Leading Lights – Tom Kerridge

Tom Kerridge is the chef owner of the two Michelin-starred Hand and Flowers in Marlow. He talks to Stir it up about his love of pubs, his “pirate crew” and his culinary inspirations.

Your early career was spent learning your trade in hotels and restaurants. Why did you choose to go down the pub route rather than the fine dining restaurant? I decided that, if I was going to run my own business, it had to be somewhere I would want to go every day. Five star hotels are not somewhere I would go on my day off. I want to wear jeans and a t-shirt so a pub is where I wanted to be. Pubs are much more suited to my style of food. I consider myself a true British bloke and pubs are an integral part of what makes our country great.

What advice can you offer to fellow publicans who are struggling in the current climate? Understand your market. If your pub is struggling have a look around you and see what people are wanting. If your pub is quiet and the local pizza chain is packed, ask yourself what are they offering, what is happening around you. Make yours a “pub plus”. They’re not just a place where people go to drink six pints anymore, people go there for something to eat, movie night, quiz, watch sport. not just alcohol -related enjoyment.

I understand you are teetotal now too. Isn’t that a little ironic?! Being teetotal does actually give me a much better perception of what is going on in the pub. It makes me look at everything and understand the complete package. It has also made me think more deeply about the choice of non-alcoholic drinks we serve.

Who or what inspires you from a culinary perspective? Everybody and everything! My eyes are wide open. I take inspiration for angles you’d never think of! For example, I think Wetherspoons’ business set-up is fantastic, opening first thing in the morning, different food concepts and different things on every night to draw customers in. At the other end of the spectrum, I’m inspired by Heston (Blumenthal), Gordon (Ramsay) and Sat (Bains).

What food trend(s) are you most excited about at the moment and why? There’s so much going on right now regarding post-war Britain. The Great British Bake Off is massive. People are baking cakes like our parents and grandparents used to do, growing their own veg and brewing their own beer. Self-sufficiency is beginning to come through to the mainstream and cooks are beginning to turn their backs on the huge manufacturers, which is a wonderful way forward.

What’s the most important piece of advice you have been given? (and by whom?) A supplier said to me, when we were opening the Hand & Flowers, “When times are really hard, keep going, keep doing it because, if it was easy, everyone would be doing it. You have to soldier on”. That stuck with me for ages.

Do you think you’ll ever achieve three Michelin stars? How important is it to you? I do think there’ll be a pub that achieves three stars because there is a very strong food-led movement but whether it will be us, who knows? It’s not the most important thing in my life. Our aim is to maintain what we’ve got and get a little bit better every day – and make sure people enjoy it.

You likened working in a kitchen to like “being with a bunch of pirates”! Please could you elaborate on what you meant? If you think of wonderful London five star hotels full of immaculate chefs in starched uniforms and polished shoes, then the Hand & Flowers is definitely not like that! We can definitely compete with the five star chefs but on a more leftfield angle. Our chefs have tattoos and teeth missing and are from all different walks of life. I will employ anybody with enthusiasm who is willing to learn and push themselves, whether they are young or old or have worked in a Michelin star kitchen or a supermarket. We’re a very eclectic bunch!

Do you enjoy your celebrity status? I completely ignore it until I’m asked to do something where I have a voice. I find it quite bizarre when I’m recognised on the High Street – I’m just that fat, bald bloke off the telly! I don’t hate it – it’s not like I play for a professional football team and get abused by rival supporters. People are great and some of them are encouraged to cook by what I do and hopefully gain from me a love of food.

How do you cope with your allergy to shellfish in the kitchen? Has it made you more aware of food allergies in general? My fish allergy has made me really aware of other people’s allergies and there’s no issue for us and we will always work around it. My kitchen team is amazing. They know exactly what I’m looking for and I trust them completely to taste the dishes that I can’t.

You are constantly working and rarely get any time off. What makes you stressed and how do you relax? I get stressed when people don’t clingfilm things properly in the fridge. It has to be tight on the container – it shows the mind of a structured person who works carefully. I’m a big fan of sport. I watch Marlow FC and the Premier League. I also like cricket and I’ll stay up all night to watch the Superbowl. I like watching people do battle for 90 minutes.

And now for three questions that we ask all of our Leading Lights…

1. What are your three kitchen secrets?
i) Enjoy what you are doing or you will never cook something great. See it as a wonderful experience.
ii) Never be scared of seasoning. Salt and pepper content makes a big difference to taste and that’s the most important thing. That smile on your face when you taste it will give longevity to your life.
iii) Always have very sharp knives. Blunt knives are more dangerous.

2. What is your favourite ingredient and why? Dairy – I’m a big fan of butter, milk and cheese. You can get sour notes from cheese and add structure, texture and colour to enrich your dishes.

3. Please could you share your favourite recipe, along with your reasons for choosing it? Monkfish scampi. This is an old-fashioned dish with a nod to my youth in pubs when scampi and chips was all the rage. In the old days scampi was actually make from monkfish rather than Dublin Bay Prawns. This recipe has a nice simple batter, which is really crunchy and works really well for deep fried chicken too.

Click here for Tom’s Monkfish Scampi recipe

Tom will be cooking live at: • BBC Good Food Show Summer in the City, ExCel London May 20-22 • BBC Good Food Show Summer https://www.bbcgoodfoodshowsummer.com/