I grew up above my family’s restaurant in Bayswater, west London. My earliest memory is watching my dad, uncle and granddad all working in the kitchen. I knew from an early age that’s what I wanted to do.
I don’t like pomp and ceremony. Sometimes people ring and ask if there’s a dress code. That’d only happen in England! I don’t care what you wear, if you’re paying and you’re pleasant.
My first job after catering college was at Bahnhof Buffets in Zurich station. There were about 120 chefs in the kitchen. I thought I could cook, but after two weeks I had to readjust everything.
Switzerland is at the crossroads of Europe – you get the Italian, French and Germanic influences brought together. In the 1970s, that was the place to train.
I involve lots of people in the menu development – five heads are better than one. Everyone can contribute.
I worked at The Dorchester with [Anton] Mosimann, who was the man then. I still know chefs I worked with there. It was a badge of honour to be a ‘Dorch guy’.
My wife is from Warwickshire and a job came up in that area at the Plough & Harrow in Birmingham. After a spell in country-house hotels, I was alive again as I was back in the city.
In the 1980s I was involved in the Midlands Association of Chefs. Birmingham is twinned with Lyon, so we started links with its chef community. I’ve been to almost every Bocuse d’Or since it began in 1987. It was just a few people from the UK then, but now we take plane-loads over.
I went to L’Enclume restaurant not long ago – it was phenomenal.
What I got from my dad and uncle is the appetite to work. I think it’s more of a family-business thing, rather than specifically an immigrant thing.
I could see why other countries were being more successful [at the Bocuse d’Or]: they had the facilities, time and the backing. So I gave Adam [Bennett, then Simpsons’ head chef] six months off to prepare. We had a purpose-built kitchen created at University College Birmingham, where I’m a governor.
Rasmus Kofoed, the 2011 Bocuse d’Or winner, proved what you can do with that title. He went home and rapidly moved his restaurant [Geranium] to one, and then two Michelin stars, and is now in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list.
Adam and I are working on a project – a pub in Warwickshire. Adam will be in charge. The Harwood Arms [Fulham, west London] and the Hand & Flowers [Marlow, Bucks] have shown you can do restaurant-quality food in a pub environment – I’m not going to buy a pub to do a ploughman’s lunch.
I’ve made Luke Tipping, my executive chef, a partner. Matt Cheal, who’s been with me since college, has just been promoted to head chef at Simpsons. I’ve turned from a chef into a restaurateur – a different animal.
We’ve got a good young sommelier with a fresh approach. The old leatherbound wine list has gone and he’s added more contemporary wines, including some from countries such as Slovenia and Croatia. Wine is about discovery, not about drinking the same thing every time.
Beef, my second restaurant, is still going along nicely. But we might sell it because it’s not really big enough at only 40 covers. The spend there is £30 to £35, whereas at Simpsons it’s more like £60 to £70 per head.
I hate it when people slag colleges off. They are crying out for input from the trade rather than criticism. If you’re a big man, put something back. The more chefs put into local colleges, the better the industry will be.
I still go into the kitchen to see Luke or Adam – and I love the banter – but it’s their turn now. I can get on the stove if need be, but I’m 56 this year. It’s a young man’s game.
We know how to put good quality on a plate and serve it with a smile. That’s what it boils down to, wherever you are.