How are the new digs?
Great. Virginia Park Lodge in Ulster is a spectacular property. There’s a main house surrounded by cottages for the students to stay in, a formal pleasure garden and a huge lake packed with wild trout and other fish. I saw a three and a half pound trout jump three foot out of the lake this morning.
You’ve had your eye on the place for a while…
Yes. I got married there 27 years ago so it’s a special place for me. It’s been owned by an American culinary school for some time but it’s tightening up its overseas operations so I managed to get in there.
What are you planning to do with it?
There are various elements to the project. We’re going to grow high-cost produce such as artichokes, broad beans, asparagus and salads for my two London restaurants, Bentley’s and Corrigan’s Mayfair. We eventually hope to be self-sufficient for 10 months of the year. The veg bills for the group have become very expensive over the last few years. Then there’s the school element, which is at least two years away as there’s an awful lot of stuff to get sorted.
What will you teach?
It will be eclectic. Everything will link to the gardens in some way but we’ll do horticulture, agriculture and floral stuff, as well as cooking, of course. The classes will be mainly for amateurs and semi-professionals. It will be democratic; this isn’t an elitist thing. We’ll look at a variety of cuisine styles. I have some great people lined
up to teach.
Does this new project signal a change of pace for you?
Yes and no. I’ll still be mostly based in London but the eating out lull in the summer complements Virginia Park Lodge nicely as it will be all stations go there in the warmer months. I’m also getting to the age where I want to spend a bit more time fly fishing and shooting pigeons. Charging around London on a Vespa has been great, but I’ve worked a lot of hours and I’m starting to feel pains in places I didn’t know I could feel pain.
Any further London projects?
Yes there’s certainly another project in my London team. Something is brewing at the moment in central London but the site has not been confirmed so we can’t talk about it yet. The market in the capital is extremely vibrant at the moment so we’re making hay while the sun shines.
Any advice for the next tranche of Great British Menu contestants?
Read the brief. That’s the only thing I’d say. The difference between winning and losing is often those few points you gain or lose for reading or not reading the brief.
Any plans to compete again?
I’ve won four times – I think I’ve earned a break! I’m sure they’ll bring us out of retirement at some point and we’ll make idiots out of ourselves. There are some fantastic young cooks, and it’s a great pleasure to watch them.
You’re on record as not being keen on the avante garde side of things…
Every decade brings on a revolution in food as we know it, but technique is not everything. My style has always been simple, simple, simple, and it’s served me well. Just well-sourced ingredients beautifully crafted and served. I’m not interested in smears and foams. As you get older your wine needs to be better and your food simpler.
Is there a place for more overtly technical cooking if it’s done well?
Honestly? I’m not too sure. I think there’s a backlash going on at the moment. They’re going to have to dig a very big hole to get rid of all the weird plates and the tweezers. People are now looking for a more natural, rather than technical, flourish. They want to see intelligence.
There is a tendency to over-elaborate to make things looks interesting on TV...
True, but in most cases real cooking will triumph. It’s no longer about having thousands of hours under your belt, being hammered in some arsehole’s kitchen. The next generation of great cooks will come into food later in life.