An audience with Tom Kerridge

20 November 2015 by
An audience with Tom Kerridge

Westminster Kingsway played host to the chef, who talked about embracing his role on TV, why Wetherspoon is his inspiration and the kit he can't live without. Amanda Afiya and Janie Manzoori-Stamford report

Food & Drink programme, author of three cookbooks, a past Great British Menu winner and Saturday Kitchen regular.

Kerridge was a child actor, with roles such as 'borstal boy' and 'thug one' on television shows like Miss Marple and London's Burning, but his first notable job in catering was a stint as a commis chef at Calcot Manor in Tetbury, Gloucestershire.

"The moment I went into a kitchen, I loved it," he says. "I loved the idea that the guys were very similar to the naughty boys I went to school with, but there was a hierarchy and a structure and a learning curve. I felt like I was in an environment with incredibly professional people who are also having a laugh."

Kerridge went on to do a year in the kitchens of five-star London hotel the Capital in 1994. Three years at the Stephen Bull restaurant followed, then two years with Gary Rhodes at his Pimlico restaurant Rhodes on the Square, before Kerridge joined Odette's in Primrose Hill as sous chef.

A stint at Monsieur Max in Hampton came next, and then, in 2003, Kerridge moved to Norwich to take over the running of the kitchen at Michelin-starred restaurant Adlards. He parted company with the restaurant 18 months later in order to find his own site with his sculptor wife, Beth.

After initially hoping to open a restaurant in London, the couple's limited budget meant they ended up taking over a run-down pub in Marlow and, after a refurbishment, the Hand & Flowers opened in February 2005, adding four guest rooms two years later. The restaurant picked up its first Michelin star in 2007 and four years later it became the first gastropub to be awarded two stars.

Christmas 2014 saw Kerridge and his team launch their second pub, the Coach - a no reservations, all-day dining venue inspired by the business model of pubco JD Wetherspoon - with The Independent‘s Tracey Macleod describing it as having the "ability to balance technical finesse with the instinct to satisfy".

Always keen to give back to the industry he so quickly fell in love with, Kerridge took a couple of hours out from his busy schedule to share insights into his incredible career, the growth of his business, the career progression for his team and his flourishing media career, during The Caterer's recent interview sponsored by CCS at Westminster Kingsway.

How did you come to buy the Hand & Flowers?

Beth and I had been looking for a restaurant in north London, but when we were about six weeks away from completing, it all fell through. We were a bit despondent, but it was probably a blessing in disguise because, when we went down to the West Country to see my mum, we had dinner at a lovely pub called the Trouble House Inn in Tetbury. The head chef was Michael Bedford, who was previously at City Rhodes, and the place had a Michelin star. I was eating his food, wearing jeans and trainers, and I had a red mullet soup as a starter and it was one of the most incredible-tasting, simple bowls of soup.

He had lots of press cuttings in the corridor towards the toilets and one of them jumped out at me: "I didn't have the money to buy my own place, so I took on a tenancy from a brewery, so they owned the building and we just put the business in." Then Beth came back from the loo and said, 'I've just read a tiny little thing…' and I said 'no way!' We're both comfortable in pubs, so we started looking.

At the time, did you plan to make it a pub-restaurant rather than a pub-pub?

It's not on the drinking circuit of Marlow, because it's too far out if you're walking, and it's not in the restaurant strip as such - if you don't know it does food, why would you go there? It was a catch 22 - too far out to get drinkers in, but there was nothing about it that would bring people in to eat because we hadn't achieved anything yet. It took word of mouth to get going.

We had 14 tables and we kept four free for people who just wanted to come in and have a drink. We did live jazz on a Sunday, full English breakfasts - everything possible to make it work like a pub. It slowly started to build, which was really lovely. We were over-delivering on what it looked like we offered, so people kept coming back and asking to eat at the four tables kept free for drinkers, and I would say 'quick, give them a knife and fork!' We opened in March 2005 and by October 2005 every night all 14 tables were sold. And then it got to a Saturday being fully booked a week in advance, which we couldn't believe.

When we took it on, we worked with a Greene King accountant, and I remember telling them there's no reason why we can't work really hard and earn £10,000 a week in turnover. He laughed at me, and I thought, I'll show him. The first time it turned over £10,000, I rang him up and mugged him off massively.

Although you were doing the turnover quite quickly, how profitable was it?

It's always been profitable to a point, but that profit has always gone back into the business. There are probably 10 members of staff at the Hand & Flowers who earn more money than me. It's never been about money for me - it's about making a living for people and being able to do what we do, and Beth being able to get to a point where she can make art.

It was very difficult in 2008 because the recession hit and small businesses were affected the most. In the restaurant and hotel industry there are a lot of people who work on credit and they start getting squeezed because people can't pay them on time and they start going under.

On a Friday night we would finish service and I would get my two half-broken Kenwood food mixers out and make 150 loaves of bread throughout the night. The next morning, Beth would take the loaves to our little stall in the centre of Marlow and sell the bread, and we would clean down and get back onto doing the next service. It would be a 48-hour shift Friday/Saturday and the bread would make about £180. That money would go towards paying our mortgage. We were doing everything to stay afloat and make the business work, to pay the suppliers and the staff. It was massively difficult, but you come through the other side. Doing Great British Menu in 2010 was a great turning point. Fortunately, I went on to win, and when you win and you come across well on telly, people want to come and eat in the pub.

That Great British Menu effect is incredible. It allows the British public to see other chefs up and down the country that aren't usually in the media. There are some really innovative, quirky and amazing chefs out there that people didn't know about.

How was trade affected when you got your second star in 2011?

The second star was huge. It was mental. For the staff it was just the most phenomenal achievement. My general manager, Lourdes, has been with me for nine years and Aaron, my head chef, has been with me for eight years, so it's a team of people that grew together. It was the most jaw-dropping, outstanding moment ever.

But the first couple of months were quite bumpy, because it's a pub with no linen on the tables; there was none of the faff that people expected from a two-star. We had people saying, "Well, it's not Le Manoir, is it?" Nope, it's not Le Manoir, we're a pub on the way to Henley. We had a lot of consumers not understanding why it had achieved two-star status and I think we got knocked a lot in the industry. It's not about how many canapés or petits fours you serve - Michelin inspectors make] a judgement on what they are given.

The first couple of months were difficult, and we had a couple of reviews that weren't pleasant. But then it came right round the other side because all of a sudden the food snobs disappeared and the people who want to eat out and enjoy themselves and turn up in jeans and trainers came and applauded it - they loved it. They embraced the fact that it was offering a fantastic standard of food at value for money in an environment that everyone is comfortable with and it's now gone the other way, which is brilliant.

How did you deal with that period mentally? You'd set your stall out, you hadn't gone out to win two stars - they had come to you.

I care what people think of me as a person; everything I do I want to be credible and rock solid and honest, but I have an incredibly thick skin. I'm massively determined - I run an incredibly polite dictatorship at the Hand & Flowers. But once I make my mind up on something and I have decided it is going to happen, it will happen. I will smash everything down in its path to make sure it happens. So in terms of people knocking it for not being what they want it to be, I think, well, hang on a minute, we were given two stars as a team and we will stand strong - we don't even have to defend it. If people don't get it, it's not our fault. If reviewers don't like it, if bloggers don't like it, that's fine. Obviously no-one likes being told they are rubbish in a review that is read by everyone because you have no comeback.

We do 160-170 covers a day, 85 covers a service, with people going away having had a fabulous time. That tells you we are getting it right. Dave from Bolton has come down for his wife's 50th and has had an ace time - and that's all that matters.

You have the rooms very close to the pub. How much of a difference have they made to the business?

It's made a difference to the business in that people can stay there, but the reason why we bought the rooms is because they're my pension. So I'm a chef without a pension scheme and like every person out there, you start thinking, how do I save up? If it's your business and you are not an employee, you're not quite sure how much to put away into a pension scheme. The Hand & Flowers owns three houses - eight rooms over three houses - that we hope will eventually be paid for, so those three houses will end up being our pension. They are an investment.

Of course, there are a lot of people in the industry that don't actually have any assets, and the moment they walk away from a business, it ceases to be what it is. Yes, we own the lease of the Hand & Flowers, but it isn't the freehold of the property, so once the lease is up, what do you have?

So how does it work at the Hand & Flowers?

It's a Greene King pub. You hear so many horrible things about pub companies and landlords, and I honestly could not tell you of a better company to work with.

When you sign the lease, you have a list of how much the beer costs. You know how much every barrel is going to be, so you have to write your business plan according to that. If it's not going to work, don't take it on and then moan that somebody else isn't helping you.

Greene King has been really encouraging. We've been open with them from the start and they've been the same with us. Once they got to know us, and we got a Michelin star within 10 months, they realised we must be doing something right.

The relationship has grown massively. They are a good company and I would argue that most pub companies are the same. They're full of people that don't want hassle. They want young people in there that want to have a go at their own business and are determined to make it work. That way, they can go in once every six weeks or so, check everything is right, and say great, see you in six weeks. They want it to work.

Tell us about the Coach.

Pubs have to offer something to everybody. About 12 of us from the Hand sat down and talked about what we want from a pub: where should it be, how can we make it work. We wanted it to be a place where you could have interesting and affordable drinks and food, but I didn't want to serve a three-course meal.

The Coach site is quite small with an L-shaped bar. It's got 17 seats at the bar and about another 20 around the outside. It's compact. It's a tiny little high street pub and, as a business model, it can be stolen and it can fit into any other tiny pub space in the country. It would be better if it was in a town because you're more likely to have passing trade.

We looked at the morning trade and thought, as a business, Wetherspoon is amazing. They open up in the morning and do the full English breakfast for something like £3.99 and there's always loads of blokes in high-viz jackets on their way to work. They're paying rent on that site, so they open the doors. Then they do coffees and cakes for mums that have just done the school run, and it's busy again. Then they do a lunch special where you can get a pie and chips for £4 and maybe a free half pint of beer. Then in the afternoon they've got the builders that started work at 7am coming in for their afternoon pint at 4pm. Then they do a happy hour, or a curry night on a Monday, and this is driving business all day long.

It's seen as a drinking pub, but actually the reality at Wetherspoon, I would guess, is about 51% of its turnover is food-led. That's quite a big margin for a drinking pub - it's busy and it's what people want.

So we stole it. We looked at the Coach and thought, why can't we do a Wetherspoon-style pub that is of a standard that we want and a place that we would like to be. The business model is amazing, but we wanted more. We have a head chef that's been at the Hand & Flowers for five years, so we decided that if he would make the pies, we'd do whatever else.

Do you hanker after a glitzy restaurant in the middle of London at all?

We have quite a few offers, some of which we take very seriously; some we completely ignore. I don't hanker after a two-Michelin-starred environment with loads of sommeliers and £250 tasting menus. It's not for me. It's not my style. I like robust, three-course, Á la carte food that's full of butter, dairy, stocks and sauces. I like that and it suits me in a pub. But never say never. If the right thing comes along, we would look at it.

It's taken us 10 years to get to the point where we could open the Coach. Staff is a big issue. The only reason we opened the Coach is because we've got this wonderful core of staff that have grown with us. Nick [Beardshaw], the head chef at the Coach, has been with us for four and a half years at the Hand as senior sous chef and this is his chance to grow.

The idea of opening somewhere without having any key members of staff is terrifying. If we were to do something else it would have to be heartfelt, solid and with key staff - until that comes along, we won't even look at it.

Tom Kerridge on…The skills shortage Everybody is saying they don't have any staff, but since I was 18 years old, every kitchen I've ever worked in has been short-staffed. I don't know that it's any worse than it has ever been. As a workforce, people want more from their industry than just 100-hour weeks, bollockings and shit staff food. Just because I went through that doesn't mean to say 18-year-olds now have to do that. The industry has to change and, as employers, we have to look at what people want. At the Hand & Flowers, they get a share of the tips through tronc and chefs de partie are probably as highly paid - if not higher - than they are in London. They get days off, they get private healthcare… they're completely looked after. Phones down during service Yeah, you haven't got time for it. But I'm not anti-social media, or phones. If you're a chef with a tiny brain like me and you're easily distracted on Twitter or whatever, that's not going to help you get your mise en place done. You have to be a grown-up and responsible about it. Everywhere I've worked it was very difficult to have the radio on in the kitchen because the head chef was a grumpy fucker that didn't want it there. I'm massively into my music, so we'll always have the radio on. I also love my football, so tonight the Champion's League match will be on in the kitchen - no sound - but it will be on. We try to make sure that even though you're working hard you know what's going on outside the four walls of the kitchen. It's not great for society for chefs, when they leave, to just drag their knuckles and grunt at people because they don't know what's going on in the world. They need to be able to have a conversation. Kit he can't live without We bought a Pacojet for the Hand & Flowers when we opened. It was the first piece of equipment I bought. The rest of the kitchen was all bought at auction and the first kitchen was done for five grand. I tiled the wall myself. It all fell off. We had a shelf fall off in the middle of service with a load of crockery on. I did that myself. I don't do that anymore. We bought a Pacojet because of its size and because it meant we could make real ice-creams and not have to buy in stuff. Now our chicken parfaits, mousses and pestos are all done in it. We have six Pacojets across both sites. There's two or three working at any one time, plus three as back up because we can't live without them. TV I've always been really comfortable in my own skin. The one thing I've learned from television is, to be good, you have to take it as seriously as running a restaurant. It's not a doss. It has to be fun because no one wants to watch people having a rubbish time on telly - unless it's Big Brother! You have to enjoy the show that you're making, but at the same time I take it as seriously as anything else I do. It's a weird industry, because it's full of massively paranoid people. I don't mean just in front of the screen, but because it's freelance - the people in charge of the cameras, the sound guys… they're always looking for the next job. So it's different from catering in that sense, but in terms of the hours, the money, and the way that people work, it's very similar. Contrary to what people think, you don't earn big money on telly. Everyone is passionate about it and you end up with, hopefully, a beautiful product that's sold to the customer and lasts half an hour. It's the same as a main course. Being a chef Is it worth it? Undoubtedly. There are moments when I've been so tired, but you come through and think this is brilliant. It's the best industry ever and I wouldn't change a single thing. My biggest learning curve has come in the last couple of years from recognising that I have a voice. Before, I thought I was a bloke that was sometimes on the telly, but I didn't really realise that people watched it. So when I say or do something it has a repercussion. I learned from making daft, clumsy comments in interviews or on social media, but hopefully in the last year we've kind of turned it around. Female chefs We need all sorts of people and this goes back to what we said about changing the industry to make it a more staff-friendly. We've got to attract chefs in general, not just female chefs. The gender of the chef makes no difference - it's the attitude to the work that's needed. We have four female chefs at the Hand & Flowers in a brigade of 16, so that's not bad, and we have two at the Coach. In general, kitchens are work-hard, play-hard places, but the banter does have to change. A conversation between four blokes is different from one between two blokes and two girls. At the Cheltenham Literature Festival, the comment I made about female chefs was a massively clumsy one, and when I look back it was clever journalism that led me down a blind alley. Those are the things that I'm more aware of now. A word from CCS ![]( Antony Ward, marketing manager at CCS, says: "As the world's foremost suppliers of the finest quality catering equipment and professional clothing, we are extremely pleased to support the series of An Audience with… It was fascinating to listen to Tom and hear his advice for aspiring chefs. It's a wonderful opportunity to see leading chefs interact with the audiences and talk about issues about which they are passionate." [Are you looking for a new role? See all the current restaurant vacancies available with *The Caterer* Jobs >>
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