Interview: Tom Kerridge
PUBLISHED: 16:52 17 March 2016 | UPDATED: 16:52 17 March 2016
TV chef Tom Kerridge has just been awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Gloucestershire, where he'll be giving a public lecture this month. Katie Jarvis talked to him at his two Michelin-starred pub, the Hand and Flowers in Marlow. (And, yes, she did get lunch.)
Interview Tom Kerridge? Ha! This is a cinch!
I email my pal Rob Rees – the chef who gave Tom one of his early kitchen jobs at the Country Elephant, the restaurant Rob used to own in Painswick back in the day. “Just send me a list of things I should ask him,” I demand.
The reply comes back:
Who was best at computer games - Tom or Rob - during the Xmas break at Country Elephant?
Tom Kerridge doesn’t have to think twice. “Rob was… But I’m better at cooking because he spent too much time playing computer games!”
Tom says you were best at computer games, I email Rob, afterwards.
“Cheers… And at cooking,” he replies.
Of all the celebrity chefs, I love Tom Kerridge. I love the fact that everything is “lush” – ah, the vocab of my Gloucestershire schooldays! And that you could walk into the Hand and Flowers wearing jeans and trainers, knock back a few bad boys, get slightly tipsy and a little bit noisy, and he’d slap you on the back like a proper mate.
I love the fact that you could chew the saturated fat with him about ham-and-cheese versus mince beef Findus Crispy Pancakes, over a fish-finger sandwich.
“I’m not a big fan of snobbery in any form,” Tom Kerridge says. “I was having a conversation last Sunday with a chef who had recently won a Michelin star – top guy; fantastic cook. We were talking about how good - how good - is a spicy Nando’s. An extra hot Nando’s is amazing! Why not? It’s lush!”
Yeah, I can see that. It’s not as lush as the Hand and Flowers pub, though, where we’re sitting on a British leather sofa (he and his wife, the sculptor Beth Cullen Kerridge, are brilliant buy-British-ers), surrounded by Fatstock Marketing Corporation posters from the 50s and 60s: Prime pork! Your choice of lamb!
Coffee is served in gold-rimmed mugs made by Reckless Designs (“They’re from Gloucestershire.”) (Coleford, in fact.) And later – even though the Hand and Flowers is technically full – they squeeze me in for the set lunch; £29.50 for three courses of some of the best food I’ve ever tasted: White onion with herb velouté, chestnut ravioli and toasted lemon; honey-roast Wiltshire ham with warm piccalilli and mashed potato; spiced panna cotta with Drambuie jelly and bitter orange sorbet. Proper lush.
(Would I swap it for an extra hot Nando’s? What am I? Mad?!?)
He’s just been back in Gloucester – the city where he grew up - to receive an honorary doctorate from the university. “Incredible. My mum was very proud. Leaving school at 16, with very little in the way of qualifications, you never imagine you would be stood there in one of those gowns, receiving something like that. Stood in your home town, in Gloucester Cathedral, picking up the award was pretty amazing! Most of the things that happen feel like they’re out-of-body experiences.”
After the ceremony, they celebrated at the Longford Inn – a Beefeater they used to visit years ago.
Lord, that must have been terrifying, having Tom Kerridge noshing on your barbecue ribs! Did the staff realise?
“No, and that was ace. We left a massive tip because the guy who was serving was brilliant.”
What makes a waiter brilliant?
“He smiled and he made an effort to say hello. And you don’t often expect that when you go into certain places.”
You know what? You warm to Tom Kerridge in the flesh in exactly the same way as you do to his on-screen identical twin. Why? Oh, goodness – lots of reasons. He’s really busy – I know that – yet he’s happy to lounge on the sofa with me for an hour-and-a-half, chatting. Every time I compliment him, he leaps in, praising Beth; praising his staff. And he means it. “I wouldn’t have got [the doctorate] without the amazing people we’re surrounded by. That’s the big thing. It’s not just me on my own. There’re 85 people across both pubs [which now include the Coach in Marlow]. At the Hands and Flowers alone, there’re 55 people that have worked very hard.”
And he loves his mum.
“To be fair, so much of it probably comes from my mum.”
Still works at B&Q?
“She does, yeah. Still works there.”
I’m not knocking university; went there myself. And Tom Kerridge will be addressing University of Gloucestershire students on March 23, in a lecture that’s also open to the public. But I love the fact that his wisdom comes from experience and not the lecture hall. From sheer hard graft.
“I like not sleeping. I think it’s ace. If you haven’t had enough sleep, it means you’ve achieved something – not staying up all night playing Grand Theft Auto.”
What will his message to students be?
“That it’s never about money. It should never be about money, unless that’s your passion. You have to follow what you want to do. If you look at a great artist, then some of them have made loads of money and some of them haven’t, but they don’t care because their passion is making art.”
(I’m reminded of Heston Blumenthal saying that, on the day he got his second Michelin star, he went to bed worrying about paying his staff.)
He’s pretty ace himself. I like the way he talks – unfashionably - not just of success but in praise of weak links and failure. His staff know how important it is to smile and be welcoming; they understand that it’s a privilege when people book a year in advance to dine with you.
“We’re lucky that our customers come here – it’s not the other way round: that they’re lucky to be here. That’s what happens with some places. Do you know what I mean?”
But when a waitress drops a coffee or forgets to smile – well, actually, that’s OK, too: “No one’s perfect 100 percent of the time, and the mistakes that happen are good because you learn from them.”
Now there’s a mantra for the 21st century! Hove we forgotten that? How absolutely great failure is?
“Absolutely. Competition at school has been knocked out. I went to Saintbridge, which was a huge sporting school where you won and lost games of rugby and football and cricket against other schools. If you were in the C team that week, you wanted to prove yourself and get to the B team. And you need to know that sometimes you’re a bit shit at what you do. Sadly, sometimes I think that edge of society gets taken off, which means that people don’t always learn to better themselves.”
It’s interesting, trying to piece together the disparate elements of his (happy, though far-from-privileged) childhood that helped get him where he is today. Yes, there was his competitive school. And the fact that his mum took him and his best friend Neil to the Cheltenham Everyman Youth Theatre on a Saturday.
“Yeah, that was great. All of a sudden, I came from an all-boys’ comprehensive school in the middle of Matson, White City and Coney Hill [pretty bleak areas of Gloucester] to a youth theatre in a spa town full of girls from Cheltenham Ladies’ College.
“I was introduced to people who lived… NOT IN A SEMI-DETACHED HOUSE? My god! People who had their own driveway; whose mum and dad were still together. Your dad’s a what? A dentist?”
Did that make him reassess his own aspirations in life? To want his own driveway?
“Not at all. I wanted to achieve but not in terms of: I want a massive house; I want a big driveway; I want a beautiful car. I’ve never never never been that person. I’ve never not thought that I couldn’t get it, but it’s not been a driving factor. I just wanted to do what I do.”
Nor did dentists’ daughters terrify him.
“I’ve always been comfy saying hello to people. To me, it’s: Wow! You’re a dentist and you’ve got a big lovely house but I’m still me. If you don’t like me or what I represent, I think that’s pretty odd, to be honest. I’m very proud I’m someone who’s just had a go at doing something and is just comfortable being me.”
He’s taken up clay-pigeon-shooting in the last three or four years (though not golf, which he can’t bear). “You go on a shoot and meet some incredibly privileged – or hard working – people. These guys are mega-rich but I like the fact that I’m the different person in that situation. And I wouldn’t change it.”
I bet they like it, too.
“Maybe. But I’ll be honest with you - whether they do or don’t like it, I don’t care. I’ll shoot as well as you and it doesn’t matter that I haven’t turned up in a bespoke Range Rover.”
He says this not with any swagger. Not in the slightest. It’s more – and I’m not having to stretch to say this – about empowering others. Plenty of people he employs are still with him after a decade, encouraged and promoted; given careers, not jobs.
And then there’s his attitude to customers.
“The mark of making sure that this [the Hand and Flowers] works well is knowing that my brother comes here and feels comfortable. He’s had the same job since he left school at 16 – he works at Marks & Spencer in Gloucester, in a supervisory role. If he’s comfortable coming in here, then that’s great.”
On the menu today, there’s half a roast chicken inspired by the Berni Inns, where Tom, his mum and brother would eat as a treat.
And he’s keen to talk about other Gloucestershire inspirations, too, such as Rob Rees (Grand Theft Auto aside, the two have dollops of affection for each other). “Rob’s influence was huge because he gave me an opportunity to learn the movements of being a chef – not just about cooking but how to put pans in and out of an oven; how to use space. And it was way better than college because the results mattered. You were trying to make a business work.”
Tom Kerridge is almost lost for words when it comes to the Everitt-Matthiases of Le Champignon Sauvage, where he once did a week’s work experience: namely David (“phenomenal talent”) and Helen (“one of the most warm, kind, wonderful people ever”). “David is still a huge influence. He was doing forage ingredients and picking things from the woodland before anybody thought it was fab. He was embracing British produce – wonderfully simple ingredients, treated well; slightly obscure ingredients people hadn’t seen before. He is one of Britain’s incredibly eccentric, bananas, brilliant people.”
Then there’s Michael Bedford, who was running the Trouble House near Tetbury when Tom and Beth popped in one day. “There wouldn’t be the Hand and Flowers without us having eaten there. I still remember a red mullet soup as a starter that was amazing. I thought: My god! These guys have got a Michelin star in a place with wooden tables and no tablecloths, where front-of-house staff are wearing jeans and smiling at you.
“We came away from that going: Of course! It now fits. It’s not about us doing a restaurant. It’s about us doing a space where we’re comfortable.”
He’s a strange and encouraging mix, Tom Kerridge. A man who knows you should buy a £20 chicken, properly reared and humanely treated, if you can afford to. But a man who embraces the fact that, for some families, a £2 supermarket chicken is the only way to enjoy a Sunday roast together.
“I remember one of the most exciting times was when McDonald’s opened in Gloucester. That was cool,” he tells me at one point.
McDonald’s, the leveller. If you’re a billionaire, the chances are you’ll pop in from time to time. And if you have nothing, then ditto. But whatever your bank-balance, you’ll get identical treatment; an identical meal.
“Exactly,” Tom says. “The Hand and Flowers is my top version of a Berni Inn. The standard and service of food are higher but the principle is the same. Everybody should be able to go in; and everybody – no matter who they are or what they’re wearing – should be able to enjoy it.”
• The University of Gloucestershire will host a public lecture – An evening with Tom Kerridge – on Wednesday, March 23, 6-7pm at the Park, Cheltenham. For more information, visit www.glos.ac.uk/research/pages/public-lecture-series.aspx
• Look out for details of upcoming BBC2 series Crème de la Crème, fronted by Tom, featuring teams of professional pastry chefs in a new Bake Off-style competition