Fish has always been around me. I was born in South Shields and across the water North Shields was a thriving fishing town. When I was young an uncle of mine took me out to catch lobsters and crabs and I used to go on trawls with my dad.
Every Sunday my Mum did a Sunday lunch, no matter what. My job was to scrape the Jersey Royals. I still look after Jerseys in the same delicate way my Mum showed me - they must not be peeled, they can only be scraped.
Every day Jersey Royals are in season I have three or four with some butter and salt. You can’t beat it.
I remember the moment I knew I wanted to be a chef, I was about 13 or 14. There was a man on TV called The Galloping Gourmet – Graham Kerr. He used to travel the world to the great restaurants, pick out the chef’s speciality, he would be shown how to do it and he would go back into the TV studio and prepare the meal. He poured some glasses of the most beautiful wine, went down to the front of the studio, picked out the two most beautiful ladies in the audience and sat them either side of him. When he tasted the food and wine his face used to light up – I said that is it, that is what I want to do, he has everything!
I have gone into the same industry as The Galloping Gourmet but I have never had any of that – I keep looking for it.
I got a place on a cookery course at school. I went to a technical college one day a week for two years. A London-trained professional chef - Arthur Robertson - taught me so it wasn’t just domestic science. I am still in touch with him now.
I left South Shields when I was 16. Arthur Robertson told me ‘if you want to cook, go to London’.
I was very lucky and I think it is more difficult to get into the industry now. It could change with the growth of apprenticeships – I am chairman of the Academy of Culinary Arts (ACA) and we run one with Bournemouth and Poole College. The more apprenticeships we take on, the better it is for our industry.
As a young man you get exposed to a lot of new flavours, textures and aromas. Then you learn how to cook and develop a recipe and between ages 24-33 you are in the experimental stage, stretching boundaries and putting different ingredients together. This is the time when you need someone who guides you and that is what I try to achieve and do now.
What happens when you get to my age is you strip everything back. You try to make things more pure and simple – that can be boring to youngsters because they want to stretch boundaries but the reality is it creates the best food.
I cooked for Baroness Margaret Thatcher’s 70th birthday at Claridge’s. She could see I was nervous and she said ‘chef, I get up at 5:30am, I have a black coffee, I work, I have a sandwich at lunch and a cup of tea and a slice of cake later and then I have dinner with Denis and we have anything that goes ping in the microwave - so tonight you are in charge’.
Last year Thatcher was sat on table one at The Ritz Restaurant. I went up to her and introduced myself and she remembered my apple & bramble dessert. That made my day.
Everybody knows The Ritz. People say ‘it must be amazing to have a job like that’ without really understanding what it involves.
Occasionally people I grew up with let me know they are coming to visit. Someone sent me a postcard from South Shields recently and said the Geordies are doing good. He listed Joe McElderry, Sarah Millican and me.
A lot of French chefs have been inspirational to me. Remy Fougere and Michel Bourdin. I still look up to Brian Turner, he is a very wise man and I use him to sound out ideas.
Michel Bourdin told me to strive for evolution not revolution.
We are the only hotel that runs all of the F&B outlets. I am very proud of that – we home bake everything here.
We evolve in this kitchen by people testing various things but we keep a lid on it by me tasting everything.
If you are cooking food beautifully it will always look beautiful.
We have got to be purists about our own country. Ninety five per cent of the ingredients we use at The Ritz come from the UK. We have some of the best products in the world – the French love our lamb.
I have to keep strawberries in stock here but I won’t put them on the menu unless they are in season in the UK in June. Guests will ask for them and if I said I didn’t have them they would say ‘The Ritz is a 5-star hotel, you are supposed to have them’.
I feel good about my time as chairman of the Academy of Culinary Arts (ACA). I have got the best chefs in this country participating and we are trying to ensure that we teach cooking in the right way.
I come from a humble background. So to have been a chef at Claridge’s, The Ritz and The Berkeley is pretty good going.