John Campbell Consultant John Campbell Restaurants Coworth Park

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 20th June 2011

Since this article went to print John Campbell has become chef patron of the Woodspeen Restaurant which holds a star in the Michelin Guide UK. John was formerly a consultant for Coworth Park which has 2 AA Rosettes in the AA Restaurant Guide.

Out of the frying pan into the foyer so we're looking at chefs that have made that progression to front of house and we want to talk about the transition, the process behind that and it's really just to give chefs an understanding that maybe there can be life beyond the stove and people can build, successful careers away from the kitchen.

John Campbell is a consultant at Coworth Park in Ascot, Berkshire for his restaurant John Campbell at Coworth Park. John was born in Liverpool and has been a chef first and foremost ever since he spent his childhood cooking with his Nan. He spent his early career working some of Europe’s finest kitchens. In 1998 he won his first Michelin star as director of food and beverage at Lords of the Manor in Gloucestershire, one year after he joined in 1997. In 2002 he moved to the Vineyard at Stockcross where he won two stars during his eight years there again as director of food and beverage. He joined Coworth Park in 2010 as director of cuisine, food and beverage and has recently stepped down from the role in favour of a three day a week consultancy role for his eponymous restaurant.

John  what was your rationale and thought process behind your move from executive chef to F & B, was it a conscious decision, was it something that was always part of your career progression, or something you fell into?

It certainly wasn't something I planned. I had great aspirations to stay within the kitchen. I didn't aspire to be a Michelin star chef or to work in a Michelin star kitchen it was really just to work hard and be good at what I did. I love cooking, always have, I'm quite a lucky individual and it was probably up until about eight or nine years ago I always said I've never worked a day in my life because I don't go to work to do a job, but then that transition to move away from the kitchen it took me away from what brought me into the industry in the first place which was cooking. So it was never a conscious decision to step out of that kitchen. When I first moved to Lords of the Manor in April 97 I worked very hard on the kitchen and it was at the point where we were really firing on all cylinders and it was wonderful. The first year we were winning some great awards, the food was amazing. I don't think I've ever said this in interview before, I still didn't have a food style to peg, to say that was mine and that was at the age of 26. But I could cook. I understood a great deal of science behind the food and that's been quite catalytic I'd say from the very early age of maybe eight or ten. I've always wondered, "˜Why does that happen?' And so when I've been learning to cook I've always brought in the why is that happening, why is that happening?

I think that's important as well isn't it, you often see in a kitchen a chef says, "You must put tomato puree in something," or, "You mustn't put tomato"¦" but no one challenges it and you just say, well"¦ no one ever says, "Why?"

There's got to be a reason for something and we're gastronomic chemists, as chefs. We have a set of ingredients or a set of chemicals that we need to mix together and pushing those together changes things, it does something, it does something for the mouth feel, the palette, the holistic nature of the food, or just a chemical reaction of the food groups themselves. So that was really the start of it all. Lords was really performing well and as with every kitchen we want great food, we want great accolades, we want this, we want that, we want everything, but you can't have the staff or you can't have the equipment, because I was so bloody minded with a skill set through accounting, motivation, organisational skills or critical path writing, I thought, "˜Okay I'll show you,' and we just did it. It was at Lords that I really understood the importance of the team. That I was not just the custodian of ingredients and making sure that they are properly looked after but I'm also a custodian of my team and that was the important part and it was a big moment for me just to say, "if I want to succeed I can't do this on my own," it's the team that do it not me, I'm just orchestrating how they perform and work and guide.

You're almost the conductor?

Yeah and give them all the information when needed that I've collected over the years. You know, am I lucky enough to work in a Michelin star kitchen, to be honest but I've never experienced that hostility that sometimes is associated with Michelin star kitchens, I wouldn't accept the perhaps less humane approach, you know, we're not going to war. We're not saving people's lives"¦

Yeah we're cooking someone's dinner.

"¦we're cooking their food, that's all we're doing we're cooking somebody's dinner. So I took a different approach and then suddenly everything just worked and it was amazing to watch and then I found a new set of ingredients which were the team of people and then I started to migrate into the restaurant and you could see the power of the collective team working harmoniously together. So it was a win/win for everybody and then the customers benefited and for me to stand back and allow the team to do what they do best, employ the best, train them to the top level, motivate them, give them incentive and the product was amazing and we won awards.

So then I thought, "˜Well the natural progression would be a director of food and beverage,' and I was head of food and beverage at the Lords of the Manor, director of food and beverage at the Vineyard, director of food and beverage and cuisine here at Coworth Park, but you can see how powerful that knit can deliver a product instead of chefs, front of house, there will always be a clash but you bring the both teams together, give them a common goal. This is a common goal we need to work together to achieve this because it's a buy in from everybody, everybody decided how it worked and how it ran, there was always a piece of what their own personal agenda was within the mix, we created a product and a manifesto that we all wanted to believe in and we delivered that and the product here at Coworth is a great product, you know, a really good product and I'm very proud of the team.

How did you manage that transition? I mean chefs by nature are creative people, they're passionate people, they're hands on people and as you identified there you have a love of food and to a degree you've got to give that up. I don't mean entirely but you've got to stop cooking every day from literally going out of the kitchen one night and never going back into it on a daily basis?

There's a lot of fear there.

Mm there's security in the kitchen isn't there? Y

eah absolutely. You've got this nice little gastronomic coat you put on every day and you're king and you're mayor of happy town every day.

Yeah absolutely you are king of your own domain and no one quite understands the kitchen so there's always that comfort zone there isn't there?

Yeah absolutely that mythology of the kitchen. I've got to say Mark it's sleepless nights.

Fair comment.

It's courage you need. You need courage and you need to feel happy in your own skin but more importantly it's trust of the team around you and trust of yourself. It was a big step but it was a natural step that I knew if I didn't make that step it would be a possible derailment. What helped me with that transition was a good stint at Cranfield University. And I've got to say that for Cranfield very good, you know, the top execs, all the MBAs and the PhDs in this country usually come from Cranfield. Some of the top guys here Waitrose, Tescos as well, all the big corporates usually go through Cranfield so that time at Cranfield was crucially important.

What's been your biggest challenge then, I mean you talk about sleepless nights, I love the phrase mayor of happy town it's brilliant and I'm going to use that in the future, what's been your biggest challenge then coming out of that kitchen? What made you think oh my God"¦

What have I done?

Yeah I mean if you could just"¦one single biggest challenge what do you think that's been? Is it getting acceptance from front of house because you are the don in the kitchen aren't you? Head chef is the don.

Yeah I think the biggest challenge is not to think like that, in the kitchen, "I'm the boss," the chef's the boss, the chef shouts, the chef does this, chef does that, so don't  come out of the kitchen like that and the question is you can take the chef out of the kitchen but can you take the kitchen out of the chef? And that's a big, big stumbling block because the behaviour and approaches and motivational skill set you adopt in the kitchen"¦

Why do we not see more chefs doing this then, you know we spoke earlier, there's yourself, Alan Hill Gleneagles, David Nicholls, John Williams The Ritz London has done it before, there are others but we certainly, from a website point of view we couldn't do a feature every month because there aren't enough people doing your role, so why is that? Is it the security of being the chef is very comfortable and people don't want to do the next stage or is it just too big a step for people or aren't there perhaps the operations for"

It's possible in any food operation it doesn't matter the size, forget the size, I believe what chefs have is passion, we've got a lot of emotion and it's there all the time and they need that emotion, that creativity and that should be harnessed to sell the property that's what I certainly found, I could sell this property, three, four times over. So I think it's a natural progression. I don't think it's about size.

But isn't that why as chefs if you take people like Jamie Oliver, if you want to call them celebrity chefs, whatever, they generally get knocked by chefs because they're not a cook in an operation.

I think Jamie Oliver's great and I would never have a bad word said about him.

I think he's done phenomenal for the industry.

But he never professes to be a professional cook. He says, "I'm a great cook, I've done this and that"¦" he never professes to be that, he professes to be an entertainer, an informer, a communicator on television and he does that exceptionally well and for somebody who was, I don't know how old he was, 17, 18, when he first got removed from the River Café so really how much time has he had in the kitchen so he would never say that he was a professional cook although he's been in the professional kitchen. He's a great cook, great communicator and what this guy has done to make awareness of school dinners, the organic movement, he's gone over to America to do the how best to eat, you know the junk food, and he has done an amazing amount. So he shouldn't be criticised.

So you've mentioned you still cook, you're in your chef's jacket today, you can take the chef from the kitchen how do you take the kitchen from the chef? No, no you've hit the nail do you think your passion will be extinguished, your love of food, your creativity?

So it's just harnessing that creativity in a different way isn't it?

Yeah creativity is still there and the creativity on the plate is still there but how I'd set that is through regular menu meetings and that's every week. I probably cook intensely every two weeks for a couple of days back to back and that's what today, essentially tomorrow will be, just a bit of a shake up on the product from the Shire menu. That's the line, that's the line, don't go across the lines and then it allows the chefs just to trade within that even if I'll just sign off the dish they're getting the dish towards that. So the creativity's still there. So if I've got 100% creativity, 50% is now in the food, 50% is outside. It's still there.

Okay. Last but by no means least then where's John Campbell going to be in five years time?

Good question. I'm happy with the journey at the moment. It's very exciting.

I mean you've made a massive transition so are you, you know, my guestimation of you is you're ambitious, you're forward thinking, you've talked about reading psychology and things like that so is there this continual development of yourself to say, "I now want to be house manager, then general manager?" or are you now at a plateau where you're comfortable in terms of your career development?

Very good question. My ambition is to leave a legacy of my industry. That's my ambition and my son is also in his chosen field is to also leave a legacy, change, absolutely change the way the industry thinks about things. So my future's more of the same, more consultancies, perhaps more TV, more branding, more PR, it's exciting. It's an exciting industry and I think if you do allow yourself to make that transition it's just massive, massive thing you can do, what you can do for your brand, for yourself, what you do for the kitchen, it's huge. So whatever's out there is quite exciting for me.

Well listen thank you very much. I'm so glad we got together today when I created this article you were one of the first names I wrote down because I think you set a real good example of what this feature is about and it's exciting to see what you did at the Vineyard and what's happening here and I think it can be used as an inspiration for chefs.

Yeah I hope so. I hope so and I think it's important that chefs do recognise that there is a life outside the kitchen and with the food and gastronomy changing all of the time there's no need to be worried that you'll be left behind and you won't have that creativity. That creativity is always there you just need to make sure that you just keep touching it every now and again. The products, are you aware of the product changes, you keep your ear to the ground in the industry, you know what's happening, you know what the innovations are but if you're more closer to the client because you've allowed yourself to come out of the kitchen you're more placed to decide what they're looking for so you can move the brand towards what the client needs are. And if you look at the client base now, they're more aware, they're more travelled, they're seeing food television, food, food, food all the time, so they're more informed and customer is king again.

Yeah absolutely.

And for me front of house need to be equal stars with the cook

Absolutely I mean you can't do great food and have bad service, or bad service and great food it just doesn't work.

It doesn't work. As an example of that you're in the restaurant, brought your partner in, "Good to see you again," sit down, "Glass of champagne?" chatting away and suddenly we've recognised you, you've got some champagne, we've got some cushions, you're sitting with a little party, there's six of you, chatting away and maybe it's sunny outside, you've got"¦ "Do you want to sit outside on the terrace?" so we're trying to anticipate all your needs and then you're into the restaurant we're really looking after you. We notice you're looking at your watch, "What time do you want coffee?" we're always on you. And that's the important part but if we've made you feel special, made you feel recognised, if you've ordered, for example, a medium rare steak and it's medium you're going to complain, you know, you'll feel mayor of happy town already. And it's that recognition and this helps bridge that gap.

Yeah. Well listen John thank you very much. Thank you so much. Want to run a restaurant like John? Then head on over to our jobs board

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 20th June 2011

John Campbell Consultant John Campbell Restaurants Coworth Park