The ex-Wild Honey chef opened Picture restaurants in Marylebone and Fitzrovia with Alan Christie and Tom Slegg. He talks to Katie Pathiaki about the perfect neighbourhood restaurant and fear of failure
I started cooking when I was 16. I always wanted to be in the navy or army because of the discipline, but then I saw a TV programme with Raymond Blanc in his kitchen and remember it being so focused and precise and thought I'd like to give it a go.
There was a small hotel close to where I lived and I asked the chef if I could have a job. He said yes, but because I had no experience he couldn't justify paying me, so I agreed to work for free until I had learned enough to earn a salary.
It was basic food with classical French roots and I loved it. Even though I was lost and couldn't even chop an onion I couldn't wait to go to work every day. From there I went to chef school and knew it was the job for me. Although it was classroom-based, unlike school I was absorbing everything because I was so interested; all the information just seemed to stick. After that I spent time in Galway and Dublin before moving to London.
The chefs who inspire me most are Claude Bosi, Simon Rogan and Nathan Outlaw.
The biggest lesson I've learned is to never give up. It's the most important thing I try to teach my daughter. We all make mistakes, but as long as you learn from them to help you improve and progress, that's the important thing.
From a management point of view I've had to learn the hard way. I would say managing people is my weak point, but these days I try to see the positive in everybody rather than the negative and I help them to improve their weaknesses. I used to manage everybody the same way, but I've learned that everyone needs a different type of motivation.
The industry has changed since I started, but for the better. Low staff levels have meant employers have had to improve conditions for a better work-life balance. When I moved to London I used to work 10 double shifts in a row, which is so anti-productive and damaging. You're so tired you're prone to mistakes and, more importantly, you stop loving the industry.
I don't use comparisons of how life used to be, because I don't want anybody to work the way I did. I want my staff to enjoy their time off and look forward to coming back refreshed and enthusiastic, rather than tired and anxious of what their day might hold.
Not many people know I'm colour blind. I have to constantly ask my chefs "Is this a good green?"
In my spare time I focus on my family. I have an amazing girlfriend who supports me so much, a daughter called Alannah and another child due in August. I love baking and cooking with them.
What drives me most is the fear of failure and that I might disappoint those closest to me. Every day is about trying to improve Picture. Alan, Tom and I constantly analyse every aspect of both sites to help us evolve. We are so proud of where we are compared to when we opened, but know we have to improve even more. The thought of a customer leaving our restaurant unhappy fills me with dread.
My dream is to make both Picture restaurants successful. People think you're a success because you have two restaurants in central London, but the restaurants themselves have to be successful.
Nothing beats the feeling of serving your own food in your own restaurant. In my first head chef job we were awarded a Michelin star after six months and I thought that was the highlight of my career - until I opened my own restaurant. I've been cooking for 22 years and I love it more than ever - all I need now is to find a work-life balance.
Colin Kelly worked at l'Ecrivain in Dublin in 2003, the year it won a Michelin star, before moving to London. His first year in the city was at Orrery with André Garrett and Bryn Williams. He then moved to Putney Bridge to work for Anthony Demetre in 2004, and followed him to open Arbutus as sous chef.
"I became head chef at Wild Honey when I was 27. We were awarded a Michelin star after six months and I stayed there for seven years," Kelly explains. "We opened Picture in Great Portland Street in June 2013, gaining a Bib Gourmand that September. Picture Marylebone followed in July 2016."
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