When I was a young man my mother and father brought my sister and one of my brothers to The Savoy where I worked. We came up the metal staircase and there were pans clattering, chefs shouting at each other, and lots of flames. My brother thought he’d been brought to the centre of hell.
The economy would be in a dreadful state without hospitality revenues. I wish the Government would recognise this more.
When myself and Richard Shepherd earned a Michelin star in 1973 at the Capital Hotel it was very special. It was a rarity back then [The Capital was one of only three restaurants to be awarded a star in the first year that Michelin published its list].
Going on television was scary but fabulous. I was the first of a generation of chefs to appear regularly on TV. I have a new TV series in the pipeline.
My father came back from the last world war with the bit between his teeth. He took over a transport café in Leeds and, being the eldest son, he used to take me there. I was basically injected with lard from the age of five.
I left catering college at 17 to do an apprenticeship at The Savoy. It was very different in those days – chefs worked in kitchens three floors down with no windows in the searing heat. It was a tough business.
The modern head chef has to be like an orchestral conductor. You set each person off in the right direction and bring them back together for the last note.
The industry is attracting a good calibre of people and hospitality is now seen as a good career. When I started as a chef my mum was not proud to say that I was working in a restaurant, but there is now a lot more pride in the industry.
My father taught me about taste. He would carve the Sunday roast and take the first piece and cut it into quarters for us to taste. Then he’d take another piece and put salt on it to show the difference it made. He was a great one for understanding flavour.
The occasion that the Queen decided I should have a CBE [for services to tourism and training in the catering industry] was one of my greatest achievements.
We beat ourselves up unnecessarily about the percentage of people who work in hospitality. It must be so much greater than it was 50 years ago when I started out.
The industry has changed a lot since I was a child, but many of the basics are the same. The bacon sarnie and English breakfast my dad was cooking would still stand up today.
The French have gastronomically gone backwards in the past 20 years, they have been a bit complacent. And the British have gone forward in that time. But there was a lot of room for improvement.
I came back from working in Switzerland [at the Beau-Rivage Palace] after just 18 months when I was 21 years old because I was homesick. Perhaps that was a mistake and I should have seen a bit more of Europe. But you can’t change the past.
There is no doubt there has been an improvement in kitchen environments over the years. But for me there’s something quite uncomfortable about going into a cool kitchen where everything is induction and it’s like a laboratory. A kitchen should be about heat and energy and speed of movement.
French chefs such as Roger Vergé, the Roux brothers, Pierre Koffmann and Paul Bocuse were very inspirational to me. For the next generation I think Jason Atherton will become iconic because of the way he has rolled out his business in a very professional manner.
I am involved in the FutureChef competition for chefs aged between 12 and 16. It’s great to think we are touching the lives of young people who – in 20 years’ time – could be cooking stars.
I have not defined myself by shouting at people. But hospitality is about being tough sometimes and the guys who are often run very successful businesses.