Michael Chapman of Michelin-starred pub The Royal Oak

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 20th March 2013

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A freak dog-walking accident recently left executive chef Dominic Chapman of Michelin-starred pub The Royal Oak, out of action with a broken hip. It also propelled former sous chef, Michael Chapman into the head chef role. The Staff Canteen caught up with Michael to see how he’s dealing with the sudden shift in responsibility.

Broken hips aside, how did you come to be head chef at The Royal Oak?

Well I’ve been here for about four years. My wife and I come from South Africa and we’d come over here just travelling on a working visa. We ended up getting work in a small hotel near Bracknell and I got into cheffing from there. I didn’t train or set out to be a chef. I studied mechanical engineering in college so it’s really just something I fell into. Changed from engine grease to kitchen grease!

And how did you make your way from a small hotel near Bracknell to a Michelin starred pub?

The owner offered to let us run the hotel ourselves as she was going on maternity leave, so we took over the running of the hotel and really changed things. We went from cooking sous vide  to using fresh produce. We increased the profits and raised the profile of the food for a small hotel. I bought a few cookbooks and started getting some extra training and experience on a day-release course at Thames Valley University where I did my NVQ 1 and 2. While that was happening the owner of our hotel bought a new property in High Wycombe and asked me to go up there to do the cooking and within the first year we only narrowly missed out on two AA rosettes and that was literally just me in the kitchen doing pot wash and everything. From there I decided to move on and got work as a commis with Marcus Wareing at Petrus and then with Richard Corrigan but with the long hours plus the crazy commutes in London I decided to move back to Berkshire where I found Dom and The Royal Oak.

And four years later you’re still there. What is it about The Royal Oak that’s kept you?

At first it was just what I needed at that stage of my career. It was a small kitchen with four chefs. Dom was always in the kitchen helping us and training us. Movement around the kitchen was good as well. After a few months on a section, if you had that section nailed, pretty much you could move on to the next one. Plus of course it was the ingredients and Dom’s philosophy of food – that was the real draw card.

And I guess you had a pretty rapid career progression, not to mention since Dom’s accident!

Yeah, I started off as demi chef de partie then after a few months I was promoted to chef de partie. About a year later I became a junior sous chef which I held for two years. Then two weeks ago, following his accident, Dom offered me the head chef position.

It’s all so sudden, how are you feeling about the role so far and what have been the biggest challenges?

It’s quite a numb feeling and also nerve-wracking because you know the buck stops at you now but Dom still hobbles in every day and he’s really supportive, even though we give him a hard time about the injury! I think the biggest challenge has been to keep everybody motivated during these busy times. We had a really strong December. We were fully booked right the way through from the 1st and with Dom away we were understaffed and the adrenalin was keeping everyone going. But then January and February comes and people start to wane a bit so it’s keeping the morale up and the motivation which is something I’ve had to really focus on, that of course and maintaining the high standards required to keep a star.

And what has been your approach to keeping up morale and motivation?

It's about maintaining the ethos that we are all a team. We’ve got a set menu and an a la carte so I’ve asked the guys to give me their input into the set menu, so it’s really making everyone a part of the team and means I’m not just leading from the top. We’ve got a couple of the chaps going out on stages so that’s nice to let them get out and see and experience other restaurants and styles of cooking. We’re doing lots of training as well. We’ve got a fantastic fish supplier who’s offered to have the guys down for the weekend and show them around, same with our meat supplier, so that’s my main goal. The chaps have worked really hard so I want to give something back to them and keep them interested and of course I can then learn from them and their input.

It sounds like you’re doing a great job and that you have a real belief and commitment in training?

Well it’s a bit of a cliché but you’re only as strong as your weakest link and if people are struggling with stress or tiredness or technical issues then all that hard work can go to waste. These guys are young and their mental stamina can really take a hit if they’re finding it difficult, so keeping them motivated and trained and helping them out, it does the world of good. With the guys I’ve got in my kitchen it would be a really sad waste if they ever got to the point where they thought “I don’t want to do this anymore” and walked away. And that’s us, you know? That’s The Royal Oak. We take care of the younger guys. We promote from the inside and we just try to keep getting stronger.

And of course you’re just outside Bray. It must help having so much cheffing talent all around you?

Yeah it’s great. At the beginning of the month we had a Good Food Guide dinner and we had the likes of Tom Kerridge, Stephen Terry, James Durrant and Stephen Harris in. We all did a tasting dinner for that evening. Stephen Harris did his signature oysters and chorizo; James Durrant did a salmon salad; Stephen Terry did a ham hock terrine; we did the main course of squab pigeon and it was just great. We had the opportunity to work alongside all these guys that we see on TV and on Twitter and especially for the younger guys it was just fantastic. What more can you ask for than that?

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 20th March 2013

Michael Chapman of Michelin-starred pub The Royal Oak