'Does it feel like it's dragged out? No. Do we feel a bit older? Yeah!'

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Deputy Editor

The Tanners have worked together for 22 successful years. 

First at their eponymous restaurant (which would then become The Barbican Kitchen) in Plymouth, then at the Kentish Hare in the South East, they've seen each other through all of the ups and downs.

But their story started more than three decades ago, as both started their careers in the kitchen when they were barely legal.


Chris remembers earning £0.65 an hour for the first two years of his working at a small restaurant in Kent called Cobblestones, 38 years ago.

"I was twelve years old," he smiled, adding that while some might frown upon it now, "that was just how it was then."

As for James, he saw his job as a way of getting his hands on a pair of AirMax 90s, and all he had to do was a bit of bottling up, scrubbing pots and changing kegs at a pub near his parents' house.

"I think I was at about £1.20 an hour and I was about a similar age, fourteen, fifteen.

"That's what it was all about," he laughed, "riding my rally burner up there and hanging out at the pub, I thought it was all cool." 

A few weekends in, in a classic turn of events, the pub's chef, who James describes as "liking a bit too much of the sauce," didn't show up. It was James' time to shine.

"Next thing I know, we did 80 dinners on a Sunday, it was me and the owner.

"He looked at me at the end; we were exhausted and surrounded by mountains of washing up and he said: 'd'you want to stay in the kitchen and come back and do it with us next week?'" 

The rest really is history - the young chefs travelled to London, France and the United States to hone their skills, and have many stories to tell, the highlights of which include cooking for the president of the United States and working for the Roux brothers.

But their plans to continue travelling the world and cooking in exotic places were cut short by the opportunity of a lifetime. 

Barbican Kitchen

And indeed, being able to afford a place on the coast, albeit in Plymouth, exceeded their wildest dreams. 

Chris explained: "We thought: 'okay, we'll give it a shot. If it works, great, if it doesn't then at least we can say we tried it.

"I know I speak for James as well, I've never wanted to be in that position where we'd always be looking back going: 'I wonder what would have happened if we'd have done that." 

"So that was it, we threw everything into it. We were s**t or bust, basically."

James' version of events is similar, but he stresses that he wasn't always so sure. 

"My first reaction was: 'I'm not going to Plymouth. I'm going abroad again, or back to London, why would we do Plymouth, we can't afford it anyway," he said.

A visit, a look at the figures and the outlines of an action plan later and they realised their dream wasn't as out of reach as they thought.

22 years later, he jested: "Does it feel like it's dragged out? No. Do we feel a bit older? Yeah! We're not spring chickens anymore, but we've still got a lot of drive left in us."

Making it work

We've all been witness to messy professional fall-outs, but this has never been an issue the Tanners. So how have they managed to keep a healthy relationship despite working together for so long? 

Asked who the first one to say sorry usually is, Chris smiled, and said:"You try and avoid getting in a situation like that." 

"Usually, it's just a look. No words are exchanged." 

James laughed, and added: "Yeah, and I'm saying strong things in my mind at the time." 

That having been said, neither of them regrets going into business with the other.

"Don't get me wrong," James said, "we used to fight terribly when we were kids - four brothers together, think about it, we used to smack the crap out of each other half the time, and wind each other up and everything else in a brotherly way - but we always did get on." 

"I don't think I would have worked with him if I was his commis chef if we were working for somebody else. I think it's very important that you go off and do your own thing - which we both did."

And as they grew older, their relationship became more like a friendship than in their boisterous younger days. 

"We knew we got on," James said. "We weren't going to fall out over something petty. Also, when you're putting so much on the line, and there was that huge element of risk, you need to look out for each other and you need to have that relationship initially, where you really really do get on with each other." 

The brothers have collected so many memories of working together for more than two decades that they both struggle to pinpoint a highlight. 

"Honestly?" James said. "The things we've put ourselves through over the 22 years, some people wouldn't believe. 

"I could've been stood after doing 1,000 covers a day at Royal Ascot and I look round at Chris and he's leaning against the wall, holding his 50 year-old back, and I'm feeling it as well.

"You're standing there thinking: 'it's a bit like us standing at the back of Tanners after a hard week when we were in our twenties.' We're still here now, we're still doing it.

"I think we have a laugh along the way - you've got to remain positive, it's not a healthy environment to be in a situation with someone where it's always negativity.

"What a ride. And that ride's not over, there's still a lot more that we want to do. We just want to get out of all of this first.

Asked if despite everything they've been through together, the current situation is the most challenging of those 38 years spent in the industry, Chris said: "Yeah. Big time." 

"We've been through recessions unscathed. This is like the world's worst maths lesson as owner operators. It's just a melting pot of crap. It's difficult. You're just swimming against the tide." 

The best is yet to come

But despite all of the hardships, James is confident that the hospitality sector will come back fighting.

"How can it not? You're the third biggest group in the country for employment and turnover. People will still want to go out, they will want to eat, they will want to drink, they will want to socialise, they will want to go to events. It will continue." 

"Fast-forward from when we started when there were only a few great restaurants in the UK. Now there's just so many great places, great local restaurants, so many different cuisines with international influences which is great in a multicultural society.

"It's a little piece of magic which this industry offers, great food and service. So how can it not continue?" 

This podcast was part of The Staff Canteen's new series of the Grilled podcast: Keeping it in the Family. Tune in to our Spotify, Soundcloud, or wherever you get your podcasts for the latest episodes. 

The next episode in the series will feature Jordan Bailey and Majken Bech-Bailey, husband and wife and owners of two Michelin-starred Aimsir in Ireland.

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Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Deputy Editor 13th January 2021

'Does it feel like it's dragged out? No. Do we feel a bit older? Yeah!'