'I've never been that sort of extreme person, saying 'everybody go vegan'

The  Staff Canteen

By the second day of the North West heat on Great British Menu  last week, chef KIrk Haworth had us all - including his rival Dan McGeorge - fooled that he was going to take his menu through to the national finals. 

Alas, it wasn't so. "It is what it is, I made a lot of mistakes," said the chef, co-founder of Plates London and founder of the Chef's Wellness (now Hospitality Wellness) programme.

"It's just very intense, I've never been in that situation before and I just panicked," he explained, referring to a wobbly start on the first day of the competition, and some technical hiccups in the judges' chamber. "But hey, it's entertaining right?" 

Word on the social media platforms was that Kirk was one of the best to watch on the show this year - and he most certainly bought something different to the table. It wouldn't be the first time a slip-up cost a chef a spot in the finals, and the odds weren't necessarily stacked in his favour.

"I knew the judges would be challenged," he said, by creating dishes like a dessert with no processed sugar. 

"But I wasn't going to go in there and do what I don't believe in; I'd rather go out than be fake." 

That's not to say his mistakes weren't crushing - "After GBM, I cried for a whole week," he said.

"I believe in myself - I wouldn't have got this far if I didn't, but when I don't cook my food the way I know I can do it, it breaks me. Especially something like that, I dreamed of being on there since I was a young boy." 

It was always going to be challenging to impress everyone involved - and while tough-scoring veteran judge Tom Aikens seemed on board, someone like critic Matthew Fort, a notorious carnivore, would have required perfection to be swayed by Kirk's vegetable cookery.

"And it's not like you're doing veggie where you can lace loads of butter in stuff," he said. 

"It's different when you're trying to do vegan food and persuade them that it's flavoursome, it's rich, it's all those things. It takes a lot more thought."

To develop his cashew nut ice cream recipe, for example, "I spent five days just making ice cream." 

"I have hundreds of amazing ice cream recipes with dairy that I've used in every kitchen I've worked in. That's four days you'd save on prepping something else."

On the future of plant-based

Many were surprised by last week's news from Eleven Madison Park and the controversial decision by the chef owner of the three Michelin-starred restaurant to relaunch with an exclusively plant-based menu

Not Kirk. 

"I called this years ago," he chuckled, "when I used to get called celery boy and people said I only ate grass. I said, 'you watch, there's going to be a great chef that drops soon.' I thought it was going to be Noma to be honest, I didn't think it'd be Daniel [Humm]. But it was definitely always going to happen."

Not one to preach on the topic of veganism, he said: "It's good if we're talking about sustainability and empathy for animals and all that. But unless you have a core of why you're doing it - I've seen a few things where they're just doing it for money - unless you're doing it for a pure reason and a passion for it, there's no point."

"All I ever say when I talk about sustainability and people ask me about diet is that if everybody ate veggie twice a week, we'd be fine. I've never been that sort of extreme person, saying 'everybody go vegan,' because we'd have to look at diet and not everybody can thrive off a vegan diet and we have to accept that." 

Interesting things will happen, he said, when "chefs get hold of it creatively and set some boundaries."

"When I started, I said there's a few things I'm going to do. I ain't going to do chickpeas and quinoa because there are loads of healthy yoga people doing that, and I have to change people's perception of healthy food and vegetable cookery." 

"When I started doing it I couldn't think of more than two dishes, but creatively we're only just getting going." 

"If I can inspire one other person from my journey and help them, it's worth it. The messages from GBM have been absolutely insane; it's been overwhelmingly positive."

Hospitality Wellness

In alignment with this ethos, Kirk is trying to change the way hospitality workers approach their own health and wellbeing with his Hospitality Wellness (previously, Chef's Wellness) workshops - which, when they relaunch in their new format, will explore everything from mental and physical health to nutrition.

The sessions will be online - for now - while the chef finishes building a health retreat in the south of France, where eventually they will host wellness food festivals, mindset and mental health immersions.

The be all and end all for the chef is for the programme to trigger real change in people's lives.

"If I can help one person a week - change their mindset, be happier, live a healthier and more fulfilling life and get support. We want to create like a family support network. I hope that if somebody's struggling they can ring us." 

"I've been through so much with Lyme, I can help people." 

"We've all got a gift, it's just about sharing it. We want to create a safe space, you can jump on our Mastermind and be vulnerable, just say 'I feel shit, I feel overwhelmed to be going back to work,' and we'll give you that confidence and boost to get back on track." 

The issue of addressing mental health issues in the industry is as relevant as ever given the rates at which people are quitting their jobs in the industry in favour of others, specifically to nurture their mental wellbeing.

But it isn't so clear cut, he said: "Some people are being quite harsh in our industry. Yes, we have got a lot of work to do and yes we have improved so much; when I was training in London ten years ago, that was a very different landscape." 

"It's so tricky because you've got to get that balance right, but I've got friends that are running restaurants, and for them to pay rent, make money, it's all so stressful." 

"Hopefully the programme will help stop people leaving the industry but I also understand why they do want to - it's just personal." 

Ultimately, we often reach the same difficult conclusion, which is that the price of restaurant food needs to rise in order to give hospitality workers the best possible work-life balance.

"But how do we tell people that a meal has to increase in value by £10 because we want to give our staff a better working week? It's very complicated isn't it, how you manage it all." 

Plates London

So what's next for Kirk? Plans for a restaurant are still in the pipeline, but the realities of the London landscape in amid the uncertainty of the health crisis are such that the chef is reluctant to commit to anything - and he doesn't want to compromise on his vision either.

"We're speaking to a few investors. My dream's always been to own an incredible restaurant. The old Plates, we never had investors, we were always doing it on peanuts and it was so hard." 

"You can't do it in London without some cash behind you - if you want to do it world-class, you need to have people behind you." 

Content to sit it out until the summer has passed and we can rest assured that there won't be another lockdown, he said, "unless something really safe comes in, like someone's already got a space and they want to put us in there with no massive risks on money I'll do that, but I'm not putting half a million quid in investment over my head now." 

As for whether he'll make a return on Great British Menu next year, the chef will leave it to casting to decide.

"Let's see if I get another shot, but if I don't, it's not meant to be." 

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 11th May 2021

'I've never been that sort of extreme person, saying 'everybody go vegan'