The chef and restauranteur behind institutions including Hix Oyster & Chop House tells Naomi Mdudu how he got his reputation for creating sublime British grub.
EARLIEST CULINARY MEMORY
I used to help my grandmother bake. I found it fascinating but I didn’t think I was going to take it up as a career.
BECOMING A COOK
I didn’t know what to do when I left school and I ended up doing domestic science instead of metal work. There were only three boys in the class and we did it for a bit of a laugh, really. We would make things like pineapple upside down cake, which is something I still have on my menu today. Even after cooking in school, I still didn’t have a clear career path. I ended up going to catering college because I didn’t have anything else to do. Then I started to really like it. It’s definitely something I fell into.
FAVOURITE CHILDHOOD FOOD
My grandmother was quite a simple cook. It was nothing fantastic but once a week she would make things like stuffed lamb’s hearts, pressed ox tongue and bacon chops. When I started going fishing, she would cook a lot of mackerel, which would stay in the fridge, so there was always good food in the house. In those days there was no convenience food. It was only when I was about 14 that she had a deep freezer. My grandfather used to grow simple things in the garden but the tomatoes are the most memorable. I used to love getting home from the golf and tucking into a plate of fresh tomatoes straight from the greenhouse with vinegar and bread. I remember the taste because I used to help him water them and spray the leaves to stop fruit flies.
FLYING THE FLAG FOR BRITISH FOOD
When you have so much great produce on our doorstep and great food producers and farmers, you don’t need to be importing stuff from all over the world. Farmers are getting better, too. They are starting to grow and rear things that we can actually use in professional kitchens. Gone are the days when the best meat came from France. Now we have equally as good chicken. I’m from Dorset and it has influenced my cooking style, which relies on simple, locally sourced ingredients.
If you’d asked people what British cuisine was twenty years ago, they would have said things like steak and kidney pie. Now, with all of the great produce on our doorstep, British food could be something like baked seabass with rosemary, or crayfish and brandy – dishes that haven’t been traditionally seen as “classic” British dishes. It’s not just about looking to the past and revisiting old classics from 100 years ago, although, they can be really good too.
THE GREAT BRITISH MENU
To be honest, I hate doing TV but all my friends were doing it so the competitive side of me came out. It was a bit of a laugh but I ended up winning. You’re only supposed to win for one dish but I ended up winning two, one of which was a pie. The guys who were laughing at me for putting a pie on the menu had egg on their faces.
People like Jamie Oliver have done so much for food. He’s made it look a lot easier and a lot more accessible. He has introduced the idea of being able to cook without a hard and fast recipe proving that you don’t have to go out shopping for hours on end to get the right ingredients based on a rigid recipe.
I’m also inspired by the chefs that have really made a dent on the way we think about food; people like Marco Pierre White. He was probably the best around at the time, along with the likes of Pierre Koffman.
I don’t. Even when I’m on holiday, I’m still working. It’s one of those businesses where you can’t take your eye off the ball for a second. Even when I’m in the supermarket, I’m constantly thinking about work.
FAVOURITE QUICK DISH
It depends what’s in the fridge. I like the challenge of whipping something up from nothing.
INGREDIENTS EVERYONE SHOULD HAVE
A chunk of parmesan and always have olive oil. I have a lot of capriani pasta, which is really good quality dry pasta that you can cook quickly. I keep bits of bacon in my freezer and frozen peas, which are always a good stand-by and are often better than fresh peas. You should be able to knock up something tasty from very few ingredients but those basics make a difference.