In the first of our Chef's Table interviews, Jason Atherton quizzes his friend David Gandy on staying in shape, trekking with gorillas and dragging yourself up by the bootstraps
Jason Atherton: You know what, this is actually the first time I’ve eaten in Pollen Street Social. I can’t enjoy it. If the waiter pours red wine over the lady wearing the Prada dress, I can’t just sit there and watch.
David Gandy: Well, I’m glad I have the honour! I was trying to remember how we met...
JA: It was at the opening of City Social, right?
DG: That’s it – we had the same personal shopper, Joe. Proper man’s man, not how you’d expect a personal shopper to be. He used to be a centre half, he’s about six foot six and immaculately dressed. I always wanted to look like him. I’ve known you for a few years, anyway, but I still have no idea where you grew up.
JA: I was born in Sheffield, but raised in Skegness.
DG: Were your mum and dad successful?
JA: My dad was successful, he built a successful engineering company, lost it and then rebuilt it again. He and my brother run it now. My mum left my dad when I was about five or six so I was taken to Skegness where me and my sister were raised in a caravan. My dad remarried, then my mum remarried, then my mum and step-dad, who I call dad, got a little guest house in Skegness and they worked hard on that. I’m from a hard-working family.
DG: Same, I saw my mum and dad work from 7am until midnight. If you grow up with your mum and dad giving you that example, not giving you everything, you strive for it and you’re scared to lose it.
JA: Oh, petrified. Achievement is incredible but you can never ever take it for granted. My wife Ihra comes from a very, very poor background.
DG: The less you know about people the more intriguing they are. We’ve been mates for a while and I didn’t know anything about where you grew up. I find it strange when people have got so much money and they want to put their whole life on social media. It’s created a generation where people want to be famous without putting the work in. You get bloggers and ‘influencers’ who are given everything: free cars, free clothes, free holidays. I see people at fashion shows and I think, ‘what experience have you had?’ People just want to be seen, they want it all for nothing, even if they haven’t achieved anything. But I think people are becoming a lot wiser, with food, with fashion, with everything. It’s not about just churning stuff out, it’s about quality, and that means hard work.
JA: Yeah, I’ll go to the gym at 5am, get to work at 8am and won’t get home till midnight. Saturday and Sunday I’ll be travelling abroad to the restaurants or spending it with the children. That’s literally it. That’s why I stopped doing television, it just took too much time. You have to decide who you want to be. Do you want to be a successful chef or a TV star? It took me 20 years to get noticed as a chef, which is a long time to be stuck in the kitchen. Then all of a sudden you become known, get some Michelin stars and everyone’s trying to suck you out of what made you famous in the first place. It’s only because I was older when it happened that I was able to say, ‘Okay, if I spent that much time out of my kitchen, it’s going to mess the whole thing up.’
DG: Are chefs still as tough as people think?
JA: Gordon [Ramsay[ was fucking ruthless. Like, mafia ruthless. He wasn’t so bad with me because I was like: ‘I’m following your arse right to the top,’ but guys who didn’t cut the crop, they were taken down big style. I can be ruthless if I don’t get what I want, but I’m diplomatic about it. I say: ‘This is where I’m going, if you’re not coming with me then get off the wagon. You either work with me or there’s another 20 passengers wanting to get on the wagon. It’s not personal, it’s just somewhere I have to be.”
DG: It’s the same with everything, you have to work hard. Look at Victoria’s Secret models, they’re at the top of their game, freakishly beautiful, with bodies like athletes. But that’s about diet, training, lifestyle...
JA: I train like a demon four or five days a week, I run most mornings, between half an hour and 40 minutes. I was in such good shape before Christmas, I was at 14 per cent body fat and fit in a pair of 30-inch waist trousers. But I have to try all these new menus all the time, and now I can’t fit in them – what a waste of money. How do you stay in shape?
DG: I never eat breakfast. I’ve always been an evening gym guy, never been a morning gym guy. So sometimes dinner could be at 10pm, but from then until lunch the next day I’ll have completely fasted. I eat small meals during the day, but I never hold back from bread and butter or anything. It’s about moderation. Nutritionists say a really high percentage of people who maintain their weight skip breakfast.
An average guy burns 2,500 calories doing nothing: if you take the dog for a walk for 6km you’ll need 3,000, if you go to the gym you’re up to 3,500, if you’re constantly moving, you’re on maybe 4,000 calories a day, so my problem is consuming enough protein, enough good calories. But the older I get the harder it gets. I used to be able to train for two weeks and see a difference, now that makes no difference whatsoever. The older I get the harder it is to get into shape. Do you think there’s still a cliché that Britain’s not good for food?
JA: Britain, yes, London, no. Which is odd because it’s produce from the rest of the UK that sustains us. It’s the creative people that make London what it is. But there are some great places elsewhere: Restaurant Sat Bains, Nathan Outlaw, all those guys. Post Second World War we became obsessed by the American way of life, with supermarkets and microwaves, and we lost our culinary identity. Now, thank goodness, it’s back.
DG: It happened with a lot of things. The car industry – look at Bentley, Rolls Royce, Mini, Jaguar, all those great brands that we no longer own. In fashion you have Gieves, Hardy Amies. We’re losing our identity, aren’t we? It’s because we’re very British and we self-destruct. America is very good at investing in itself, in start-ups. I think we’re slowly getting there but we need to start believing in ourselves, shouting about the things we do well. Brands I work with – Aspinal, Jaguar, M&S – are proud to be British. We’re the fifth biggest economy in the world, which people forget. London is one of the number one cities in the world and that’s the way we’ve got to keep it.
JA: Absolutely. My biggest worry is that 85 per cent of my workforce is from the continent. If we don’t get a good Brexit deal, a lot of restaurants in London will really hurt, because we’ve become really reliant on these guys for good service. If we don’t get freedom of movement, we’ll struggle. We’re so lucky in London, I just hope Brexit doesn’t decimate the creativity. Our fashion, food, restaurants, bars and music are all incredible. I feel super proud to be a Londoner.
JA: What’s your favourite place abroad?
DG: My dad thinks he’s David Attenborough the Second, so he has always educated me and my sister through travel. My classmates would go travelling in Europe and we’d be in the middle of the Amazon rainforest or watching the brown bears grabbing salmon as they migrate through the Alaskan falls. We still try and all go away together. About four years ago we went gorilla trekking in Uganda, just me, my mum and dad, and that was an incredible experience. We drove for two days across these terrible roads and had a car smash into us, which the local mayor helped us out with. But we had an hour with the gorillas. You’re absolutely among them, and the young ones will come running past and grab your shoulder and stuff, but you’re always aware the mum is watching.
JA: I’m a massive boxing fan. I was out in Manila House in the Philippines having dinner and got talking to the guy next to me. Turns out he was Manny Pacquiao’s manager. He said ‘do you want to meet him?’ So he text him and apparently his sister is a huge fan of mine, so we ended up at Manny’s house eating pizza. He was a super nice guy. Likes to be called ‘Senator’.
DG: Is there anything you still really want to achieve in your career?
JA: At some point I really to do our own hotel. Just 15, 20 bedrooms.
DG: Investors always say ‘Don’t go into restaurants, don’t go into hotels’, but I guess if anyone’s going to make it work it’ll be you...
JA: I live and breathe it, that’s the difference. I know the pitfalls. Even in the middle of Brexit, landlords are still trying to charge crazy rents, but I can do my sums and know straight away if something’s going to work. If your restaurant is half-full and you can’t pay the rent, don’t do it. People plan for things to be amazing, but that’s not smart. It was a blessing in disguise for me to get success later in life, I learned to be smart.
DG: The key is to keep pushing through when things are going well. My M&S range is up 90 per cent this year but you can’t just rest on your laurels. My first thought is ‘how are we going to keep that going?’ Male shoppers tend to be very loyal once they know they’re onto something good, so I’m always listening to customers about what works and what we need to improve. People say to me, ‘You’re not really involved, are you? Everyone else does the work and you just sign your name on it.’ I’m like, ‘No, no, no’, I’m involved every step of the way: concept, design, marketing, creative, styling. Because you’re responsible if sales aren’t good.
JA: That’s why you have to choose your projects carefully. It’s not just about the money, you have to do what feels right. If you think about how you’ll be judged at the end of your life it’s not about how much cash you made, that’s for your kids, but what kind of person you were, what kind of friend, what kind of husband. Money is the last thing on my mind. Unfortunately everything in this industry costs money.