My uncle was a chef and I thought he had a really glamorous career, travelling all over the place. So I did a national diploma in catering and hotel management. From there, I got more into the cooking side of things – I loved the whole atmosphere and the banter, and working to high standards. I felt this was me, I loved it and I never looked back.
I’ve been lucky in my life to be able to travel to a lot of places. Cape Town was one of most beautiful. I worked for about a year as sous chef in the Alphen Hotel in Constantia, a Dutch colonial house with vineyards.
It was Australia that got me away from the stiffness of working in hotels. Until I went there, I’d always worked in country house hotels, where you also had to worry about breakfasts and buffets for delegates. In Australia the produce was inspirational; the food was so fresh and the ingredients were outstanding. That’s where I learnt that I could focus only on the food, and I knew that restaurants were the way forward for me.
Your mind changes when you become a father. My first child was born after I had spent three years back in the UK working as head chef in Simply Heathcotes, Manchester. I didn’t want the long hours any more, so I went to work for the food manufacturing business Cavaghan & Gray, who make food for M&S. But I missed the buzz of the kitchen.
I had picked up a love for Italian food when I was in Australia, so when I got a call from Derek Lilley of Est Est Est, who wanted to start up a new concept, I went for it. I oversaw the opening of Piccolino and it was great as we had carte blancheto change the menu and suppliers whenever we wanted. The team around me was amazing, they were really passionate about flavours, and the place soon started to pick up quite a following.
It was like a cattle stampede opening the next site in Manchester. People loved it because there was nothing like it around there. We knew straight away that we had hit on a really successful concept.
I feel like I’ve spilt blood on this job, the openings were particularly challenging as it was absolutely relentless. The only break we had was when there was a power cut… but we still kept the restaurant open and we produced food by candlelight!
We went on an aggressive roll out of restaurants after Steven Walker, Iain Donald and Vernon Lord bought the business in February 2004. Currently, we have 22 Piccolinos, with around 900 staff.
When you’re working in a company this size, it can’t be done in isolation, you need a team around you and I’ve had to learn over the years how to get on with people in order to know how to push the right buttons and get the right jobs done.
Next year I’ll be focusing more on the people side of things. The most difficult thing is to implement a dish into the restaurants and make sure it’s created to a consistent standard. So we need to invest more time with the chefs and make sure they all understand a dish and get the flavours right.
I should have learnt Italian to communicate more when I’m over in Italy talking to suppliers – I’m currently using my hands more than my language. I’m trying to learn it now.
I’m writing a book on the people and food of Italy’s Abruzzo region. The place has great stories and great ingredients, and I fell in love with it. I want to call the book The Secrets of the Gran Sasso, which is the mountain that oversees the whole region.
I want to keep developing Piccolino, and making it better. I want customers to think that Piccolino keeps reinventing itself, a bit like Madonna if you know what I mean!