How I got to where I am now:
Growing up in Lyme Regis my father was a baker and my mother was a school cook so I got a little bit of a taste of the industry from a very early age.
I then went on to work for a local hotel, the Mariners Hotel; where there was a man called Leo Featherstone who was an old Cornish chef and was a bit of a Rick Stein of his day. He was very passionate about seafood. I used to wash up there when I was at school before I went on to college at Weymouth.
After college I went on to Combe House at Gittisham which is a Pride of Britain hotel. In the 1980s there were a lot of guests travelling down from London having big celebrations. It was Cordon Bleu cookery and I was one of the country lads that had gone into the kitchen, while most of the others had already got quite a bit of experience in different places. I worked my way around the sections for six years and met my wife Jackie while I was there.
Jackie and I moved to Oxford as we were both keen to experience city life. I worked at Gee’s Brasserie in Oxford which was very busy at the time serving 80-90 covers at lunch and 120 for dinner.
From there I worked at Pinewood Studios with Jackie. We were running our own catering business of lunches for actors and directors during the day, while in the evening we catered for private dinner parties and other events to save money for our own restaurant which had always been our key aim. We invested a lot of time eating out and getting as much experience as we could and Pinewood was a good testing ground for me to try and recreate the dishes, or versions of, that we had eaten and it really fired me up.
When you open a restaurant, you ask as many questions as you can from as many people as you can but nobody really tells you what you are going to go through. The place hadn’t been trading when we bought it, so we had to give it a total refurbishment which was something we had no real experience of and obviously we didn’t have a great deal of funds to get the latest interior designers in but we did what we could.
My biggest challenge:
Coming back from after the fire because being away for a year and a half really knocked the wind out of our sails. The relaunch was probably more daunting than the first time around. Being away for so long we were very uncertain as to whether our regular clientele were going to come back to us. We reopened the restaurant mid-recession as well so it wouldn’t have been a good time to open a restaurant at the best of times.
My greatest achievement:
Coming back and getting the Best New Entry in The Good Food Guide was fantastic. We had a half decent score in The Good Food Guide before the fire and we had always been happy with that and I have always found it a real credible guide. We just got our heads down when we got back, we relaunched and changed a lot of things including the décor but we just focused on getting the food out and getting it to the best that we could so it was a shocker to win.
It sounds a cliché but my wife Jackie. She has drifted in and out of catering and back in again now and she has always spent every spare second at the restaurant. She has kept pace with me and that is critical when you are striving hard. If you sometimes feel that you are the only person that is charging ahead then it can be demoralising so that has helped.
My top tips for aspiring chefs:
I would recommend setting up your market stall and sticking to it – that is what we did at the restaurant. There was a few times, certainly in the early years, where I considered whether we should suddenly alter the style of food we were doing or radically change anything and the true answer was no, we just needed to tweak a few things. Stick to your guns.
If I wasn’t working in hospitality I’d be…
When I was 22 I was at Combe House and as a young guy I was into fitness and weight training and a lot of my peers, being from the West Country and very close to Lympstone would have joined the Royal Marines. I did actually sign up and went through my tests and passed to go in and then had second thoughts and thought ‘I am going to be doing this for the rest of my life, is it really what I want to do’?