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Steve Love, Cotswold House Hotel, Gloucestershire
Steve Love, chef patron of Love's restaurant in Birmingham is this month's featured chef.
Head Chef, Cotswold HouseSteve Love is Head Chef at Cotswold House in Chipping Campden. Steve currently holds 3 AA Rosettes and has previously been named "Knorr Chef of the Year" and in 1997 won the prestigious Roux Scholarship which in turn led to Steve completing a 3 month placement with Alain Ducasse at his 3 Michelin starred restaurant in Paris.
Steve thanks for seeing me today. What made you want to be a chef all those years ago?
I don't know. I first did work experience while I was in the 4th year at school, and just went into a local hotel in Stratford, started in the kitchen, did a couple of days and the next thing was to move into housekeeping and I didn't fancy cleaning the toilets, so I asked if I could stay in the kitchen, I just enjoyed it so much, and I went from there to college"¦
Did you study at college full time?
Yeah, I did two years full time; I did a BTEC Diploma in catering, which was a managerial course. I also worked part time as well.
Ok and after college?
I got to the end of that and decided that I wanted to go into the kitchens rather than go into the managerial side of it. Then I got an apprenticeship at a local hotel in Stratford, which was the Welcome Hotel.
Your first full time job?
Yes. At that point it was owned by Orient Express, and there were 23 chefs in the kitchen, you look at it now and there are 8 chefs in the kitchen. Back then there was real quality, most of them anyway"¦ I mean, the Head Chef was Savoy trained, Ritz trained, had been through Switzerland. The Sous Chef the same, near enough all the Chef de Parties had been through London - Claridges, The Savoy, The Ritz; all the big ones and at that point I was looking to go to London but then I thought what's the point if I can live at home and still get the same training with these guys.
Did you go to London at all in your career?
No, not at all! I looked at it at one point but I just couldn't afford to live down there and still keep the house going up here on the salary that I was being paid. I got offered a position as Chef de Partie at the Connaught with Michel Bourdin, which was a great opportunity but I just couldn't afford it.
So how long were you at The Welcome in Stratford for?
It was 4 years altogether, then I left just to get a promotion, got all the way to Chef de Partie at the Welcome and then left there to take on a my first Junior Sous position at a place called Charingworth Manor. It was a nice place, red stars, three rosettes, and I learnt a lot. I stayed there for 6 months, but in the end I just couldn't afford to stay. You know, I took a wage cut to go there, but it was a career move rather than a financial one.
I think that's the thing these days, people just go for the finance half the time - they want to be a Sous Chef by the time they're 22/23, and earning a Head Chefs wage at 24... They don't have that career path planned out.
Yeah I agree. When I was at Mallory Court, I advertised for a Sous Chef there, and had a couple of CV's come through, one was from a girl that had done 2 years doing a City and Guilds at college and then never done anything with it afterwards other than working in the shops like House of Fraser for 4 or 5 years and then just decided that it was about time she used her qualifications and applied for the second chefs job! We got her in for the day and explained to her that we thought that she was setting her sights a little too high. But she was looking at the money side of it, to match what she was getting as a shop assistant.
It sounds like she went to college but with no career plan or goals for herself?
Not at all.
That's the problem they want everything now and not tomorrow.
Yeah yeah, it was explained to me when I started out, that you're going to be on basic money "¦ I was on £68.50 a week when I first started.
That's a good wage"¦ Really Steve, that must have been good back in the day.
Yeah it was, I thought it was okay, obviously you'd get your first pay check, then spend it all, then you realise you've got nothing left to live on for the rest of the month, but that's the way it was.
I think if you look at operations now there are the Hotel Chef and the Restaurant Chef - which are very different roles these days"¦ Which way would you go if you were starting off again?
I'd stay with restaurants rather than hotels. I did hotels for most of my career and it was only when I went out on my own and opened my own restaurant that I saw the difference. You can concentrate on the food but the difference with the hotels is you've got multi-outlets.
And the multi-outlets pay the bills, it brings the revenue in. There are not many stand alone restaurants that survive unless they've got some other form of income.
With regards to staff, and retaining staff, the industry is pretty notorious for people moving round as quickly as they can, what do you do to retain staff?
I try to be as nice as possible without being too nice. You know, there's no point shouting and screaming at them, "˜cause the only one that gets frustrated at the end of the day is you. I've been through that myself.
Yeah, but then you're only as strong as your weakest link.
I've always said that it could be your Sous Chef that's the weakest link, it's not always the youngest kid in there, they're usually quite strong when they come through, and it's just finding the right ones.
I've had a guy when we were at the College Arms that I took on from school, and within 6 months the guy could skin, cut and prep a rabbit from start to finish, and cook it. It was years before I got to do anything like that.
Yeah, me too, normally you are just shoved in a corner picking Frisée!
Would you go to college now? Would you recommend to a chef starting off in the industry today going to college either full time or day release or would you go straight into the industry?
I've seen both sides of it, after 2 years full time, I hadn't actually got any chefs' qualifications. I'd done the managerial side of it so I decided to go back to do my City and Guilds 706 1&2, so that took another 2 years with day release and that was on my day off!! And then on to do 2 years getting my 706 3.
So the real working kitchen experience was done in your own time"¦?
Yep, so I had one day off, one day at college and then five days at work. Then work saw what I was doing and basically said they would support me and gave me an extra day for college.
That's refreshing to see an employer investing in their young staff. Would you advise today's young chefs to go to college?
As long as it is the right one. I mean there are a lot more colleges out there that are probably teaching the same things that they were teaching me years ago and they haven't moved with the times.
I think that some people leave college believing that they are now the complete Chef, where as in reality college to the work place is vastly different.
Yeah, it is. I've seen Westminster College at close hand, you know the guys in there, they run a Brasserie, where the guys are in the Brasserie are cooking the food for the people in the restaurant. It's the same with the fine dining side of it, the guys have 2 or 3 different outlets plus they've got the training alongside it. But the guys that are teaching are mid to late thirties, early forties. They've got a lot of experience but they're still young enough and full of enthusiasm "¦ They are teaching because they want to teach and want to put something back into the industry, rather than work in a college because it's an easier life and fewer hours. It's important to find the right college.
Okay Steve, what motivates you? You have achieved a lot in your career already; you won the Roux Scholarship, spent time with Alain Ducasse in Paris"¦ and won the Chef of the Year title, which we'll talk about later. And now you're in a fantastic high profile property, so what motivates you in the morning to get up and go?
Myself. Well it's usually the 6 o'clock alarm call that get's me up (the 2 ½ year old daughter)."¦..but I do really enjoy coming to work.
Do you still enjoy cooking/kitchen life as much as you did on your first day?
Yes. On my first day in a professional kitchen I had a fork thrown at me and you wonder what the hell you're doing there. You look down and there's a fork stuck in your hand 'cause something fell out of a fridge and somebody lost the plot on the service line and just lobbed the first thing in their hand 'cause they were pissed off, but you get through that. It's important to have a vision, a goal to aim for and this gets you through the tough times.
Who has influenced your cooking? And how would you describe your cooking style?
Michel Roux has been a massive influence on me, but every Head Chef I've worked for has influenced me at some point. Good and bad. You know, I did four years at the Welcome with Michael Carver who is an absolutely superb Chef. That start gave me a brilliant grounding in classical French which has put me in good stead all the way through my career. My style of food has always got some sort of classical background to it with a modern interpretation. When I went to Ettington Park I worked with a guy called Chris Hudson and I learnt more about the managerial side of the kitchen.
Yeah, which is very important?
It is. As a Chef now you need to know so much more than just being able to cook. People employing me need to know I can make them money as well; it's not only about the cooking anymore. It is a business and if they don't make the money the place won't stay open anyway.
I think the nature of the industry has changed as well. I think the modern day Chef has to have that business sense about him.
Yeah. Michel Roux has been a massive influence on me, just from winning the Roux Scholarship back in "˜97, and ever since then I've always kept in touch with him.
You still keep in touch with him?
Yeah I speak to him at least once a month, if not more.
That must've been a proud moment in your career?
Yeah, it was it was fantastic and I can still remember the day now, 10 years on. I went to the heats, I'd never met any of these guys before and I was working at Ettington Park with 2 rosettes, doing coach parties one minute and conferences the next. Up until then, I'd never really set foot in a Michelin star restaurant, let alone eaten or worked in one. So at the age of 28 I saw myself as starting a second chapter in my career and learning a completely different style.
So for the last 10 years I have just been learning and going in a completely different direction to where I would've gone if I hadn't won that back in "˜97.
It must've given you massive confidence though, to win such a prestigious title?
It did, it was massive. At that stage I was quite confident in what I was doing anyway but it puts you into a new league, opening so many doors"¦
Yeah, and having the Roux name behind you must carry so much weight?
For sure. I mean Michel Roux he gave me a reference for a job, just a personal one, and you can't get a better reference than that.
Yes I'm sure it's a world-known brand the Roux name. So the day you walked in"¦
I walked in, saw these guys there, and you're in awe straight away, but they want to know about you. Most people in that position wouldn't want to"¦ They don't care, they don't want to know you, don't want to know what's going on but the Roux's encourage you to keep in touch with them.
Yeah, it's great.
Having said that they've invested a lot of their time in you as well, they want to follow your career as well, see how you develop and they want to feel proud.
Yeah you're right, it's not just me, and there are about 25 scholars now, They try to keep in touch with all of us. There's a few who don't, but that's their personal choice really, some of them are across the other side of the world cooking, so they don't get a chance to. You know, Michel Roux gave me advice opening the restaurant, what to do and what not to do, things to look out for, he came and opened the College Arms for us, and he's spent his own time supporting us, which is great and we'll never forget. I did a day with Gary Jones at Le Manoir and he did the same thing.
Of course you would know Gary from Waldo's. Do you still enjoy going out and doing stagés with other chefs? Seeing what they are doing?
Yep I love it. Just going down and seeing what's going on and what's different and I just come back with ideas more than anything. I think it's important to see what other people are doing, it sometimes takes the blinkers off.
If we go back to talking about the Roux Brothers, when you think of the Chef's that have come out of their kitchens, for example Ramsay who is also very much at the top of the tree now, given the chance would you go to a Roux protégé restaurant or still go for the Godfather?
Roux without a doubt, if you can get it at an early age"¦ It would've been completely different for me at 28. But it's just getting that opportunity, when I first started cooking there was a waiting list just to get in the door, I don't think it's like that now. Well obviously there are probably still 2 or 3 waiting but it's not like"¦ You're not on a list of 30....
To me that shows how much the industry has changed as well. How do you see the industry going in the future? What can we do to get more people into it?
I think it's important to get to the grass roots of it, schools rather than colleges. I know that the Craft-Guild does a lot of work, going into schools and doing open day. The large companies like Sodexho; I know they do some stuff"¦ I don't know what it's called but they go into schools, and they have their own sort of academy. Interesting.
They basically go in and there are 14 and 15 year old kids. In the Stratford School they've got a system called Swift, which is where students go into college one afternoon a week. The idea being that by the time they are 16 they have already done part of the NVQ qualification so if they go part-time they're already a year ahead. I had a couple of guys on work placements doing it and they were really enthusiastic, which is what you want. You want to get them young when they are still enthusiastic. Most kids don't want to do any work; most of them are just into their computers games and doing nothing.15 -20 years ago you were told at school you must go into computers to make any money, maybe I should of listened.
When I was at school they basically said if you want to go into catering, you know you're not going to make a lot of money to start off with but it's further down in your career when you will see the rewards. Your mate working in the bank is probably going to get about five grand more a year to start with but 10 years down the line he's still on that same salary. Simon Fury who's a good friend of mine, I always use him as an example when I've done a few different lectures, he's been Phillip Green's (who owns Miss Selfridges, BHS etc) private chef on his yacht in the South of France for the last 7 years or 8 years, and he came from the back streets of Coventry. He was always in trouble when he was a kid but he got himself together, went through Claridges and a few of the other places, worked on the QE2... got his head down and got on with it. So by getting his head down and focusing he realized his goal.
Yeah. He was the Head Chef at the Lanesborough for a while, with Paul Gayler and I've got a lot of respect for him and where he's got to. Now he's living in the South of France, 5 bedroom house, swimming pool, and 40 minutes north of Monaco, and that came just through hard work and him putting his mind to it.
What do you think of the celebrity chefs? The TV is full of them these days, do you think they promote the industry or portray it in a false way?
Some of it's good, some of it's bad. It glorifies it a little bit too much at times. For example the reality stuff, Ramsay's nightmares, you're laughing at it "˜because it's funny"¦
But we're laughing at it because we know it's funny in a kind of way, yet so true. We've all seen that"¦
You look at it and you know you've been through it. But from a kids point of view looking at it, I did a lecture not too long back at Warwick University, and I just asked the kids who were the chefs they'd heard of, and most of them put their hands up for Ramsay, near enough all of them Jamie Oliver. You start talking about the Roux brothers and only half of them had heard of them obviously because they are not in the limelight so much anymore, but you go back 15 years and they were, they were the first TV chefs, they were unflawed. Look at Jamie Oliver, he's just one person that's made it out of millions of chefs that have tried. He was just in the right place at the right time and good luck to him. A lot of it is jealousy, people are jealous of his success but his cooking style is very basic. But he's done very well out of it and hats off to him for what he did with Fifteen, I thought that was great. You know the guy that won it, on the streets, and 6 months later, he's working at the French Laundry and what he's done for him has been phenomenal.
It has, but now it's seen as a very glamorous profession to be in isn't it? But people shouldn't detract from the fact that it's bloody hard work in a sweaty, hot environment and it's not all a bed of roses. It's a hard industry to work in but also very rewarding if you apply yourself.
Yeah and "˜Hello' magazine have glorified it as well, with Novelli and the like, I mean not so long back I saw something that was five chefs and their wives in there"¦.. Locatelli and a few of the others"¦
Really? It's becoming like the Premiership.
Yeah it is, it's like WAGS
The chefs WAGS, that's something for the Sunday tabloids. What do you look for when you interview someone?
Passion, a spark, you see something in their eyes that shows they actually want to do it. Rather than I had this one guy turn up, his mum had badgered him into coming, she came along, she walked in first and he had his head down from the first minute, walking behind her in a pair of Bermuda shorts and a t-shirt on.
That's how he presented himself at an interview?
Yeah. And I just looked at him and said "˜You don't want this do you?' His mum replied "˜Oh he wants a job, he's done 2 years at college' I thought to myself he's here for an interview and I'm talking to his Mum. So I said to him "˜here's a copy of the menu, an application form, if you can be bothered to fill it in and send it back' On the other side I've had other people come along, like Matthew who's working in the kitchen with me now, he's 3 months out of college and he's been running the larder. He wants to do it, he wants to get on and learn, and he's got the passion for it. You can see it from day one.
I think as a Head Chef, if you see the passion in someone you will invest your time into teaching them and I think you get out of them what you put into them, where as other people, come into work, go home on a Friday night with their wages. To have Matthew running the larder only 3 months out of college is also a fantastic achievement for you, as well as him.
Yes it's superb, you've got to keep your eye on it and on the odd day when it's really busy you get someone else in there with him, buton a day-to-day basis he's following the recipes, he's proud of what he's producing, and that's what it's about at the end of the day, people always need training but it's nice to know you're not wasting your time by doing it.
We've touched on Ducasse before, how was that? That must've been a fantastic experience.
Well it was certainly an experience"¦
Not a fantastic one?
Yes, it was superb, like I said, up until walking into those kitchens I'd never seen Michelin star foods.
You must've felt very proud just getting there; I know it was hard work to win the competition.
Yeah, on my first day, I didn't really understand what was going on. I went up to the kitchens and stood there, and then everything went quiet. To be honest I'd seen one photo of Ducasse before, and I didn't recognize him when he came into the kitchens and I just carried on looking around. He walked around shaking people's hands to welcome them back. He got to me, said something and I replied "˜Sorry Chef I don't understand', and then he started talking to me, about the Roux Scholarship and this lasted for around 5 or 10 minutes. I felt as if the whole kitchen was looking at me, the daggers I got were unbelievable from the people who had earlier shaken my hand with a grunt. You could imagine them thinking "˜Who the hell does he think he is? Starting here and talking with Ducasse like that.'
The Englishman who walks in and takes centre stage.
Yeah it was. But seriously I got out of it what I put into it. I'd gone in and seen a lot and I think the one thing that probably amazed me the most was expecting something completely crazy or mad, you know, food hanging off the ceiling, people going crazy, after all it is a three star, but it just wasn't like that. It was about the quality of the food and ingredients coming through the door, how fresh it was and doing as little as possible to it to put it on the plate.
What a great philosophy on food!
One of the starters, probably the best-seller, a £60 starter. 2 langoustines in a steamer cut in half, with beluga caviar on it, some iceberg lettuce with a bowl of wine, vinegar and a crÃ¨me fraiche sauce. I just kept looking at it going "˜that's three stars"¦ what's the crack?'
That's where the quality of ingredients that you were talking about comes into play though, isn't it?
Yeah, it was all about what it was. I was about 2 or 3 weeks in before I actually saw the restaurant. You look at the restaurant and its complete decadence, total luxury. It's the same when you go to the Waterside; it's all about the service as well as the food. You've got the duck carved at the table, the chicken carved at the table, all the hard work, and everything else that goes into it.
How long were you in Paris for?
3 months. As I said the first 2 weeks was a bit of a strain but out of 25 chefs they lost about 5 or 6 in the first week, they'd just reopened after closing for a month and I suppose they had overstaffed because they knew they were going to lose a few or a few. Most of the guys who were there had fought for about 2 years just to get into the place.
How old were you when you went there?
28. With my date of birth I qualified by just one day, for the finals you had to be 27 or under and I was 28 the following day so it was great. Before I went there I thought I could speak French. Couldn't understand a bloody word they were saying to me. I was the lowest in the kitchen and there were 25 chefs to do 50 covers. There were 8 in the pastry alone. I was the lowest of them all, and I was English too so I was on a hiding to nothing straight away. There were two Spanish guys who got treated the same way as I did. It took me a couple of weeks but you prove yourself a little bit at a time and then they start to show you a little bit more. I got on with one of the Sous Chefs, I started talking to him one day about different things, then I realized when he was talking to me and he could understand what I was saying so I just kept going with it. I kept badgering him, he gave you a list of jobs to do and you just got on and did it, kept your mouth shut and got on with it. I was the first English guy to go into his kitchens in Paris. Jonathan Harrison, when he won it was the first guy to go into his Monaco's kitchens. I don't know how many English guys have been through there since. There were a couple of guys who'd started and finished in the time that I was there. They were given so much crap as soon as they walked through the door. They just resented anyone but the French guys being in their kitchen, and most of the staff were exactly the same with a few exceptions, Claude Bosi being one person who helped me whilst I was there.
Right, not a very comfortable experience I presume. Was it the junior chefs or all the chefs behaving like this?
They saw it happening from the very top and if you didn't go along with it they picked on you as much as they picked on them. But you learn to deal with it, set yourself a goal, as I said I got on with all of them in the end. I got on and did the graft with Ducasse and I learnt a lot from it. I had a book in my back pocket and wherever I've been I've always had some sort of a book in my pocket. If you see something you write it down. You can use a bit of reverse psychology with them as well. Go over to the guys on the stove and ask if you can taste their stuff. You taste it and they will say "˜This is superb, this is the best"¦' and I would reply "˜it's Okay', what is it? "˜Okay' they say in disgust? "˜This is superb!' At this stage they are pissed off because you didn't say it was amazing, they then list the "˜amazing' ingredients, the recipe and how they've made it and again tell you how fantastic it is. You then proceed to walk around the corner and write it all down in that little pocket book. I suppose for me it helped with me being a little bit older going into there. I think if I'd gone in there at the age of 21 I'd have been out the door in about 2 or 3 days"¦
Do you think that they treated you differently?
Yeah, I think so. I showed a couple of the guys a few different things as well, there was one guy who was on the butchery and he was literally butchering these chickens. I stopped him after the first one and showed him how to do it and the Chef walked past, picked it up and he started muttering something as if to say what the hell's he done? You know, that's not how I showed you to do it. He looked at it again and said okay, that's fine, and put it back down and the kid was looking at me as if to say don't say anything, don't say anything, and after that, the kid who had been giving me some shit up until then, shook my hand and said thank you very much.
Steve Love doing his bit for cross channel relations!
Yeah and the guy got promoted about 6 weeks afterwards! I was there to learn and if I could learn and get on with them I would do anything to make my life as easy as I could. I'd even give the guys washing up a hand. You'd have a night when most of them were just throwing the pots and pans at them, then the next time you go in there and want a pan they've saved one for you under the bench. Everyone's running around trying to find the stuff and you just ask them to put them to one side and it's just treating people how you want to be treated yourself.
Yeah. That's a key I think in the industry, you have to treat people properly. I mean it's gone through a stage where people were treated badly and it was a horrible industry to work in, whereas now I think you have to try and treat people properly and they'll give you back what you put into them.
Yeah. In my first couple of weeks at the Welcome I remember leaning on a sink with one arm, using the other hand to get some broccoli out of some iced water, Sous Chef walks past, whacked my arm, and my head went straight into the sink and I thought "˜shit.' This is the way it's going to be. I had my head thrown in a bucket of carrots a couple of times with water just "˜cause you were cheeky to the wrong person and they remembered it.
Who do you look up to now Steve? Who inspires you at the moment?
I'd love to eat at the Fat Duck just to see what it's about. I've done interviews and stuff in the past and one of the first questions that ever came up is "˜what do you think of the Fat Duck and the food? and I can't comment because I've never eaten there or worked there so I've never seen it. The problems arise when people try to emulate it when they don't know what the hell they're doing. They end up with some rubbish on a plate that people think is something special because it's different.
I think that's a major thing with cookbooks these days. I worked for someone years ago who had a Charlie Trotter book. I'd say to him "˜Look how many Chefs he has there, there's no way we're going to be able to do that chef, not with just the two of us.
Yeah people think you get three stars with hand blenders just blending one pot of foam. I still enjoy going down to the Waterside, I haven't been recently but you know what you get, you pay your money and you have a great meal. I've been to particular places recently that have been well recommended in the guides, and I've been disappointed. What do you think of the guides? I mean everyone looks through Michelin, The Good Food Guide and the AA but in my opinion there's a massive inconsistency between the three.
I agree. The Good Food Guide is the one for me. As a businessman, it's the one I've always put my faith in because that's what brings you your business. People reckon if you get a Michelin Star you're business is upturned by about 20% the same with three & four rosettes. But there's too much confusion. People in the industry understand it but the general public don't.
I think the AA Restaurant Guide is now solely for chefs isn't it? It's a chef's book at the end of the day. How proud they feel by reading it. It's all about industry bragging rights.
Yeah, I think it is. Obviously the public's awareness is probably more about Michelin than anything else because of Ramsay doing what he's doing on TV. It's great that people's eyes are opening, but it can be damaging as well. When we opened the pub people walked in the door asking "˜How many stars have you got?' they say "˜oh we heard you had five"˜. That's the public's view of all the guides and the confusion and different messages they all send out. In the Good Food Guide, our restaurant started at 4 out of 10, went to 5 the following year and then we got 6 out of 10 the next year and "˜Best Restaurant in Warwickshire', which was absolutely phenomenal for us from a business point of view.
It took a lot of hard work to get to that though didn't it?
Yeah, we were there for just under 4 years and looking back, almost three years of it was a really hard slog, and we had to look for something else. We'd had great publicity, every single weekend after the GFG gave us 6 we became a destination restaurant. People wanted private parties, functions, could we recommend a B&B and everything else, but at the end of the day we only had a 30 cover restaurant, take a private party and that's your whole restaurant gone.
Sounds good from a business point of view.
It is. But when you have to turn away business because you know you're going to do your booked 30 covers it pisses you off. You turn away 10 people every night because we had nowhere else to sit them which was why we looked to move. We put the restaurant on the market, and we had a couple of good reviews nationally, Jan Moir from The Telegraph came along and did a review on us which was great. Matthew Fort came when we first got there, and gave us 15½ out 20 within three months of opening and that brought business through the door. Even two years after the reviews people were walking through the door saying 'we kept the article, we haven't had a chance to get to you, but we're here now.'
So it works then?
Well yeah because that's just the power these guys have.
I think they've got the power to build you up, but also they've also got the power to knock you down as well. It takes years to build a reputation and minutes to ruin one.
Oh yeah, If you get a bad review you've had it, but it also depends on who's given you the bad review in the first place. I remember speaking to someone who had been slated by A. A. Gill and he said it had the opposite effect. He said that his regulars were in uproar, they wrote to Gill and told him what they thought, because they couldn't understand where he was coming from.
So it can work both ways? There is no such thing as bad publicity. I think people understand the Good Food Guide and they can relate to it though.
So yes, they play a part but the Good Food Guide's always brought us the business. It's your customer's recommendations at the end of the day because it's the customers who write into it, it's not just one person's opinion.
That surely offers a fairer reflection of your business, it can be a review once a week, once a month if you like as opposed to one guy coming in every six or nine months and that's it. One meal, one opinion can affect your entire business.
Yeah, you don't know what sort of day these people have had. If you catch them on a good day you'll do alright, if you catch them on a bad day, it doesn't matter what you do, what you put on the plate.
Steve you've worked for companies, you've had your own business and now you're back working for another hotel. What made you choose to come back to work for somebody else again?
I think for a start working for myself was a dream I'd always had. Most chefs you talk to want to own their own restaurant. I wanted to do 20 covers a night and make a fortune from it and the reality is you just never will. You need other outlets with it. With our business we didn't struggle, we made ends meet and we made a good profit, but for what we took home between us, myself and my wife, we could've earned more in the industry but it wasn't about the money for us, it was about doing what we wanted to do and our style of life. There's a lot to be said for working for yourself though and I'd recommend it to anyone. You've got no one above you but then again you've got no one else to fall back on.
It must be very hard work though surely, working for yourself?
Yeah. It's 7 days a week, whether you're open 5 days or your open 7 days, it's still a 7 day week. You live in the property; you've still got the rent to pay, the bills, the staff to pay. You haven't got the luxury of someone answering the phones. The first couple of weeks are quiet when you reopen, unless you're in the middle of London, and everyone knows who you are. When you're working for yourself in the sticks you've got no chance. Now I've come back into employment, it's a different ball game altogether but I've come back as a stronger manager, and also a stronger person. I look further than just what I'm doing in the kitchen.
You look at it as a whole business as well.
Yeah, I mean I'm still treating this as if it was my own business, if someone leaves the lights on you give them a bollocking and tell them to turn them off! The gas"¦ As soon as I walked in here the hot plate was on all day, the gases were on all day and I turned them all off. It's halved the overheads straight away. If you're paying the bills, it's completely different. That's one of the main differences from my time in employment before, and obviously it's nice to get a wage at the end of the week. You also know what you're going to get paid as well"¦always a bonus!
The mortgage will be paid, your kids can eat"¦
And you get your days off"¦ Yeah you've still got things to think about, but you haven't got to pay the PAYE, you haven't got to pay the wages, and if you have a slow month"¦you still get paid.
Do you feel more relaxed now you're working for somebody else?
I feel a lot more relaxed. I can concentrate on the kitchen and food now, which I haven't been able to do for the last 7 years. In the past there has been 20/30% of me that's been out of the kitchen to do something else, the front of house for example. Now it's just concentrating on the food and the kitchen, and moving it forwards. It's nice to be able to employ staff as well; unlike before when I had to do probably four people's jobs just to save money. I'm still doing the hours now but it's not as stressful. The stressful thing now is having the staff, you know, keeping an eye on them.
Let's talk about your CV. As we mentioned you won the Roux Scholarship at 28. You've had a slightly different career path in the sense that you did other things before you won that competition, you were an established Chef before the Roux Scholarship, you then spent time with Ducasse and since then you've owned your own restaurants and become a Head Chef again.
When I won the Roux Scholarship I then took on my first Head Chef's job but I was still looking to stay in the area because of my family. I jumped at a position, again at Charmouth Manor which at the time looked fine. It was under new ownership but when I got in there I realized that I was actually being interviewed by the relief manager from one of the other hotels. It was all a con, everything I had asked for at the interview and told "Yeah not a problem" and soon as you start asking for it basically you're told if you haven't got it in writing then you can f*** off. So I did.
After three weeks. It was just never going to work out.
Was that after the scholarship?
That was after the scholarship yeah. That deflated me a little and knocked my confidence a bit. When I got there I realised that I wasn't ready for that kind of position anyway so I went back down to a Sous Chef position and I went to work for Gary Jones at Waldo's. I'm glad I did, I learnt so much off the guy. You know you were asking me earlier about I look up to, who I respect, I've got so much respect for Gary. I only did 6 months with him and he then went back to Le Manoir so we all left at pretty much the same time. Les Rennie was the other Sous Chef there, you know Les, so I suppose he was Senior Sous and I was Junior Sous but a title's a title. I wasn't bothered by it. Every single day I saw something new, I learnt something new. I suppose it took a lot for me to do that but at that point I just thought I'm not ready to be a Head Chef. And that's at what, 28 or 29. Like you said earlier you get kids walking in the door at 21 thinking they're a Head Chef.
It's my opinion that people try to progress their careers far too quickly these days. They don't get a good understanding of what the industry's about, they don't know anything about managing people, and you need to develop those skills. Obviously you did because of the age you were when you became Head Chef. What's your take on that?
Yeah, I did a four year apprenticeship after leaving college and I did every single section, and that was working in a big hotel where they had 2 or 3 per section every day. So you had time to actually learn the trade properly, rather than just being thrown in at the deep end like it can be these days. There's one person covering the same section now when there were three before!! A lot of it's just down to how much money hotels have. The profitability of the place rather than the quality and training of the staff is more important to them. They just want to make more and more money without investing in the business or their staff.
Yeah. And somewhere down the line it's going to fall flat on its face.
Yeah. I think it's important to invest in people as well as the building itself and if your business is going to grow then you need your staff to grow with your business as well.
Yeah spot on. You've got to encourage your staff and that's the one thing I'm trying to do now, I don't want to be looking for staff every 6 months, I just want to get on and do the job. I've had some CV's come through and I pick them up and look at them and they've done 6 months here, 3 months there, 4 months there, 6 months there"¦ You know that as soon as you employ them they're going to be gone in 6 months; straight away they're looking for the next thing. They're looking to try and progress to get the money without the experience.
Yeah. And they have the cheek to expect you to give them your time and knowledge. Experience is the key and people overlook that these days and I think they need to focus more on getting the experience at a lower level before they get to that senior position.
I think it's put me in good stead, like I've said I've taken a couple of positions where I've made less money or with travelling and living in or whatever, I've had less money than before, but I've taken the position because I want to learn. And that's just down to my own motivation I suppose, I want to succeed and want to get on.
And you have a passion for your trade.
Yeah. And I want to get on with it.
In 2004 you won the National Chef of the Year competition. Tell me a little about that.
Firstly congratulations to Simon Hulstone who has won this years title. As for me I've done the competition 3 times altogether. I did it in 2000, where I got through to the finals and came 3rd, which for me, being my first time in the competition, I thought was phenomenal.
Yeah, it's a fantastic achievement.
I know some guys who'd been in the competition and not got through to the finals who were really good chefs and some who got through to the finals but never placed. You know, Bruce Sangster won it, Mick Kitts was second, and I was third to these guys. They are both huge people in the industry with massive experience. Bruce Sangster was signed to the Scottish Culinary Team for about 20 years, and for me to be third behind them was a fantastic achievement. I entered it again in 2002 where I got through to the finals but I messed up in the heats. Again it was the pressure of work as much as anything else. We'd not long opened at the restaurant, I'd cooked on the Monday in London, got back and did a service on the Tuesday, as I said I didn't win in the heats and I didn't think I'd get through to the final so we reopened the booking diary for the Tuesday and Wednesday. I had a phone call at 5 o'clock on the Tuesday night to say I'd got through to the finals but I had a full restaurant booked!!
How did you deal with that one?
With stress! I got through the service at the restaurant, got all the equipment together, left the restaurant at half 2, went home, had an hours sleep, got up and went to London. I arrived at the finals but it didn't go to plan. It went okay but I messed the starter up, the main course and dessert were okay"¦ I found out afterwards that the main course was probably 2nd in the top 3, dessert again top 3, and the starter was probably about 10th.
What did you do?
I analyzed the situation, what looked good in my head and on paper didn't work on the plate. I overcooked the lobster which was tough, it was like a bloody bullet, and it just didn't work. I entered it again in 2004 which I knew would be my last time because it is so stressful, so to prepare for this one we decided to shut the restaurant completely for the week"¦
Looking back that was probably a wise decision, especially considering how you felt on your previous attempt?
Yes I approached it differently, I've done competitions before but on the Saturday night before we cooked on the Monday for the 2004 title, I did a complete cook off of all of the dishes. Before then I just did the dishes individually and just thought yeah I can do that in time"¦
So the reality of it is that in previous attempts you blagged it but for your final attempt you took it incredibly seriously.
Yeah. In the cook off I was about 20 minutes over time and that's when I had to start really thinking about how I was to get the time back and obviously I cooked off in my own kitchen which is familiar and totally different to a competition kitchen. You don't know how the stoves are going to work, how the ovens are going to react, what space you've got to work in, the refrigeration, but I went in on the Monday and won the heat. We went back down on the Tuesday night, stayed in London overnight and we were fresh ready in the morning. You know this time I'd travelled 10 minutes to Olympia or Earls Court, rather than spending 3 hours in traffic trying to get down there and starting as soon as you get there.
So that was the ideal preparation really wasn't it? Just like a service, be prepared.
Yeah, I remember Brian Turner coming up to me and going "˜oh it's alright for you chefs that can afford to shut their restaurants' but the reality was that I had to win it for the prize money, to make up for shutting the restaurant.
Describe your feelings when you knew that you were Chef of the Year.
I was ecstatic, it was absolutely brilliant. I cooked in the finals and all week you could hear the judges saying that they were looking for simple food, cooked very well, concentrate on the flavours, and keep it simple. I actually thought at one point that I'd gone too simple. When I put the food up, I really wasn't happy; I started cleaning down and just lost it. I knew it was my last chance of winning and I thought I'd blown it! I got back to the hotel room and sat in the bath with a bottle of wine, I wasn't even going to go down to the dinner. I was so racked off with myself more than anything else. I just didn't think it was good enough. Looking back I'm knocking it more than I should be. The flavours were there but I thought it was too simple on the plate, and I thought it wasn't right. That's the way I am you know? If it's not right, it's just not right and it should be. I was lucky enough to win the best main course, when I sat down Claire my wife said at least you'll be happy to go home now? Yeah, I'm happy to go home with that I thought.
They then announced overall third, second, and when they announced my name I just stood up and couldn't believe it..
That must have been a tremendously proud moment for you both?
Yeah it was. It was something I'd worked towards; something that I'd had 3 attempts at it. With the Roux Scholarship I was lucky enough to win it at the first attempt, but there was a couple of guys in there that had entered it 3 times, got through to the finals, and then won it at the 3rd time.
A couple of them won it on their second attempt. You've got to keep going at it, believe in yourself and not get too disappointed when things don't work out. You need to go in there with the attitude that you can win it. I heard a couple of people turn around and say that they were just glad to get through to the finals. If you don't think you're strong enough and good enough to win it then there's no point in being a number.
I think you could translate that attitude to anything though. It's what's in your make up. Whether it's a competition or your career, set yourself a goal and you should try and achieve that goal. You should never give up or believe that you can't do it. Bounce back from knockbacks and keep going.
Exactly, you're so right. You have to know what motivates you, and I said that to myself, if I don't think I'm good enough to do it then I wouldn't do it, I'd just get out and I'd try something else. I enjoy doing what I'm doing in the kitchens here. I enjoy teaching people, I enjoy showing people"¦ and there are so many kitchens I've been in where people don't show you anything.
Yes I can remember being on my own as a Commis, left to run a section.
That's why the industry's in such a shit state for staff, young enthusiastic chefs get left on their own. There have been so many people out there in the past that have just looked after themselves and not thought about the future. I mean there's a Chef de Partie shortage now. The people I know are getting up to Sous Chef and Head Chef level and that's why there's a Chef de Partie shortage. There were 3 or 4 years when no one came into the industry. I was speaking to the guys at Stratford College and they were lucky to fill the places. This was just for one session of 15 chefs and they couldn't fill it. When I was in college I had 3 interviews just to get in, just to get on to the course. It's a shame that it's turned out that way.
There were 3 classes running at the same time with 20 in each. And now, the colleges are having to press gang people (people with no real interest in cooking) just to fill their quotas to make sure that they receive the necessary funding. That's because they are selfgoverned but obviously that's not helping the industry in the long term.
That's the state of the colleges I'm afraid which doesn't help the restaurants and small business.
Did winning the Chef of the Year title help your business as much as people think it would?
I won the Chef of the Year, then we had the write-up from Jan Moir and at the same time we got 6 out of 10 in the Good Food Guide and Best Restaurant in Warwickshire! At the same time it was on the market. We ended up selling it in January. We looked at it and thought do we stay? But when the head ruled the heart, the reasons we were selling hadn't changed, we wanted to move on and do the next thing.
We then set up the College Arms, where we played so much on the Chef of the Year title from a PR point, as it is a 2 year title. We went to different companies, the chair company for instance where we told them who we were and what we wanted to do and what we could do for them from a PR angle. Can you give us chairs for nothing and use us in your brochures and advertising? They were a small company so couldn't afford to give them away but they did them at cost. A £30 chair that should've cost £120. If you're buying 60 of them it soon adds up. The kitchen equipment came from Electrolux, and at that point they were one of the sponsors of the Chef of the Year competition. We got a really good deal from them for the kitchen equipment, they helped us with the payment plan as well which was great and Villeroy & Boch sponsored the Fine Dining restaurant with all the plates which we would never have had if I hadn't won that.
There are always a few things that they want in return but generally it was me recommending their product but then you ask them for something back and they're always there to help out. Even with the bank it carried some weight, we went to the bank and we hadn't got enough money or enough equity to cover what we were borrowing. But with the PR from the scholarship and from the Chef of the Year and what we'd got from the previous restaurant they said yeah we'll go with it. If we hadn't had that, there was no way we would've done what we did.
So it helped you a lot more than people may originally think?
Oh yeah, it's not just about winning the competition and the prize money. The first thing people ask you is "˜What are you going do with the prize money?' aside from the prize money they don't care. I didn't care about coming second or third, I'd already been there and done that or the prize money. And it's similar to the scholarship"¦ it's not the prizes, it's what it does for you then and what it can do for you in the future.
Steve, thank you for your time today, it's been a pleasure to talk with you.
Its okay, you're welcome. Thanks for coming.