It's been a difficult two years for chef Jude Kereama, who has not only had to navigate running a hospitality business throughout the pandemic, but has had to do so following the loss of his wife and business partner Jane. He talks to Amanda Afiya about fighting through and finally making it to the Great British Menu banquet.
The picturesque town of Porthleven, Cornwall's most southerly fishing port, has a tiny population of 4,000 permanent residents. But as one of the UK's most popular tourist destinations, it regularly hosts its fair share of the county's four million-plus tourists, and, currently, it's chock-a-block.
Like many coastal operators, it's been nothing short of a rollercoaster for local hospitality businesses as they moved from shuttered to maximum capacity overnight. But it's a situation for which 2021 Great British Menu finalist and Porthleven-based chef-restaurateur Jude Kereama is grateful. "It's been hard, but I'm an optimistic person and, as long as we don't go into another lockdown, I think the recovery will be quick," he explains.
It's an admirable outlook, not least for the fact that managing two restaurants through the coronavirus pandemic has been nothing compared to the New Zealand-born chef's personal struggles. In May 2019, Kereama lost his 46-year-old wife and business partner Jane to advanced breast cancer. Their son Joe was 12 at the time.
"It's been a tough two years," Kereama confides, "But I've had to accept it. Being half Maori has really helped me with that, by embracing it in a spiritual way. We believe in the afterlife and that Jane is with family and friends and that I will get to see her again, and so I want to celebrate Jane's life rather than forever mourn her. It's about thinking about the good times, and remembering her for her fun, kind nature, her beauty and her laughter."
Within the business, Jane's loss has been similarly impactful. "She was integral to Kota and Kota Kai," explains Kereama. "We've had to hire many people to replace her, and I still haven't worked out how she got around to doing everything – from managing the restaurants to being the person who took care of our B&B rooms, the accounting, the PR, all while being a mother and looking after me. She's been a huge loss to the restaurants, and I did the best I could do to ensure that we survived as a business. And then the pandemic happened."
A shore thing
Kereama's businesses are very much at the heart of the community. He is the owner of flagship three-AA-rosette and Bib Gourmand restaurant Kota, which opened in 2006, and sister restaurant and family favourite Kota Kai, which launched five years later, both located in the centre of Porthleven. And while he credits Jane with "dragging" him down to Cornwall after they both met while working in London, Porthleven is very much Kereama's home.
"The UK and this town have been so kind to me," says Kereama, who is also half Chinese Malay. "I feel like an adopted son of Britain, and I feel lucky to be accepted here. It's great to be a part of this community."
The UK and this town have been so kind to me. I feel like an adopted son of Britain
The Kereamas met while working at Antony Worrall Thompson's former London restaurant De Cecco, and were originally drawn to Cornwall on visits to see Jane's mother and stepfather. They moved to Porthleven 17 years ago, originally running the Smokehouse (now Amelie's at the Smokehouse) for two years before launching Kota.
Looking back on those early days, the town has changed immensely, says Kereama. "When we first came here, there were lots of gaps in the village that have all been filled by restaurants. There were very few restaurants back then; houses were cheap; and, in fact, it was perceived as quite a poor place. Now you have people buying houses for three-quarters of a million, knocking them down and building new houses in their place. I think the locals are a little worried that we could end up with too many second homes here but, at the moment, I think there's a good balance. To see what it is now is incredible. We're booked out – all the restaurants are."
Much of the town's popularity can be credited to the Kereama phenomenon. He was one of the founders of the annual Porthleven food and music festival, which launched in 2012 and enjoyed 4,000 visitors in its first year before mushrooming to 40,000 attendees in 2019, and his appearances on TV as a competitor in BBC Two's Great British Menu have also helped to put it on the map. Fans watched Kereama secure a place in the final banquet as the highest-scoring runner up, where he cooked and served the canapés (kataifi-wrapped langoustine, nori, yuzu aïoli, cauliflower miso purée, spicy langoustine broth) and the pre-dessert (planetary chocolate sphere served with passion fruit lime curd, white chocolate crémeux, sesame brittle and mango yogurt gel).
"The only people that have been on [the show] as much as me are Matthew Fort and Oliver Peyton," jokes Kereama, adding that it was an itch that he finally got to scratch.
"I've enjoyed the whole journey on GBM... No, actually I haven't, it's been really fucking horrible!" he laughs. "But the overwhelming response from this year: the well-wishers, the letters, the emails, the people in the street, the people who came to Cornwall on their holidays and wished me well – it's been so humbling and I didn't expect it. So, as much as I say it's horrible, I loved it, and I love to see that competitive nature coming out of me too, because, naturally, I'm quite chilled… unless I'm playing sport."
Back to the start
Much of Kereama's calm character can be traced back to his childhood. He grew up in a loving family, the youngest of five children. His Maori dad served in the New Zealand army, while his Chinese Malay mum was destined to be a concert pianist, having achieved her Licentiate of the Royal Schools of Music at the age of 12. "She was incredibly talented and that was going to be her path, getting symphony offers from around the world," says Kereama. "But then she fell for dad and she gave up everything to be with him in New Zealand."
The couple's children experienced a simple upbringing, full of joy, fun and food. "Mum's food was always incredible," he says proudly. "Her best friends were Indian, and so with her heritage and their influences, cooking with Western ingredients, food was always interesting and delicious."
Added to that, home-grown fruit and vegetables were always in abundance. "One of my earliest food memories was hiding from my siblings and lying in the garden in the sunshine with strawberries in one hand and shelled peas in the other. I didn't think about it again until I became a chef."
Given the past two and a half years, it would be understandable if Kereama used the national lockdowns to catch his breath, review his businesses and take care of Joe. But Kereama, who studied psychology and sociology at university before switching to become a chef, is someone who thrives on hard work.
"We didn't open up for takeaways. I felt that the partners of my staff would appreciate the fact their partners, my employees, were at home and safe with their children, enjoying time together that they'd never had before.
"But I didn't stop. I did private catering seven days a week, cooking for a family of six. It kept the wolves from the door, and, because I had Pete – one of my head chefs – with me, we were able to split the days and shifts. It was great fun, and the family were kind and appreciative. I needed to motor on, and while my staff were safe, I was getting money through the door and back into the business."
His upcoming restaurant Kuki (see below) will take the Kota Collective to three, but Kereama reveals he may have one more project in him. "There might be something else in the pipeline, but we won't know until November," he explains. "It would be on the most gorgeous beach, styled like a pub with great local seafood. If it goes ahead, we're hoping to have a 2am licence and we'll be playing chilled Ibiza tunes all day. We'll have takeaway huts so that people can come straight off the beach and pick up their food and eat in the huts – sandy feet and all."
In contrast to many operators nationwide, Kereama's restaurants have remained fully staffed, and he already has a head chef in place for Kuki. As various team members breeze in and out of the bar at Kota, where our interview is taking place, it's clear Kereama has a close relationship with his team. In spite of this, was it hard living above the restaurant when Jane passed away?
"It was a blessing. People were always popping upstairs, so there was often someone to chat to. It was the darkest time of my life, but I was surrounded by love, and our home was like a florist for weeks. The cards lined the walls: hundreds of cards of well-wishes and sympathy. People from the village came and dropped off food – even though I'm a chef! That was so wonderful and we felt so supported.
People from the village came and dropped off food – even though I'm a chef!
"It was a very hard time, but to live here with the people of Porthleven and have the team here right by my side was amazing."
The 2021 Great British Menu experience
The timing of the selection process for Great British Menu, Jude Kereama's fourth attempt at the title, couldn't have been worse for the chef. After several months navigating the pandemic, Jude felt that it would be great to "get Kota's name out there again", so he agreed to throw his hat in the ring when approached by the series' producers.
"They told me in August that I had been successful, but it was the middle of the season so we were getting battered. We then had two weeks to come up with our dishes and the inspiration behind them, followed by our recipes, including every single element. You can't say two litres of chicken stock; you have to say 5kg of chicken bones, browned for 45 minutes in an oven at 180ºC, a mirepoix of vegetables (500g onions, 500g celery, etc). That's where the pressure is. As competitors, we've got a level playing field and time scales, but [before the show] in the south-west, we were just getting hammered. It was awful."
Kereama's resolve was to finish work at midnight and sit up for two to three hours each night to prepare for the show. "I might get to bed at 4am, but then I would be up at 6.30am for Joe. I was living off two-and-a-half hours' sleep a night in August – it was ridiculous."
When it came to doing the regionals in October, things weren't much better. "We were still getting battered down in the south-west! My god, it was busy in October; in fact I've never seen an October like it, but I hope this October will be the same!"
Of course, competing this year felt very different to previous years. "I had to ensure Joe was OK, that I had him covered for the week. He was busy with his sports, so I had to make sure I had packed everything for him for each day. I was missing the support that Jane would normally give me every night.
"In the heat of the battle, when you're in that [Great British Menu] kitchen, you start doubting yourself, why you're there – even though I had been there many times before. You're up against the best in the country: it makes you question yourself, and I didn't realise how much not being able to ring Jane would affect me. I needed a cheerleader and I didn't have one.
"But, if you do well," he adds, "Great British Menu is fantastic for your business, and that was my guiding thought. I wanted to do it to give my restaurants a boost, but that pressure was just horrible.
If you do well, Great British Menu is fantastic for your business, and that was my guiding thought
"If things start going wrong, unless you take a deep breath and own that mistake and start all over again, you're going to fail – those judges pick up on everything! But if you really want to challenge yourself, do it and see what you are capable of. It's the ultimate, it really is."
The quieter months allowed Jude Kereama to plan for a third site. In November, work will begin at the Valley in Carnon Downs, a family-run, "chic" country retreat, about 20 minutes from Porthleven. Kuki ("cook" in Maori) will open next Easter.
"It's been there during this whole Covid time, but just reopening these two restaurants felt like starting over again," Kereama explains. "Kuki is in a great spot, just down the road is Perranwell, Devoran, Kea – incredibly wealthy little villages. It's eight miles from Falmouth, eight miles from Truro and in the middle of bloody nowhere!"
The restaurant, situated in a gated community with 46 five-star, self-catering holiday cottages, with leisure facilities open all-year-round, will be open to the public as well as to residents. It will seat about 40 covers, and, following building work, will have an open kitchen.
"We will serve 12 small plates, which we will rotate, sourcing produce from the River Fal and the surrounding area. We'll be foraging in that area, and getting produce from the sea, the rivers, apple farms, dairy farms, locally produced honey… I'm going to keep it as local as possible.
"The furthest I might go is to Philip Warren butchers (in Launceston) because they are a favourite of mine. But [the site] is also going to have a wine shop, so we'll be doing wine tastings and wine matchings as well."
This new partnership will see Kereama working with Alex Horsfall, a young, local entrepreneur (who was listed in Cornwall Live's 35 Under 35 awards in 2018), who was made a director of the family business the previous year.
"He's got great ideas, he's forward-thinking and he was keen to establish a known chef there," says Kereama.
Photography by James Ram
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