‘I’m attracted to chaos. I like the excitement’: Tom Kerridge on the risks of running restaurants and teaching his chefs to fish | Food | The Guardian

2022-09-19 03:43:36 By : Mr. Martin King

The Michelin-starred chef likens the world of professional cooking to the life of a pirate. So what happens on a two-day fishing trip to Cornwall with his head chefs?

A t 5.59am, on a Monday during that July heatwave, Tom Kerridge waits in the car park of the Hand and Flowers, his two-Michelin-starred pub in Marlow, in the heart of the home counties. He wears a black Who concert T-shirt, camouflage-patterned jogging bottoms and a white Mercedes-Benz cap, turned back to front. On one forearm, he has a tattoo of a drawing by his young son, Acey; on the other, the inked paw print of his beloved ex-mutt Georgie. He hands me a warm sausage bap and a flask of coffee as we clamber into a minibus, which contains five semi-somnolent forms, all of them head chefs at different Tom Kerridge restaurants, plus his head of PR, Laura, and the Observer’s photographer, Pål.

The plan is to head to Cornwall, which is about five hours away at this indecent hour. Kerridge, who possesses both a minibus licence and unmistakable alpha-male energy, will do the driving. The itinerary for the two-day trip reads like a 1990s stag-do: sea fishing, barbecue and beers on the beach, and a blowout, six-course feast with matching drinks in a smart restaurant. Sleep doesn’t feature prominently on the programme of events or, it becomes apparent, in Kerridge’s life in general.

Also befitting the stag-do vibes, in around 10 hours, Kerridge is going to be in the sea off Treyarnon Beach, dressed in full kitchen uniform, a sizeable crowd wondering what that chef-off-the-telly is up to. Every so often, he’ll spring from the water, a gleaming mackerel in his mouth, like a proud seal. But we’ll come back to that in due course.

In short, a convivial couple of days are in store, though with an occasional note of anxiety. It won’t have escaped your notice that the hospitality industry is in a perilous spot right now: jumping out of the frying pan of Covid straight into the fire of a cost of living crisis. The 49-year-old Kerridge, an established operator with a significant public profile, has advantages that many chefs and owners do not, but he has not been insulated from the challenges of the past couple of years. No one has. In December last year, he wrote a desperate plea in the Guardian for extra government support for restaurants and bars after 650 people cancelled their reservations at his six sites in six days. He estimated that those cancellations equated to about £65,000 in revenue. Over the whole pandemic, Kerridge thinks his losses stacked up to £4-5m.

What’s the idea behind the jolly? There are a few reasons, says Kerridge, who has clearly thought this through. One is to connect him and his team, as chefs, with the produce they work with and the suppliers who bring it in for them. “From my point of view, after 30 years of cooking, it’s always good to just remember why you did it in the first place,” he says. “And the value that these chefs get from understanding the produce: they’ll go back buzzing, they can tell their teams. Everything we’ve done with the business, none of it has ever been materialistic or about the money. It’s always been about what builds a better level of chef and person, people spending time together, that ability to bond. The value of all those things is way more than monetary.”

The one-two body blows of Brexit followed by Covid have made it clearer than ever to Kerridge that his operation is nothing without the 250-odd team he employs with his wife and business partner, Beth Cullen-Kerridge, who is also a sculptor. You can tell the longest-standing members of their staff because they often wear a very high-end wristwatch, such as an IWC, a reward for loyalty from the Kerridges. Tom De Keyser, head chef at the Hand and Flowers has just earned his; Nick Beardshaw, who oversees Kerridge’s Bar and Grill at the Corinthia Hotel in London has had his watch for a couple of years. Sarah Hayward, head chef at the Coach, another Michelin-starred Kerridge pub in Marlow, has been with the group for almost nine years and is next in line.

“There’s quite a few people that have done 10 years … yeah, it’s cost a lot of money,” says Kerridge, smiling. “But you think back on it, they’ve given us 10 years of their life – that’s valuable! I’m massively humbled that people will do that, that they learned from it, and they enjoy it. A watch is something that they wouldn’t buy themselves. You could give them some money, even money the same value as it [the watch], but they’ve earned that watch. It’s something they’ll always remember.

“Everyone has shit days at work, but it can’t be that bad if you do 10 years,” Kerridge continues. “It can’t be that bad!”

At 11am, powered by caramel digestives and a thumping rock soundtrack (Kerridge’s specialist subject on Celebrity Mastermind, which he won, was Oasis), the minibus rolls down the hill into Newquay harbour. We’re met by Johnny Godden, the owner of Flying Fish, which supplies Kerridge, Jason Atherton and many of Britain’s best restaurants with their seafood. It’s business between the two, but they’re clearly fond of each other: both are from Gloucester, left school at 16 and have built their operations from the ground.

The tide’s going out, so we quickly jump on a 38ft Lochin fishing boat skippered by Dave Trebillcock. Trebillcock used to be a crabber, but that’s a “young man’s game” and he’s semi-retired now; he’s not applied sun cream in 40 years on the job and, even on one of the hottest days ever recorded in the UK, he’s not going to start now. As we head out to sea, the chat is about how the catch has changed in recent years. Cod used to be easy picking in Cornish waters, but now your Friday-night fish will probably be caught off the coast of Norway. Tuna have started swimming through. “I heard about 30 tuna caught in a month,” marvels Trebillcock.

We find a spot to drop our lines. “There’s worse things to be doing,” says Kerridge, slipping on a pair of mirrored sunglasses. “All because we shake a few pots and pans.”

Kerridge is the first to get a bite: an iridescent gurnard with an oversized head and piercing stare. As Godden unhooks it, the elation of the catch sends Kerridge into a small, Proustian reverie. “Not got a good name, gurnard, not like turbot or brill,” he says. “We used to have it on the menu all the time at the Hand and Flowers when we first opened, because it was cheap. Well, cheaper. Now there isn’t anything that’s cheaper: it’s become a prime product.”

Kerridge enjoys reflecting on the early days. Following a couple of “doss years” after leaving school, he committed to cooking after reading Marco Pierre White’s memoir White Heat. Immediately, he felt at home in the noise and pressure of the professional kitchen: he often compares it to being a pirate, or living on a submarine. He worked at a few places, most formatively as a sous chef at Rhodes in the Square, and devoted himself to the piratical lifestyle: after service, he’d sink dozens of beers. (He has been teetotal for almost a decade and jokes that his only vices now are “coffee and swearing”. What else, I ask him, do you need? “Well, 10 cans of Stella would be nice sometimes.”)

In 2005, aged 32, Kerridge’s wife persuaded him to take over the tenancy of the Hand and Flowers. Within 10 months, it was awarded a Michelin star; in 2011, it became the only pub in the UK to have two, a distinction it retains. “Beth was saying, ‘If you’re going to work those hours, you may as well do it for yourself,’” recalls Kerridge.

The fish are practically throwing themselves in the boat now: another gurnard, a couple of mackerel, a sand eel and an abundance of pollack. Joanna Broadbridge, head chef of Kerridge’s Fish and Chips at Harrods, is renamed “the Queen of Pollack” and it’s almost like these slightly unfashionable fish are auditioning for a spot on her menu. The catch will be used in a dinner that evening at Mahé, a chef’s table and development kitchen in Padstow that Kerridge has borrowed from his friend Paul Ainsworth. Each head chef is in charge of a course, with the pollack turned into a zingy, hyper-fresh ceviche by De Keyser.

Back on the boat, Kerridge remains in a ruminative mood. “If I was ever doing it all over again, I’d love to be a fisherman,” he says. “I like the idea of it being a workspace that is alien to most people: it has noises and sounds and smells, it’s adrenaline-fuelled, it’s pushy, you’re on your feet. And it’s graft.”

The only person not enjoying themselves is De Keyser, who suffers from motion sickness and spends the latter part of the boat trip purging the Cornish pasty he had for lunch into the sea. There is precious little sympathy from his fellow chefs. Connor Black, the head chef of the Bull and Bear in Manchester, who happens to be De Keyser’s brother-in-law, takes particular pleasure in filming the most gruesome scenes on his phone. “That’s the money shot,” says Black, back on the minibus, reviewing the footage. He circulates it round the other chefs, including De Keyser, who, to be fair, laughs as hard as anyone. “I’ll stick that on Insta tonight,” says Kerridge. He doesn’t, but he does forward it to Ainsworth, who responds with the cry-laughing emoji.

It’s not hard to imagine Kerridge as a fisherman, and he’s right, he clearly has no fear of hard work. In recent years, alongside remaining very hands-on with his restaurants, he has been a mainstay on television: notably as a judge on Great British Menu, and as host of a range of shows based on eating well and losing weight, inspired by the 12 stone he has shed since his 40th birthday. In lockdown, Kerridge supplied more than 100,000 meals for NHS workers through his delivery service Meals from Marlow. Latterly, he joined forces with Marcus Rashford and the End Child Food Poverty taskforce to create the initiative Full Time Meals. There are now more than 50 recipes online, with companion videos on Facebook and Instagram. Kerridge’s position as perhaps the last top chef that people seem to love without much equivocation is secure.

Kerridge also remains a man who is happy to stick a recently deceased mackerel in his mouth. As he towels off after the shoot on Treyarnon beach, I ask him if the slightly surreal photoshoot was an unexpected turn for him. “Yeah, that was a surprising one,” he admits. “But it didn’t surprise me that much.”

What does he mean? “I’m attracted to chaos,” he replies. “Whether it was the kids that I’d hang around at school with, or the kitchen space, I like that sense of unknown. I like walking into somewhere where I’m not quite sure what’s going to happen. I like that sense of relatively controlled risk.

“The past couple of years have been really bumpy and horrible,” he continues. “But they’ve also been quite exciting as a business owner because every day you don’t know what’s happening. And the next two years are going to be really horrible and bumpy. Every week we have a management meeting, and every week the pressures on it are massive. But I embrace the chaos. I like the excitement of it.”

It can be hard to be bullish about the future of restaurants, even on a fun-packed trip to Cornwall. On the morning of day two, we go out on another boat with the “mussel man”, Gary Rawle, who grows mussels on ropes on a patch of the sea the size of 70 football pitches, rented from the Prince of Wales. But Rawle hasn’t been able to harvest for a couple of months because of algae levels. Or there’s Flying Fish’s Godden, who promises “sea to plate” in under 48 hours, but whose fuel bill for his delivery vans has surged to £17,000 a week. And the monthly electricity bill at one of Kerridge’s own pubs is set to rise from £5,000 to £35,000 in December. These are all costs that will be taken on by restaurant owners, and then passed on to us, the customers. Kerridge is clearly trying to think creatively about how to offer value for money: in September, he launched a £15 two-course, “too-good-to-be-true” set lunch at the Coach, Bull and Bear and Kerridge’s Bar and Grill.

On the last afternoon, in glorious sunshine, we have a barbecue in Porthilly, a bucolic spot of rolling grassland overlooking a cove towards Rock, and the Grand Designs-style house that Gordon Ramsay built on the hillside, with what appears to be a levitating swimming pool. I ask Kerridge if he can still summon up any optimism for the hospitality and the restaurant world. He looks at me like the heat’s gone to my head.

“Always!” he exclaims, almost spitting out a mouthful of grilled turbot. “I’m always optimistic. Hospitality is an amazing industry. People will always be wanting to eat beautiful fish, people will always be wanting to come to Cornwall like this on a sunny day. There’ll always be something exciting going on, it’s just going to be a very difficult path to get to the other side, that’s all. To use a sporting analogy, it’s like a rugby match and you’re 32-nil down at half-time, and if you’re gonna win this, you have to really dig deep.”

Kerridge smiles a lot, but just for a moment, he’s serious. “Which is exactly what we’re going to have to do.”