Saturday 25 October 2014

The proof is in the Pudding

Asked to create a turkey-free Christmas dinner to promote film Free Birds, chef Tom Kerridge had a problem... he loves turkey

Julia Molony

Published 09/12/2013 | 02:30

FLAVOUR OF THE MONTH: Tom Kerridge's star is on the rise as the proprietor of the world's only two Michelin starred pub, the Hand and Flowers
He's also been tasked by makers of animation 'Free Birds' with taking turkey off the Christmas menu.

Tom Kerridge looks like a chef from an Edwardian cartoon. A plum pudding and beef pie-making chef with a jovial face, round belly and a rolling pin.

He is the proprietor of the world's only two Michelin starred pub, the Hand and Flowers, in Buckinghamshire, from where he makes unpretentious traditional British cuisine, par excellence.

He has a best-selling cookbook out, and a TV show. Every few years, the culture dictates, the world must create a new, media friendly superstar chef. After Ramsay, Oliver, Pierre-White, it's time to welcome Kerridge.

He's meeting me for a rather unusual reason. Today he is representing the film industry. Specifically, he's representing a new Thanksgiving/Christmas animation film starring Owen Wilson, which is, in turn, representing the interests of turkeys. In Free Birds, Owen Wilson stars as a turkey that travels back in time to try to convince the pilgrims to take turkey off the menu for Thanksgiving. Thus, (stay with me) Kerridge has been booked to apply his considerable skills to creating an alternative Christmas dinner. One that doesn't feature a turkey as it's centrepiece.

Except there's one flaw to this plan. "I love doing turkey," he says cheerily. "No matter what we do I'll always do a turkey as well because it's the best cold meat for Boxing Day."

So even though he's here to show a group of journalists how to cook venison, he'll be at the in-laws this Christmas, himself, tucking heartily into some turkey. No one tell Owen Wilson.

His mother-in-law will be taking care of the cooking. Won't she feel huge pressure?

"No, she's great she's really good ... " he says. "She spent her whole life being an amazing host, doing dinner parties and bits and bobs. I come from a tiny little family and I've married into a massive one. From her point of view she's done lots of entertaining throughout her whole life. I'm sure I'll be in the kitchen. But it's quite nice that I haven't got to stress about it at the beginning. I'll worry about it when I get there."

Kerridge grew up on a council estate in the West Country and has hung onto the cheery farmer's burr of an accent. His parents separated when he was little and his mum raised him and his brother. She worked two jobs to make ends meet, and Kerridge learned to cook making dinner for his little brother. Now, he runs a kitchen of 21 – full of "naughty boys with knives" as he calls them, his loyal little troupe of hyperactive lads who, like him, might have run into trouble if they hadn't found the discipline of the kitchen.

"We joke very much about the fact that it's a dictatorship. It's a funny dictatorship ... It's a kitchen that I want to work in, so it's structured, it's organised, everybody understands what's going on ... We've gotta be the only two-star kitchen that has all of the premier league and all of the champions league on. It's a driven, dynamic, fun, hardworking place."

He demands a lot from his staff, but is not a tyrannical, cleaver-wielding monster.

"Aaron, my head chef, would be the first one to say that he's Mr Moody and I'm Mr Nice," he says, with a grin. Being Mr Nice doesn't mean that he's easy going. "You get lots of people that turn up, that want to be a part of it, but they don't fit the dream. They see it as coming to work rather than being part of a thing, and if they don't see it as being in that bubble, then they don't last very long."

In fact, he's been known to fire chefs half way through service, and at least once has covered a Sunday lunch with just himself and one other staff member, because he'd rather cook 65 covers on his own than tolerate the help of another chef who he feels doesn't have the skills.

"It's very hard; we are a two Michelin starred kitchen so the standard is very high."

On the plus side though, he seems to enjoy little more than finding promising talent who just get it. "We've got a 17-year-old apprentice at the moment," he says. "As a 16 year old he left home on the Isle of Wight, came to work with us, lives above the pub in one of the rooms, and is now working on a section as a chef, not as an apprentice, at 17 years old. The growth that you can see in those guys is just brilliant. All they want to do is cook and be a part of it. I love it when people leave us to go on to somewhere else amazing."

It might be Tom's name over the door, but he built the business up from scratch with his wife Beth, who is still a partner but now devotes most of her time to her work as a sculptor. She put her career on hold for a while in the early days, to support him as he built up the business. It was hard going, as you would expect. She left him three times in the first year after the Hand and Flowers opened its doors.

"Beth is a very strong, independent woman, with a massive artistic flair and drive and passion. She's a strong woman," he says. "And as a chef, you are driven to the point of arrogance sometimes, when you want to achieve stuff in a business. And then you forget everything else around you.

"When you are doing 18-19 hour days and you're sleeping for three or four hours a night and trying to make a business work and there's all those money pressures and all that, and you are working and living with your other half, the pressures are massive. It's a lot easier now. She hasn't left me since the first year. And we're nine years in, so I'm doing alright."

He's lost count of the number of "weddings, christenings, parties and dinner parties" that Beth has had to go to on her own over the years. Though he does say: "Not any more, because I can't get away with it anymore."

Does he agree that it takes selfishness to achieve what he has? "It is in some ways selfish, but as it's happening I don't think you can see any other option. And then you go, it's somebody's birthday, they'll have another one next year."

Beth comes from a business family – her mum is an entrepreneur and her dad a self-made man, and Tom admits that he learned a huge amount from being around them. But the work ethic that keeps him in the kitchen 20 hours a day – that comes from his mum. A force of a woman by the sound of things.

"Beth, my wife is truly inspired by my mum. The amount of stuff that she went through and then brought up two naughty boys, coming in with black eyes and all that sort of stuff.

"She really taught myself and my brother right and wrong. Let us free to go and do whatever we wanted, but we were never arrested as kids, where everybody else was. There was a point that we knew, without our mum being there that no no no no, that's not right, and that's the time to walk away."

He seems to have a bit of that in himself these days – a bit of parental rigour. Or at least, that would explain why he beams when describing the scrappy little kids who have turned up at the Hand and Flowers looking for a job and turned out a few years later some of the most expert chefs in the industry.

"I don't know whether it's me or the front of house, we attract some lost souls that turn out they want to be a part of something."

Free Birds is in cinemas now

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