Have you always wanted to be a chef?
I had two career aspirations when I was a young kid, becoming a vet was one of them, and being a chef was the second. My dad said I was too thick to be a vet, as I wasn’t very academic, even if you failed almost everything at school but got enough qualifications, you could get into catering college. And that was it, from the age of about nine or ten years old, I wanted to be a chef.
You were offered jobs by a host of high profile chefs, why did you go with Anthony Worrall-Thompson?
At that particular time Queens Gate in West London was a buzzing place. It was known about even as far north as we were, 350 miles away. It was kind of an instant decision, but the right one. It was the place to go and work at that particular time.
What was it like moving to London after growing up in the country?
I’d been to London probably twice in my life, so realistically being stood on a train on my way to the Big Smoke with just a bag in my hand was pretty daunting! Though at that age it didn’t matter because it was a new experience, it was exciting and I wanted to work. Most importantly I wanted to work in great kitchens and I felt that the only way to do that was to travel, because of where we were in Yorkshire. It’s different now, but then there was only one choice and that was to go to London.
How did you find starting work as a chef?
I think it’s a shock for anybody really. Even now it’s a shock to a lot of the students now finishing college and universities that want to be chefs. It’s quite a rude awakening! However, I know it sounds daft, people always say the same clichés but now it’s not like when I was a kid. The hours aren’t as bad because they’re much more regimented, and you can’t get away with the stuff that they got away with back then. But at that particular time in the late eighties and early nineties London was a buzzing place, a lot of French chefs were coming over to train and it was on the fringe of a big movement changing the country from being known for Yorkshire puddings and chicken kievs to doing something really serious with serious chefs.
By the time you were 22 you were head chef, how did you find success at such a young age?
That was the most successful time of my career. Success isn’t financial, success is what you believe is your most successful time, and my most successful time was when I became head chef for the Hotel Du Vin [in Winchester]. It wasn’t by any means financial, but I had achieved a life goal, at that particular time I had achieved everything I wanted to achieve. All through my life I’ve had to prove myself; it’s about pushing yourself into a situation that you either excel at or you go tits up at. And if you tits up then you divert around it. Whereas a lot of people just stumble at the first hurdle, I always want more and more.
What do you it was in your character that set you apart?
The path I made back then was obviously the right one at that particular time. But I also made sacrifices, to be a successful chef you have to make so many. But I’ve always said successful people are the people that do more than anyone else when it comes to work. A lot of people are quite happy to disappear off on Friday night and go to the pub at 6 o’clock, but there are others that want to stay around, until 11 or 12 at night and finish their work. They’re the ones that are going to be successful.I think people should always strive on challenges, I’ve always had goals in my life and each goal is a year. I think that work ethic you get nought for nought has stood by. If you’ve done well treat yourself, if you don’t then you save up to do well. It’s as simple as that. It’s always been that way for me, if you want something, you can achieve it, but you’ve just got to work had at it, but now I’ve achieved opportunities I never thought I would. Even now my head chef and I sometimes sit down and pinch ourselves.
You were on Ready Steady Cook for 8 years, how was that experience?
It was good at the time, it was the right move to do, other chefs were getting other bits and pieces, Jamie [Oliver] was doing his thing, Rick [Stein] was doing his, I was just happy to be having a roof over my head. I’m glad I did it. Then the BBC sat me down and said we want to offer you Saturday Kitchen because Anthony is leaving. That was a huge decision for me; to give up the stability of Ready Steady Cook and go up against my ex boss. It’s one of those things that you either do or you don’t, and I decided to do it and see what happened.
How do you find fronting such a successful show?
I love it, out of all the shows that I do Saturday Kitchen and probably The National Lottery are the great ones because they’re live. I’m not nervous, it’s adrenalin, and nerves and adrenalin are two different things. You’ve got the adrenalin going and it’s pretty daunting, the red light comes on and there’s two million people watching. When I did the Strictly [Come Dancing] tour this year and I got to the O2, I walked out and there’s 20,000 people screaming and shouting and it’s just you out there on the dance floor on your own. You look up and think, ‘Jesus, look at all those people’, but then when you times it by 100 or 1000 that’s how many people are tuning in on Saturday, and that’s just in the UK. It’s frightening, but I love it.
Who’s been your favourite guest?
We’ve had several really, Jackie Collins wrote to me afterwards to say thank you very much, she was probably one of the nicest. Justin Lee Collins was great, he was a good laugh, but they’ve all been great in their own way.
Have you ever done the omelette challenge yourself?
No I’m not allowed to, it’s in my BBC contract. It says no dangerous sports, scuba diving, bungee jumping all that sort of stuff and then it says… make an omelette! The problem is when you’re doing it in demos and stuff it would just go everywhere, especially with YouTube.
Has anyone particularly inspired you along your culinary career?
There are several people, Michel Roux, inspires me probably more than anybody. He’s a legend, an absolute legend, what he’s achieved in his life, you can’t help but be in awe. Whatever’s in your job there’s always somebody that you’d hopefully aspire to, and for me that’s probably him. But there are others, Ken Allison, he was my lecturer at college and Pierre Chevillard, who was head chef of Chewton Glen.
How does it feel to become one of those chefs that people look up to?
You learn responsibility, you learn by watching others as well and watching the mistakes and the plusses they make. When you work with young catering students you teach them that all this TV stuff is great, but fundamentally you’re a chef at heart that’s where it should always end up. Like I said to Chris, if it all goes tits up tomorrow we grab our knives and we walk back to the kitchen.
Do you enjoy mentoring other young amateur chefs?
Definitely, we’ve had students to my house, teaching them how good food comes from the garden and the ground. They’re more interested in the cars to be honest, but if there’s something here to inspire them that’s the most important thing. It inspired me when chefs came and judged my end of year exams and if I can do that, that’s great.
What’s your favourite dish to cook?
Bacon sarnie or a Sunday roast. You can’t beat a roast chicken.
What type of cooking do you enjoy the most?
I like Thai and stuff like that, Italian is good, classic French is really good as well but probably Thai and Chinese I think are fascinating, the flavours are actually very, very simple but there are so many skills involved in getting it right.
Do you think the rest of the world has changed its opinion on the quality of British cooking?
Oh without a doubt. You can go to France now and you can walk proud as a chef. When I was doing my training you were treated like you were nothing. Now it has just changed, changed so much. And it’s only through the hard work of people who have worked in the industry, it’s not just the chefs, it’s everything.
What would you say is your food heaven and hell?
Food heaven would be chocolate. Food hell would be horseradish, cannot stand it, it’s too strong, bloody horrible. If you grow it in the garden you’ll never get rid of it, awful stuff.
Are you adventurous with your recipes?
I like being creative but I think some people are creative just for creative’s sake. I’m always of the opinion that if it works, don’t mess around with it. It’s great to be creative but you should never forget the art of cooking is great ingredients, cooked simply, and that’s where people go wrong.
What would you say is the highlight of your career?
There are several, I got a professorship this year, which is amazing, from Thames Valley University. There’s been so much over the years, but it was probably this year when I took part in a big race called the Mille Miglia Rally, in Italy. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do because a) to be able to afford to do it and b) how much work it took to be able to do it. It took a hell of a lot of work, not just by me but by everybody else it was a big team effort. It was pretty amazing.
Do you have a favourite culinary experience?
Yeah, my mother makes the most amazing roasts, they taste just like they did when I was eight. My mother is a great cook, there’s nothing better then going home and having Sunday lunch with your mother. The way she makes gravy, it’s proper gravy not that juice stuff. That and probably my grandma’s bacon sandwich, granny’s bacon sandwich was amazing, unbelievable.
You’ve built up quite an impressive repertoire of recipe books now, how does it feel to have them selling so well?
You kind of pinch yourself really, when I did Ready Steady Cook I had a few out, but they just told me the last one’s sold half a million. I haven’t written a new cookbook for two years, they’re anticipating a new one could sell twice, three times that. But again it puts more pressure on you to make things different and make it right.
What advice would you give readers that are budding chefs?
Don’t do it! You get what you put in really. If you want to be the best chef, you’ve got to work with the best chefs, and if you want to work for the best you’ve got to put up with an element of crap. If you’re prepared for it, and if you’re willing to stick at it you’ll get there in the end.
What does Christmas mean to you?
Obviously family and home, and particularly my mother this year because she’s coming for Christmas. Now it means so much more, because my mother looked after me all those years. She was with me for the thick and thin of my career, I think if you can give something back that’s more important than anything.
What do you eat on Christmas Day?
We get a rib of beef, a big six rib. And I cook a lamb and a beef or maybe duck and beef, if my granny was alive she bought some turkey as well. Christmas was about cooking two big roasts for us, we’d cook turkey for the old folks, and the beef for the younger lot. That’s what I’ll probably do this year.
What’s your favourite festive drink?
I’ve just found a new champagne called Drappier, they do this organic champagne, it’s a connoisseur bottle and one to look out for this Christmas. I drink Duval which is like a Belgian, strong beer, those two are my Christmas tipples.
What tips would you give people for a smooth day of cooking on Christmas Day?
Preparation is key, don’t be frightened if you are cooking turkey to cook it really early, take it out and leave it out the oven for 45 minutes, and then roast your potatoes. The biggest mistake is to ram your oven full, it doesn’t cook, it steams, your potatoes don’t go brown and you end up with a disaster. Cook all your veg beforehand, have it all blanched in ice cold water in the fridge. It’s very simple, chefs look at it as a walk in the park, because it’s all about preparation.
You have described many of the events by the cars you’re around at that time, are there any cars that reflect your character best?
Maserati, because it’s the same thing in my career, it goes through absolute highs when it’s going like a song, and then complete bloody disasters when it doesn’t work. And that mixture of working and doesn’t work is 50%, I think the same thing is true with my career. You go through life and you’re on a high then you get kicked back down again.
When I was a young kid training in London I used to see the Ferrari garages and think “one day”, knowing full well I’d never earn enough. But that dream luckily came true when I was able to afford my first car, then a second and a third, and then you start collecting. I’ve always been passionate about it, but everybody has to have a passion outside of their day to day work, if I talked purely about food all day I’d go mad.
Company magazine once voted you one of Britain’s most eligible bachelors, how does that feel?
Not any more, I’m too old! It used to be 18, 19 year olds now it’s 38, 40 year olds. I can’t help the way that I look, I don’t pluck my eyebrows and spend two hours in the mirror, I just get up, put gel on and go to work. You are what you are, and you can’t change that. On Saturday Kitchen I just put on a jacket and go to work, you can’t look good at five o’clock in the morning!
Do you have a personal philosophy that you live by?
Watch what the masses do and do the opposite. Many times throughout my career has my agent gone, ‘are you going to do this, are you going to do that,’ and I’ve said no, because you end up doing what everyone else is doing. I mean look at Gordon and Jamie, fantastic, you can earn an awful lot of money, but the hassle that comes with it is just immense. I mean do you really want that? No. I come back to my little house and take my dog for a walk, it’s great.
What have you got next in store?
Saturday Kitchen is rocking and rolling and there’s a new BBC series in the pipeline, it’s something that’s close to my heart and something I really want to do. I’m looking forward to the cookbook as it’s my first for two years, I think the accumulation of that is enough. We’re looking at a restaurant as well, one in Dubai, but we’ll wait and see.