The Caterer Interview: Chris and James Tanner

28 November 2014
The Caterer Interview: Chris and James Tanner

From raising funds at a car boot sale for their first restaurant to creating a mini empire, the Tanner brothers talk to Lisa Jenkins about their steady rise to success

How did you both start out in the industry?

Chris Tanner

James Tanner I had done work experience for the Roux brothers while at college when I was 22. I went on to work for them full-time in New York. When I came back to the UK I joined Martin Blunos at Lettonie in Bath. There were just four of us in the brigade and it opened my eyes to a different style of food - Latvian peasant food at two-Michelin-star level. We had a little Bonnet oven and a tiny kitchen and we did everything together. We were very competitive and it was really intense.

Did you always plan to set up a restaurant together?

CT We always talked about it. In 1998 I was working at Kitley House, a Grade I-listed building in 600 acres of beautiful grounds near
Plymouth. We took it to three rosettes in 14 months, but the business closed and I had to relocate all the staff. It was at this time that I was tipped off about Prysten House [in Plymouth, a courtyard building dating back to 1500]. It's owned by the church and when James and I visited it in December 1998 we thought, "Why hasn't anyone done this before?" We needed £40,000 to set it up and half of that was legal fees.

JT We sold everything we had. Chris's car was nicer than mine, so that went. We bought a Fiesta van in Tonbridge for £80, raided mum
and dad's house, went to a boot fair and sold the lot - we made about £300. Mum and dad thought we were mad, but they supported us and said that we were young enough to start over if it didn't work. We liked taking risks.

We opened Tanners in July 1999 and got our first TV contract about two years after that. We were successful really quickly. It was a new
style of dining and cooking for the area: high volume, but personal. We probably tried too hard in the beginning - we were making everything from scratch and using lots of local ingredients and talking about provenance. 'Fresh food at a realistic price' was our tagline.

CT Last year we had a Michelin inspection at Tanners and the inspector told us the restaurant had always been ahead of its time.

How has the business grown?

CT We made the leap to two sites in 2006, when we were approached to run the food offering at the iconic Plymouth Gin Distillery. It was a massive opportunity for us, and we had wanted a brasserie-style restaurant, so we opened the Barbican Kitchen there. It's been hugely successful - it still has tons of potential.

And then you expanded into Looe last year - how did that come about?

CT The decision came about due to our association with Philip Warren master butchers, who we use for our meat at Tanners and the Barbican Kitchen. When four units on East Looe Quay became available for lease by the Harbour Commission we took them all. Quayside Fresh is a farm shop where we sell Philip Warren's meat and a range of fresh fruit and produce, alongside Str.Eat Food, which serves dishes incorporating these local ingredients.

The Catch, our chippy, is in another unit at the end of the quay - a perfect spot for the summer season. We signed on the Kentish Hare, our pub, last year too. We've done things slowly, with seven-year gaps. Part of the reason we sold Tanners was to concentrate on our businesses
in Kent and Cornwall and to work in a different way to fit in family and media.

Making the decision to sell Tanners must have been difficult.

CT It was a struggle to hand the keys over. But Tanners will carry on in the Barbican Kitchen and, apart from our restaurant manager, who is going to manage Rick Stein's Seafood Restaurant in Padstow, the whole team has transferred to the Barbican Kitchen with us. It's re-energised the place and our turnover is up on the same period last year - four of our businesses haven't even been trading for a year.

Should Tanners have had a Michelin star?

CT/JT That's a difficult one to answer and people ask us why we didn't get one. The inspectors won't tell us why. For us, it's always been about paying our bills, paying the staff and keeping a successful business. When you've got a young family and you've got bills to pay, that's what you have to do. We've always respected Michelin and we've worked in a lot of Michelin-starred restaurants, so yes, it would have been great for the team, who were all at Tanners a long time and have great CVs.

Has it frustrated you?

CT To a certain extent for the teams who have put the years in - we wish they had been recognised more. The industry is not just about Michelin stars or the AA Guide but, saying that, we won the AA Restaurant of the Year for England in 2007, the same year we received
our honorary doctorates from Plymouth University.

CT We don't lose any sleep about it. Perhaps we are not as well known as other chefs, but we've got nothing to prove. We have the validation from various universities, Salon Culinaire and Toque d'Or - that's what's important to us.

JT Hotelympia was important to us this year and it was brilliant. La Parade des Chefs, which Chris managed, was vastly different and everyone was enthusiastic and accepting of the changes on the whole. We want to contribute to modernising the industry, but accept that everyone has an opinion.

How did you feel when you were asked to take on Salon Culinaire?

JT I was surprised when Toby Wand at [event organiser] Fresh Montgomery asked me, but he explained he had noticed my work with
colleges and Toque d'Or and had discussed it with Peter Griffiths [the previous director]. It was an honour to be asked, but I didn't
want to reinvent the wheel. We had to respect what Hotelympia is all about and the spirit of the competition and the people who have entered it over the years.

There is a very dedicated team behind the scenes: chefs and organisers with vast experience and people like Nick Vadis, who's a legend.

Actually, I should mention John Retallick, the chairman of judges, as he is pivotal to the competition. You can't miss him - he's the one with the big hat and all the bling!

You need the tradition; you have to have the basics and the core skills for future reference, especially with skills like sugarcraft and works
in fat and chocolate. Some young chefs have never done this.

CT That's true. Sometimes at the Barbican Kitchen or the Kentish Hare I introduce something to the menu that I did years ago, and tell them "that's a Gavroche dish" and they will have never heard of it. It's about maintaining traditional recipes and skills.

We have a responsibility to pass this knowledge on and it allows younger chefs to ask questions and suggest tweaks - that's evolution. It shouldn't just all be about trends.

How do you fit your media career into the mix?

JT I love working in media. It's mostly all live TV and it's a real skill that I've developed over the years - you have to learn composure. It has helped us create the Tanners brand and publish four books, one of which the Lenôtre pastry school in Paris uses as a textbook. I will continue to do TV for as long as they want me.

CT We factor James's media work in as another division of the business; recipe development for the shows and the books is another division. We've always had each other's backs - we simply squeeze it in and make it all happen.

JT Things have changed since the Ready SteadyCook days; social media has had a huge impact on hospitality. I've met so many people in the industry willing to share, which should always be the focus. It's been a revolution and it brings us all together more. But you have to be careful what you say, especially as we are responsible for developing young teams. It's the same on TV - you can't take anything back.

JT Things don't always work out for us, but we always think, what can we do to get ourselves out of the shit? So you push on and you
become a better person.

The family business


•Tanners restaurant opens in Finewell Street, Plymouth, in 1999.


•The Barbican Kitchen brasserie opens on the site of the Grade II-listed Plymouth Gin Distillery (26 staff).


•Four new sites are purchased: the Kentish Hare in Bidborough, Kent (22 staff), and three businesses in Looe, Cornwall - the
Catch Fish & Chips (12 staff), Str.Eat Food and Quayside Fresh (18 staff).


March Quayside Fresh, Str.Eat Food and the Catch Fish & Chips open.

May the Kentish Hare opens.

October Tanners is sold to Ben Palmer, previously head chef at the Barbican Kitchen restaurant in Plymouth, and is renamed the Greedy Goose.

Salon Culinaire at Hospitality 2015

Salon Culinaire will include Live Theatre classes and Salon Display - both sponsored by Compass UK & Ireland - which will showcase hand-crafted works in fat, chocolate, marzipan and other foodstuffs. The fine dining experience, La Parade des Chefs, will this year be sponsored by Coup de Pates (formerly Delice de France).

James Tanner is chef-director of Salon Culinaire and he talks about a refreshed competition programme reflecting some of the key trends shaping the hospitality industry. Competitors can enter online with access to examples of judging sheets for a better understanding of what the judges will be looking for.

La Parade des Chefs

Teams will have access to the kitchen from 7am and will start work at 8am. Teams should consist of six chefs plus one kitchen porter. Five members of the team must be aged 23 or under as at 1 January 2015 and one senior chef can act as mentor. All competitors should have sustainability as a key focus when participating in La Parade des Chefs.

Award presentations will be made to the competitors for the standard achieved. Where a standard is not achieved, no award will be made to the competitor:

Gold Award - 90% or more

Silver Award - 75% or more

Bronze Award - 65% or more

Certificate of Merit - 55% or more

Role models

James Tanner Jason Atherton has been inspirational for me. It's not just about his cooking, it's how he runs his team and his business on a global scale. He's also very down to earth.

Chris Tanner Simon Hulstone is the salt of the earth. He's a bit of a piss-taker, but we give back as good as we get. Michael Caines is fantastic and we see him occasionally. In fact, most of the chefs down in the South West, like Paul Ainsworth at Number 6, Nathan Outlaw and Neil Haydock at Watergate Bay, are quite tight. We try and stay in touch with each other so we know what's going on.

JT I love Pizarro, Jose Pizarro's restaurant in Bermondsey in London. He's a clever chef using fantastic ingredients in a great space. We should say too that the fish and chip industry has welcomed us with open arms. Calum Richardson, the chef-owner of the Bay Fish & Chips in Stonehaven, Aberdeen, has been amazing. Fish and chips are all about fantastic customer service and top quality ingredients.

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