'There's no such thing as an overnight success'

The  Staff Canteen

Fifteen years ago, the Hand and Flowers kitchen team - Tom Kerridge, Luke ButcherChris Mackett and Jolyon d'Angibau - embarked on the adventure of a lifetime.

Tom and his wife Beth had decided to put their hearts and souls into their own business:  A quaint pub in the civil parish of Marlow, Buckinghamshire.

 

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Little did they know, The Hand and Flowers would change the course of British food by producing pub classics to such a high standard that it remains the only such establishment to hold two much-coveted Michelin stars. 

Speaking to The Staff Canteen on the week of The Hand and Flowers Cookbook launch, chef Tom Kerridge explained that this book, as opposed to the many others he has published since then, was what he signed on to publish a decade and a half ago. 

"And then television came around," he laughed. 

"It's all a complete blag - basically I went from doing quite well on Great British Menu to being asked to do a TV series about pub food."

"The publishers thought it would be a good idea to do pub-style cookery at home book running along that TV series, so the Hand and Flowers book got put to one side for a minute." 

And although the chef explained that "the books have been very supportive from a business point of view," allowing them to adapt and grow in terms of restaurant strength, he added that  "the mainstay always has been to do The Hand and Flowers book.

"And in the period of doing the other books, The Hand and Flowers book now is way better than it ever would've been, because the business has changed beyond recognition in that period of time."

The story that it tells is one of deep love and passion for food, of hardships and obstacles, and importantly, of growth.

There is no such thing as an overnight success

It is important to know that how The Hand and Flowers came to be is less of a mum-friendly story than one might expect. Tom and his wife Beth Cullen took out a loan under the pretense that they were planning an extension on their house, then spent the money on the fixings and fittings for the pub. 

"It's set up on a lie and a blag and a credit card, basically," the chef laughed.

It is also a story of the pub's struggles - working through the recession just a few years after it opened.

"We were left with not many people coming through the door so we had to work out a way to create an energy," he explained, which they did by launching a £10 lunch menu. 

"It didn't make a penny. How could it, it was ten fucking quid," he laughed, "but it meant that lunch was full every single day Monday 'til Friday, so it created an amazing energy." 

"That kept staff motivation high, it kept us cooking." 

But even then, he said, "there was absolutely no money, we were leaking money like you wouldn't believe, me and Beth had nothing to live from." 

"I would work from Friday at 7 in the morning until midnight, and then I would set up the Kenwood and start making bread doughs and I would work through the night making doughs and Cornish pasties to cook and create for Saturday morning."

Beth would sell those 150 loaves on a market stall in Marlow, and, he said, "and that would be our money for the week." 

"Then I'd work all the way through Saturday till Saturday midnight." 

Michelin intrusion

The book includes many funny stories, including that of when Tom sent his CV to Michelin shortly after The Hand and Flowers had opened, only to be inspected on a day when he had fallen ill.

On a second visit from an inspector, Tom said: "Someone had broken in and smashed his laptop, so Beth went out there with a black bag to sweep up the glass and said she was really sorry and we'll call the police and whatever.

"As she was helping sweep up the glass, he had paperwork strewn across his seat with lots of these Michelin-headed papers, and he went: 'Oh dear, so you now know who I am.'" 

 "I was like: 'fucking hell, now we've had their car broken into, it was one of those horrible moments - but it gave me the opportunity to have a conversation with him."

Given the mystery and fearful awe in which inspectors are held by chefs, Tom was apprehensive at first, but, he said the conversation" couldn't have been more lovely, more supportive; they have such kind words to say about the industry and the business and about people." 

"His car getting broken into was a bit of a blessing in disguise because it made me go: 'There's nowhere for me to go here, he's turned up, he's had dinner, he's not announced and now his car's smashed. He's had a pretty shit night probably."

Beth

The chef stresses that the pub's success wouldn't have been possible without Beth's support and hard graft. A world-renowned artist in her own right, he explained that she has stood by his side and reigned in the overheads from day 1. 

"She's always got her eye on the bank accounts and seeing what we're doing, how many vac pac bags we're ordering and why've we overspent on that and why've we ordered some more crockery." 

"But most importantly, she's the one with the sense of heart and soul. She creates energy."

"Neither of us come from a place where you walk into a Mayfair restaurant," he explained, but thanks to her work at The Hand and Flowers - including a hand-crafted table made out of scaffolding - "people feel comfortable." 

The team

Their prosperity would not have been possible either without the hundreds of chefs and FOH staff who've walked through the doors, only a few dozen of them sticking around long enough to make a lasting contribution. 

"It's not me that's done it. It is the people who've been around me for many years," he said, citing examples such as Chris Mackett, his R&D chef who has been working with him for sixteen years, having come with him when he left his role at Roger Hickman's Adlards; and Jolyon d'Angibau, the ex-pastry chef, who Tom has known for 22 years.

May it be at The Hand and Flowers or at The Coach, The Bar and Grill, The Bull and Bear or within their events catering company, Lush, many of the team members have been around for more than a decade. 

"But not just chefs. The whole thing has been built around people that can do things that I can't."

The chef insisted that although the book has his name on it, "it should say everybody's name on it, even the chefs who've come and done two hours because they were too scared. They're all part of the journey because that's very fucking funny." 

"The success of the business is built around the infrastructure of the staff and allowing them to personally grow. For me, it's an equal achievement to two Michelin stars." 

The book might have come fifteen years later than originally planned, but for Tom, it exceeds all expectations.

"The heart and soul of The Hand and Flowers is still the same as when it first opened," he said, and the book includes dishes that were at two star level even then - which have been standardised and written exactly as they are made at the Marlow institution.

"It's a lovely reflective journey,"  and to anyone aspiring to open their own business, he said, "I hope it's inspiring."

The Hand & Flowers Cookbook by Tom Kerridge is out on 12 November (Bloomsbury Absolute, £40)

Photography © Cristian Barnett

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 10th November 2020

'There's no such thing as an overnight success'