The Crumbs interview: Tom Kerridge
23 September 2014
"If Paul Hollywood is the baking badger of primetime TV, 6’3” Tom is the cuddly bear of cookery. He’s incredibly articulate, but inclusive, inspirational, hard working, and an ardent lover of food and the pub"
He's a pub pioneer, champion of flavour and son of Gloucester. LAURA ROWE grabs five with the most humble and inspirational Michelin-starred chef you'll ever meet
I was recently asked what I enjoyed most about my job. Yes, the eating out is ace. The writing is pretty cool, too. But the best bit, for me, has always been speaking to incredibly passionate and talented people. It’s infectious. And so, some weeks after speaking to Tom Kerridge I’m still banging on to my colleagues about him.
If you don’t recognise his name, you’ll most certainly recognise his broad West Country accent and friendly face – he first appeared on our screens on Great British Menu in 2010 being judged by fellow (honorary) Cotswoldian Prue Leith, and later secured his own TV show on BBC Two, Tom Kerridge’s Proper Pub Food, and accompanying recipe book last year. If Paul Hollywood is the baking badger of primetime TV, 6’3” Tom is the cuddly bear of cookery. He’s incredibly articulate, but inclusive, inspirational, hard working, and an ardent lover of food and the pub (despite now being a teetotal).
“Pubs are very personal and homely,” says Tom, who spent his first 20 years in Gloucester before heading to London. “They don’t have to mark a special occasion, although they can do. No matter what time of year it is, what day of the week it is, you just feel comfortable. You can turn up in shorts and flipflops, or dress up smart. I’d like to think we have that at The Hand and Flowers [Tom’s own, two-Michelin-starred boozer].
“A pub suits me more. I feel like I don’t have to try. Everything I’ve done in life is about enjoyment. So many chefs cook in environments that don’t necessarily suit them, or work for them. The pub industry is dying, though. People don’t drink as much, and they view their social lives differently now – and pubs need to adapt to that. Pubs are very close to my heart; they are very British and something we should be proud of, and want to keep alive.”
Indeed, it was a chance trip to a Cotswold inn that set the wheels in motion for Tom.
“We were looking at doing a restaurant of some sort but couldn’t quite work out how it fitted, and it was back in the Cotswolds during dinner with my mum at The Trouble House pub near Tetbury – as it was then – that I just fell in love with the whole concept. It blew me away that you could be in such a wonderful, beautiful environment that’s very relaxed and friendly, and yet have food that was just phenomenal. I still remember it now: it was a red mullet soup dish starter, and I remember thinking, ‘I am sat in a pub with a Michelin star’. Without Michael Bedford’s cooking at The Trouble House there wouldn’t be a Hand and Flowers. He’s an incredible cook, and a phenomenal flavour master; a great, great chef. David Everitt Matthias [of Le Champignon Sauvage in Cheltenham] is also one of the hugest role models in my career, coming out of the West Country, and I absolutely love him and Helen to bits.”
Many of Tom’s first jobs were in this neck of the woods, too.
“I worked at Calcot Manor and the Painswick Hotel (now Cotswolds 88), and The Country Elephant in Painswick, which was a lovely 25-cover restaurant. I loved working in the Cotswolds. It’s a beautiful part of the world, and whenever I come back I feel very much at home.”
His new book, Tom Kerridge’s Best Ever Dishes, is an evolution of Proper Pub Food, says Tom.
“The recipes in the book are all very personal, because they are handwritten by me. They are from my heart and my soul, they are the starting point for the dishes at The Hand and Flowers. It’s a book full of recipes that I cook and love myself.”
So does ‘best ever’ mean complicated?
“No, it’s all about flavour. There are some dishes in there that, if you are competent cook, you’ll cope with better, but a lot of them are just about how to extract the ‘best ever’ flavour out of dishes. Very simple cooking, slow roasting, easy to do, nice little tips” – think puff pastry pizza with steak and onion jam, meat loaf with pickled onion rings or roasted tomato soup – “it’s about getting the most out of simple things.”
I ask Tom, who has had one week off this year, and now has no time off until the new year, if he misses being at the coalface.
“Absolutely. I love the kitchen – it’s why I’ve been a chef for 25 years. Cooking and being a part of service is what I absolutely love. And yes, I miss it massively – but I also understand that my role has changed. I can’t be selfish and be the person that wants to run the kitchen, because so much of good business is about empowering other people. Time off doesn’t really exist but, for me, it’s only work if you don’t enjoy it. We run a very successful business with wonderful people who enjoy what they’re doing. I love being part of it, and wouldn’t change a single thing."
So, how hard is it for a teetotal to run a business in a pub?
“I don’t really do things small. I like taking on challenges. If I have the mindset to do it, I’ll do it and do it properly.”
Do you need this sense of dedication to be a good chef?
“I think you need to have determination and grit to survive in any industry. If you look at anybody who is very good at what they do, or who achieves stuff, they have that mentality, whether they are a chef or a builder or a city banker or doctor. If you have that dig-deep, crack on spirit, you’ll be alright.”
Tom Kerridge’s Best Ever Dishes (published by Absolute Press, £25, photography by Christian Barnett) is out now. Tom will be appearing at The Cheltenham Literature Festival on 6 October in The Sunday Times Garden Theatre.