin daughters
Age 36
Favourite holiday Lake Como, Italy
Drives Ford Maverick
Motto Give everybody a chance


RECESSION-BUSTING TIP

Look for new clients, but don't forget your bread and butter clientele. Take care of your regulars and they'll stay with you.

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