'It was like attempting to climb Everest' - Michelin starred chef Tom Kerridge reveals how he lost 12 stone
Five years ago, chef Tom Kerridge transformed his diet and his weight - losing an astonishing 12st. Now, with his latest book, he's encouraging everyone to take responsibility for what they eat without losing the joy in food, he tells Meadhbh McGrath
Tom Kerridge's new book may have come out just in time for the New Year, but he insists it isn't a diet book. It's a point he makes in the introduction to Fresh Start, and reiterates when we meet in London.
"It is focused on healthier eating in terms of ditching convenience food and taking responsibility of your health," he allows. "But health covers so many different things: mental health is massive, the enjoyment that you get from cooking, the learning, the family time, the understanding that food can become a hobby… We all need to eat, but some people don't cook at all because they don't know how to do it, so that makes cooking not fun and it becomes a stressor. It's about trying to remove the stress."
Fresh Start is fairly all-encompassing, with chapters on 'Quick and Easy Meals', 'Weekend Feasts', and even 'Sweet Treats'. There are also the 'Lighter Dishes', and calorie counts appear throughout. "Yes, and they are a guideline, but this isn't a lower-calorie cookbook," he says. "It all falls into that realm of taking responsibility."
"Responsibility" is Tom's buzzword for this book, and one he uses in every other sentence when discussing Fresh Start. The focus, he explains, is on getting people who have fallen out of the habit of shopping and cooking for themselves back into the kitchen, whether that means preparing a nutty granola to replace their sugary cereal, getting the kids involved in making pizzas or swapping a takeaway for homemade chicken curry.
"I think a big problem around New Year's resolutions is that people expect too much of themselves. I think you need to be able to set yourself realistic goals. With Fresh Start, for example, it's to ditch convenience food, but I'm not expecting you to get rid of the pizzas from your freezer straight away, because on a Wednesday night something will have gone wrong, they'll have got through the door at 9pm and they'll have two teenage kids going 'What's for tea, mum?' It's a nightmare and I understand that. It's about the process of trying to become more responsible for the food that you cook and to enjoy it as well."
Tom is best known as the chef behind Michelin-starred pubs The Hand and Flowers and The Coach in Marlow, where he lives with his wife Beth, a sculptor, and their three-year-old son Acey. But in the last few years, Tom has built a second career as something of a healthy-eating guru.
As we speak, he sits upright on one of the velvet couches, straining his tea and tucking the accompanying biscuit away behind the milk jug, out of sight. It's a small gesture, but a testament to his dedication to a healthier lifestyle.
Five years ago, Tom was approaching his 40th birthday when he realised his weight had become a serious problem. "There is a point of reflection. You find yourself in a point in your career where you've worked very hard and you're quite happy. You think, 'I've done alright, but what am I gonna do for the next 40 years?'" he recalls. "Was I gonna live another 40 years? No, so I needed to make a change and consciously make an effort to try something different and live longer."
He immediately cut out carbohydrates, alcohol and sugar (apart from fruit), and started swimming and weight-lifting. He lost a jaw-dropping 12 stone. Today, he can't believe he has a sporting injury, at the age of 45, from dead lifting 185kg in the gym.
"That's something I never thought I'd say," he laughs.
Tom is careful to make a distinction between losing a couple of stone and losing 12 stone.
"It's a huge difference. For me, it was like attempting to climb Everest, not just going up a hill. It's a full-on challenge, but it's the same process: you have to build yourself up to it. It's self-regulation. It's the biscuit I've taken off my plate so it's out of my eye line. I'm taking responsibility for what I put in my body," he explains.
"You can't just go, 'It'll be alright, just one is fine', because then you're not making the change. You have to attack it as a mindset and a zone that you find yourself in, and that becomes a lifestyle change as well. It makes it sound really dramatic, but after a period of time it becomes easier."
Tom has been teetotal for nearly six years - something some of us may be considering after the boozy chaos of the festive season, whether it's making a go of Dry January, or attempting to cut down in the long-term.
"Being bored of routine was a big thing," says Tom. "I love pubs and I love catching up with friends, but there is a point, and everyone who is a big drinker will recognise this, where you are going to the same pub, meeting the same people and having the same stories again and again and again.
"There comes a point where you go, 'I can't listen to Dave tell me this story again about the time he met the queen'. There has to be more to life than that.
"There are some people whose relationship with alcohol is dysfunctional and untrustworthy, like mine - I can't do a single drink, there's no such thing as that. But there are people who are able to get control of it and not make it the main focus. If Tuesday night is pub night, why not make it gym night, or football training night, or cinema night? Instead of going to the pub, me and Beth would go to the cinema. I started finding normal life exciting," he smiles.
"You have to want to do it, because no one is going to do it for you. It's the same with food. You eat a deep-fried Mars bar, and yes, it tastes nice, but at what point is that good for your body?"
Now, when Tom gets home late from work, dinner is grapes, apples and cheese with a coffee ("Caffeine is the one vice I have left," he laughs), but he'll treat himself to occasional meals out. And he draws a line between what he cooks for himself and what's on offer in his restaurants.
"Why should I be inflicting on you my personal opinion of what food should be?" he says. "You don't eat in The Hand and Flowers every day. Restaurants are there for fun, for entertainment, for indulging in food and loving it."
Tom's last book, Lose Weight for Good, was a major hit in 2018, beating Michael Wolff's Fire and Fury to the top of the UK bestseller charts. The TV tie-in was a success too, and the Fresh Start series follows a similar formula: over 12 weeks, 12 families will cook recipes from the book and have their weight, body mass index, metabolic age and mental health monitored by sports analysts.
"There were people who didn't know where their rolling pin was or what saucepans they had. It's about getting to terms with the space you're working in, not being frightened of your kitchen," Tom explains. "One of the key ones for me is mental health and happiness. Are the kids learning about food? Who are the ones in the bad habits here, is it the kids or the adults?"
Tom admits that his own three-year-old can be as fussy as any child that age.
"He wants oven chips, he wants baked beans and he wants fish fingers. But we also take him for meals, we cook, he eats, he tries. If I'm eating frozen pizza all the time at home, that's all he's gonna learn...
"I haven't had fish fingers and oven chips in years - though when I say it now, I think, 'Ooh, that sounds good,'" he adds with a laugh, "but the idea is that the reality of what we're eating around him is different."
To give Acey an understanding of how his food is made, he helps with batch cooking on Sundays, and high-fives the chefs whenever they go for a meal.
"Kids like bland, they like beige, they like plain things covered in breadcrumbs. You give them anything that's stronger in flavour and they won't like it, whether it's olives or anchovies or chillis or garlic. Those adult flavours that we really like, that make kale and broccoli exciting - kids don't like that. You've got to find a way of drawing them out of that beige flavour profile," Tom explains.
He is adamant that it's not up to the Government or food companies to ensure we are eating and looking after ourselves properly. While he'd like to see supermarkets make some changes in food placement, Tom argues that it's our responsibility to read the labelling and pay attention to what we're putting in our shopping baskets.
But that doesn't mean we need to compromise on taste: although Tom's recipes are simple to make, they are packed with flavour, from warmly spiced Mexican beans to an aromatic roasted carrot salad.
"It's about enjoying the food that you can eat. Focus on that rather than worrying about what you can't," he says.
Tom encourages readers to treat his Fresh Start recipes as "guidelines" rather than instructions.
"That goes back to when I was a kid. My mum had Delia Smith cookbooks that were always covered in gravy and flour and bits of grease, and they'd always have notes in from when she would have cooked something. So if you eat something and you think there's too much garlic in there, scratch the garlic out," he shrugs.
"They're there for you to play around with. It's about trying to get people to cook and have fun doing it. It's not a regime, 'Do it this way' - do it your way, just enjoy doing it, that's the most important thing."