British chef Tom Kerridge believes that the UK food scene at the moment is a phenomenal place to be in. That is not just due to the rich heritage that exists but also thanks to diversity that has emerged after 50 to 60 years of immigration from over the world which has created a wonderfully rich and eclectic mix of backgrounds and diversity in the food scene. “You can get a Michelin star for Chinese, Indian, curry houses, Japanese. All of these ingredients can become amalgamated or mixed together and could grow into our own food scene. We don’t do just roast beef and fish and chips although that is kind of what I do here at the Tom Kerridge Bar and Grill in the Corinthia London, but from a young chef’s point of view, British food is eclectic and rich and diverse so it gives room to all sorts of possibilities. We have no shackles. We are free to go wherever we want and that is exciting,” he said.
In the UK, Tom is more than a household name. He rose to fame for his pub and comfort food when he became the first ever chef to clinch two Michelin stars for pub food at his restaurant, The Hand and Flowers in Marlow, Britain. But recently, he has also served as an inspiration for many who have followed this chef’s journey as he lost over 70 kilogrammes of weight over the course of four years.
That would be hard for anyone but more so for a chef who is constantly surrounded by food. It was at the age of 40 that he decided that enough was enough. Some might call it a mid-life crisis and Tom does not hide the fact that it was ‘an age thing’. “40 is a point of reflection. It is the point where you look at what you have achieved, at what you have done and you say to yourself that if there is going to be another 40 years, you need to make the most of it. For me, I said there will not be another 40 years unless I do something about it so I made a big change in my personal life. I stopped drinking completely, I lost a lot of weight and completely changed my lifestyle,” he told Food and Wine Gazette when we interviewed him at the recently opened Tom Kerridge Bar and Grill at the Corinthia Hotel London.
Tom is not just the chef/owner of The Hand and Flowers (2 Michelin stars), The Coach (1 Michelin star) and Tom Kerridge Bar and Grill but he is also a TV personality, has authored many books and also has a young child.
That change did not come easy. “It is very difficult because you need to do it correctly, you need to work it out. You have to arm yourself with knowledge and understanding of how to do it and you also need to be prepared to take the journey. This is not a short-term thing. There are many people who over a three month period could lose a stone in weight and then go back to what they were doing and put the weight back on. What you need is to work out what put you in this position in the first place, embrace a new lifestyle so you do not go to how you were before. That is more difficult. It is not like you have a date or a weight when you can stop and go back to your old habits.”
What was difficult for Tom and what’s difficult for anyone is to change a habit. “It is a process. If I could tell anybody who is about to start the journey or who wants to start the journey where they will be in four or five years time, it is not going to be as hard as you think when you look back, but it is still very hard. Sometimes you are crippled with fear about doing it because you think it is going to be so hard and you say to yourself that you cannot do that. Actually, finding the courage to do it means that it becomes easier and once you are in the rhythm, it is not as hard as you think it is going to be,” he said.
The first three months were by far the hardest. The habitual change is the hardest. Once you are in it, it becomes easier.
The British chef says those first three months were by far the hardest. “That habitual change and the way you live your life is the hardest. Once you are in it, it becomes easier. Some people go on diets but don’t tell their friends. You have to tell your friends, you need to tell everybody because you need your friends to help you, you need those people to be supportive and friends are supportive. I think you have to find as many options and opportunities to make it easier for yourself and telling people and friends is important,” he said.
As a chef who needs to keep abreast with what’s going on not just in the UK but also worldwide how does he cope with having to go to restaurants to eat, I ask him. “You need to start from the point that cheat days don’t exist. If you give yourself a cheat day, it easily becomes the norm. So don’t give yourself a cheat day. But if you are in an amazing three Michelin star restaurant somewhere in Spain of course you should have dessert. You just need to get back on track the next day remembering this is not the norm. Don’t beat yourself about it. I did not look at scales and did not weigh myself for the first three to four months. What is important is how you feel. Are you feeling better? Even nowadays, I don’t visit the scales but rather go about how I feel and whether I am active. If you have a few bad days because you are tired, you have been working hard or have eaten bad food, you need to get back on track. It is the position of most 45 year old men. It is a revolving battle of needing to do something about your health, going to the gym. You need to be comfortable without having to worry about weight loss which would be hard to achieve.”
As a chef, TV present and book author he has a very busy schedule. I am interested to know about work life balance. He admits it is always very difficult to strike a balance. “I would always love to say that family always comes first, that they are always a priority. In general they are always the priority in that I am the provider, I work hard as a father to provide shelter, food, security for the family. Time is always the most difficult because you are trying to provide these things. “This is not just of relevance to chefs. I’ve come to realise as a father of a three year old that this affects every parent. Every parent has that guilty feeling when the kids cry because they don’t want to go to the nursery and you still have to take them because you have to go to work. Every parent feels that guilt and goes through this process. It is not just me that has to embrace it. It is more difficult when you work in the hospitality industry because you start early morning, you have to do lunch and dinners which means that days are long. But you have to try and find a balance. I try to make sure Sundays are family days,” he said.
Tom also makes it a point to be at home two evenings a week to participate in bed time and bath time. “I’ve been lucky this week that I’ve already had two evenings at home but I know that I will not be there in the coming days. But I know Saturday is going to be a big family day. The important thing is to try and find the balance that works for you.”
He tells me that the more you structure and the more you organise the more everyone wants 100 per cent of your time. “For me the most important skill that I have learned over the years is delegation and the ability to build a phenomenal team infrastructure around me because without that balance you will never be able to provide the foundations for growth,” he said. “A good management structure, lovely people who are warm and who you can trust are essential,” he says.
We have grown as a group not out of my desire to open restaurants but because of my team’s desire to grow. People join the company because we are seen as progressive and moving forward.
Throughout the conversation, Tom constantly speaks about the importance of his team. “We have grown as a group not out of my desire to open restaurants but because of my team’s desire to grow. People join us in the company because we are seen as progressive and moving forward. We really encourage staff to grow not only professionally but also personally. Personal development is hugely important for an individual. So if they feel they can grow professionally, that helps them personally. It allows them to reflect on where they are going, what they achieve in life and that has been important as a company.”
He said people have grown in the company. He mentions Nick for example who has worked with Tom for eight years. He was sous-chef at The Hand and Flowers, he opened The Coach and got a Michelin star as head chef. The sous chef is now head chef and Nick has moved to the restaurant at the Corinthia in London. It is a growing process for the staff. As they grow as persons and also develop new skills the net may spread but it is not through my desire but through the people’s desire for the company to grow.
Is he looking at more restaurant openings I ask him. “We never say never but so much depends on the growth of the staff and what they want to do. If someone is interested in an opening in New York or where a point of contact may come who knows. But for us, we are not in discussions at the moment and I don’t have an outright desire to take over the world with restaurants. My huge desire is for people to grow and develop. So depending on what they want we will do the right thing. What’s important is the staff well-being and this is a fundamental point of importance for me,” he said.
My personal life and my professional life are completely separate things. It would be patronising of me to put health or diet dishes on a menu.
Having three restaurants that serve pub food while he has embarked on healthy eating may sound like a contradiction to many and I ask whether he has also shifted towards a more healthy cooking approach in his restaurants. “Not at all. My personal life and my professional life are completely separate things. How often do people have three course meals when they are at home? You never get people eating a starter, main course and dessert at home. But when you go out for dinner, you are looking for a restaurant experience, for warmth and hospitality. It is about having a three course meal, it is about spending time with your friends and family, enjoying a drinks menu. We are providing a form of hospitality and entertainment and it is completely different to someone who is on a weight loss journey. If you come here and have the lobster omelette as a starter followed by roast beef and a crème brûlée that works on no diet. But that provides you with happiness and warmth and being happy is important in life. Of course, if you eat like that everyday you would be unhappy because it wouldn’t even be special anymore, it would lead to you being unhealthy but if you do it once every two weeks it will not be the end of the world.”
“It would be patronising of me to put health and diet dishes on a menu because you look at this dining room and people don’t need to be on a diet, I don’t need to dictate to them what to do. Their life is in balance,” he said.
Tom practices what he preaches even when it comes to the creative process giving his team 100 per cent trust and also space. “The head chefs have been working with me for a very long time. I have 100 per cent trust in them and they have 100 per cent trust in me to provide them with the space to be creative and to adapt. They know that the reason that we have worked so well together and stayed for a long time is that they all have the same love of food as me. “We are always produce led, nothing about what we do is gimmicky. It is not about being fashionable or following a fad but about the produce, about whether it is in season and whether it tastes nice. We do not want to confuse our guests. All the restaurants have different set-ups. Here, a lot of the food is done on the rotisserie which is great because it is a style of cooking that allows chefs to be creative in the way they use this cooking method. At The Coach we serve smaller dishes, the service is free flowing and menus can change in every service. At The Hand and Flowers, which has 2 Michelin stars, you have an incredible system that runs. It is difficult to change dishes but we change according to the seasons. The Christmas dishes are already ready. What goes into the menu has already been signed off three to four weeks in advance. At such a restaurant, any restaurant, but this in particular you can never have an off day because people have booked so much in advance that you cannot get it wrong. The difference for me is in the layers of flavour,” he said.
When Tom was starting his career in food, the food scene in the UK as he himself says was ‘laughable’. “You would never go to a pub to have something to eat. Now, there are almost 20 pubs with Michelin stars, maybe more. The food scene has been growing each year and has changed from fine dining, hotel rooms and exclusive places to good food done simply. We have been good at driving this food recognition forward,” he said.
The British chef says the pub scene is a huge growing market. But there are also neighbourhood restaurants like Tom Brown Cornerstone in Hackney which are doing great things. “As the price of rent went up, chefs, especially younger ones, would move into pubs because they were cheaper and now they are moving into neighbourhood restaurants. This is really great and luckily they are being supported by the general public,” he said.
He has been one of the faces of this British food revival also thanks to his programmes on TV. “When you are a small business and you get the opportunity to be on television you can make a big difference because it allows the world to see what you can offer and do. It is not just television as all forms of media are helpful and this is part of a new skill set that chefs have had to learn particularly if you are a business owner. For me, all forms of media have been important. I have enjoyed learning a new trade, learning a new job and skill and moving around showcasing produce and products, chefs and the food scene in general. It has been part and parcel of my growth as a person. First you do it because you want to showcase your business but the more you do it, the more you are asked to do things. You realise that you have a voice and you can use it for amazing things like showcasing British beef farming, the fantastic carrots that are grown on a particular farm. You can speak about the food scene throughout the whole country and not just London.”
“Some of the best restaurants in the country aren’t just in London. I have been very fortunate to have travelled all over the world showcasing British produce and that is really important for me. This industry has been very kind for me. I love this industry very much and I give it a 100 per cent.”
We live in the Instagram age. But whatever story you try to tell, it needs to have a foundation, it needs to be real otherwise people will see through it.
While social media is often criticised because it does not lead to depth, Tom believes that this has allowed people to get experiences which they would otherwise not get. “Around the world, chefs are travelling. We live in the Instagram age. When I started working in the kitchen, the internet did not exist and now young chefs are looking on their phones at a live feed of the vibrant kitchen of Alex Atala in Brazil for example or of a three star sushi chef. Chefs are also physically travelling and not just on their phone. They absorb information and knowledge like sponges. Today, we are in an age where they are not interested in saving money to buy a house or if they live in London, they don’t need to buy a car. So instead, they spend their money on experiences, travelling and experiencing hospitality in different places and with different people. You can travel the world in food and that makes it a wonderful industry to be in,” he said.
Asked how he went about learning new skills like TV presenting, social media or writing he said there is no booklet on how to do it. “You have to teach yourself. You have to enjoy it. That is the most important thing. If you want to do something, you need to enjoy doing it otherwise you will not commit to it, you need to give 100 per cent. It should never be about the money or about whether it has commercial potential but always about enjoying what you do. Every time I have done TV, I’ve been asked to do radio. You need to use these opportunities to watch other presenters, see what they do, how they do it, the skill sets they have and you pick these bits. It is an ongoing learning process. You just have to jump off and do it. It is the same like opening restaurants. Everyone can tell you how to open restaurants but you will never know until you do it. So just say yes to doing things and then start. Have the confidence in yourself to do it and move forward.”
Tom is aware that everyone is all over social media but he says that what is most important is that you are genuine. “Whatever story you try to tell, it needs to have a foundation and it needs to be real otherwise people, consumers, guests, advertisers will see through that. Whether you are a young chef with 20 followers or Justin Beiber with I don’t know how many followers, whatever it is the words that you are trying to say must be heartfelt. People will tell if it is not real. The point of social media is that it is always about a connection to you personally. Unless the story is a 100 per cent honest and truthful, people can see through it.
He does not believe that it is easier now given that everyone has access to information and that is a good thing. “People tend to question things which is a good thing. They question the media, they question newspapers, they question statements, they question politicians and that is amazing because it means that if you are doing righteous, wholesome and honest things, you will stand out from the crowd.”
“The most beautiful thing about food is that anyone can make it look pretty on a plate but the skill is to make it great. Ultimately we do not eat with our eyes but with our mouth and taste buds. It has to taste amazing and it does not matter on the pictures. You can tell stories, you can entice people in, you can have exciting things but until they sit down and eat something or experience it, they will not know and that is what’s wonderful about the hospitality industry, it is all about the experience. You can use social media for showcasing what you and the people you are surrounded with do,” he said.
Tom is not obsessed with guides or stars though he knows these are important. “We cook for the guests not for the guides and this is a fundamental point. I am of the view that there will definitely be a three Michelin star pub at some point. It might be in 2 years, in 10 or 20 years but I am sure that this space will exist at some point. I don’t dream of it being ours. We try to get a little bit better each day at the Hand and Flowers. We try very hard to improve the all round experience, the food and to make it better. But if you are cooking for the guidebooks, you are doing it for the wrong reasons. You need to be cooking for the guests, you need to be making it better for them.
We want the guests that have been coming to us for 14 years to be happy and keep coming back.”
“We want to create a space where people can enjoy a lunch or dinner, it is that simple,” Tom said. Who can fault him with that?