Steve Drake, 39, tells Joanna Wood how he went from making bacon sandwiches as a teenager to having his own Michelin star
Please describe your current job. I own Drake's restaurant in Ripley with my wife, Serina. We've been here since 2004 - nearly nine years. We have 44 seats in the restaurant and a small bar, plus a lovely garden in which we're now starting to grow a few vegetables to use on the menu. We got a Michelin star a year after we opened.
Why did you become a chef and how did you discover the hospitality industry? I was quite good at home economics at school - not much good at anything else really. I had a teacher called Mrs Banks and she used to say "You're very good at this", so I blossomed in the subject, I guess. And I also had a Saturday job at a transport café, helping to make bacon sandwiches. The day I left school I opened the Yellow Pages, saw the biggest ad, which was for a place called the Old Vienna in Leigh-on-Sea, Southend (where I'm from), rang them up and ended up working there part-time. Then a few months later, in the September after I'd left school, I enrolled at Southend College on a City and Guilds 706 part 1 course - which I really, really enjoyed.
How did your family and teachers react when you told them you wanted to become a chef? They were all really pleased for me. The first year, while I was at college, everybody got me a cookery book for Christmas - it was a nightmare! Mrs Banks, my teacher, was particularly proud because I think she felt that she'd nurtured me into becoming a chef, if you like.
Was there anyone at college who inspired you to aim high as a chef? There was a lecturer there called Keith Bundy. He had just come from London and he'd worked at places like the Connaught hotel. He used to talk about it and that inspired me to write to the three biggest hotels in London at the time: the Dorchester, the Ritz and the Savoy. The Ritz said, "come for an interview" and I ended up getting a job as a commis there - I started on my 17th birthday.
How did you feel - a teenager in the Big Smoke - in one of London's most famous hotels? I was terrified! The chef des cuisines at that time was Keith Stanley and he had his name stitched on the corner of his apron, at the bottom. I remember working away, cutting some beans or something, and I could see this figure walking over, out of the side of my eye - and all I could see was "K Stanley" on the apron.
How did you get your second job? While I was at Ritz I moved into the PM Club in Earls Court - a hostel for people working in the catering industry - and I met loads of chefs there. One of them was Andrew McLeish, who was working for Nico Ladenis at that time at Chez Nico in Great Portland Street. He said there was a job going and Nico was obviously a legend at the time - one of the very few with two Michelin stars - so I applied and got the job. Paul Flynn was the head chef. It was an amazing feeling to get the job. I was there for a year and the day I left I cried, because I loved it there.
Why did you leave Chez Nico? I decided that I needed to go back to college, because I'd already decided that one day I wanted my own business. So I went and did a BTech in business studies. It was a two-year course and although quite basic, it did get my mind working on the intricacies of running your own business.
Am I right in thinking you also managed a pub at this time? Yes. I needed somewhere to live while I was on the course - so I got a job in a pub! It was a big pub with a lot going on and the owners went away on holiday and left me in charge for a while. I was only 20, so looking back I find it quite bizarre, but it was an amazing experience to have to take on that amount of responsibility. It made me think - to ask "What's that going to cost us to send that out?", "How's it going to get to the table?" and "Who's going to put it there?" - all questions you need to have answers to run your own business.
Was Nico Ladenis one of your mentors? Yes. He was really good to me. I did all the sections there over two years and learnt a tremendous amount. When he brought one of his books out he gave us all a copy and in the front of mine he wrote something about how I was going to become one of the great chefs in Britain - now we all know that's a bit of a joke, but it was a lovely thing for him to do and quite inspiring for me at the time.
You also did a year with another British legend? Yes - the opportunity to work for Marco Pierre White when he was at the Oak Room (Le Méridien, London) came up. The first day I was put in the larder, then the second day on fish for a year. I just had a mountain of fish to do every day and I learnt very soon how to prep and cook fish quickly and precisely.
What motivates you? I've never really been one for chasing titles or wanting positions. I've always been motivated by learning the craft of the industry. That's what has driven me.
After the Oak Room, you helped relaunch Aubergine before taking on your first head chef role. How did you feel about those stages in your career? I was sous chef for Billy Drabble at Aubergine and that was the first experience I'd ever had of launching a restaurant. So that proved invaluable for later down the line when I became head chef at Drakes on the Pond (Abinger Hammer, Surrey) and helped to launch it. I was the only chef at Drakes on the Pond (at least for nearly two years), so head chef was a bit of a glorified title, but I had creative control. I learnt a hell of a lot. It was great for when we bought and launched Drake's.
You won the Roux Scholarship when you were at Drakes on the Pond? Yes - at my third attempt, in 2001. That was crucial because it really helped to raise my profile when I didn't really have a profile! And I had the opportunity to do a stage at Marc Veyrat's three-Michelin-star place in Annecy - l'Auberge de l'Eridan - as part of the prize. He wasn't typically French, so it was an eye opener - more for the theatre of the restaurant, than anything else. He opened my eyes to the fact that food doesn't have to be complicated; you don't have to have technique over flavour.
Can you sum up how you feel about the restaurant industry? It has been really good to me. I'd be lost without it, to be honest. Everybody focuses on the antisocial hours, but that's really a small part of the negative side. Because for all the lows, there are many more ups.
And have you any advice for young chefs starting out in the industry? Stick to the creative side of cooking. It's what has kept me going. It's what gives you the real buzz.