Where did you start?
I started in a little pub back at home in Hartlepool while I was at college; it was called Jacksons Wharf. There was a job wall at college and that’s how I found that. I started at the very beginning prepping bits of veg and working the grill – with it being a pub it was beefburgers, steaks and that sort of thing.
It sounds a little less refined than where you are now.
Yeah – it’s a million miles away isn’t it? But you start off at the very bottom level where you’re peeling potatoes and prepping veg, getting your hands dirty on the pots and things. Nowadays, your younger chefs don’t want to do certain jobs – if a kitchen porter doesn’t turn in, someone’s got to jump on the pots. If I’ve got 10 minutes, I’m bashing out the pots. It is what it is. If the other guys see you doing that, it sets a good example: they think, ‘If chef’s getting involved, let’s get involved.’ Things like peeling potatoes for roasts on a Sunday: it’s the little jobs that they might think are beneath them, but they never are really.
What’s your least favourite job in the kitchen?
Your dishes are very visually exciting – are there any chefs you look to for visual inspiration?
I look at everything: I don’t really have a go-to chef. I’m constantly on Instagram looking at what’s going on across the world. The beauty of social media is that you can see chefs in every part of the world. They might show you a video of them plating up, and you think, ‘That’s really cool, I can take a little bit from that.’ That’s where you see different styles. At the minute, some food may look a little bit messy, but it looks really good at the same time.
Everyone in the industry talks about the dearth of high quality young chefs coming through. How do we fix that?
Luckily, since we opened, we’ve never really struggled too much for chefs. We started off being open five days a week, and when we went to seven days a week, it took about nine months to find enough extra good chefs to be able to go to seven days. We’ve lost a chef last year, and replaced him with a friend of a friend on a temporary basis, but we’ve been looking for six months to replace the chef that left.
What’s wrong with young chefs’ training?
I think for me personally, the way food is taught as an NVQ in college is a bit outdated. People are coming from college with a skillset that is irrelevant. It’s an older way of doing things: food has moved so much in the last five or 10 years. But how do we change that? Because that’s got to be rolled out across the UK to every college. It’s a massive problem. Don’t get me wrong, the kids are getting good qualifications and good skillsets, but then they’re thinking, ‘I want to cook that food I’ve seen on Instagram’ and they turn up and they have no idea of what it entails to produce it.
You enjoy foraging on the Middleton estate – what’s good at the minute?
There’s a bit of wild garlic, and the main thing we usually take is the wood sorrel. We used that quite a lot last year. Moving forward, when the garden gets up and running we’ll have more ready-to-use vegetables – there’s some poisonous mushrooms but obviously we can’t use them! I believe there’s some watercress as well, but we’ve never found it. We’ve been told it’s there.
You’ve heard rumours of watercress?
Yeah, James, the owner, says there’s watercress down by the stream but we’ve never come across it ourselves. But there’s the fruit on the trees – cooking apples, elderberries and things like that – and the future for the estate is that there’ll be specific items grown.
You’ve done a lot of pastry in your time – everyone says it’s one of the hardest areas of cooking to master, but what is it about it that’s so tricky?
It’s because it’s technical, and everything’s got to be methodically weighed out. If you set something with gelatine or an amount of sugar, if it has too much or too little it’s not going to work. Whereas in the main kitchen, you can always add a bit more or take something away. Pastry’s very precise, and you’ve got to have the patience to be precise because you’ve got to wait for things to set or cook. It’s very fiddly; you’ve got to have delicate hands, or your food might look a bit rough.
Chefs don’t tend to like not getting something right immediately.
I think chefs are obsessive-compulsive sorts of creatures. I definitely am. Massively.
Cooking heroes? I’ve always been a big Gordon Ramsay and Marco Pierre White fan, and I really like Tom Aikens as well.
Essential cookbook? I’ve got a thesaurus of ingredients – it has hundreds of combinations of vegetables and ingredients.
Favourite bit of kitchen tech? The Pacojet ice cream machine.
One thing that always puts you off a restaurant? I’ve not really had that problem!
Guilty pleasures? Anything sweet. I like petits fours, and I’m partial to a pick and mix as well – those pink and blue fizzy cola bottles.
Last supper? Me and the missus went to Glass Hostoria in Rome last year and had the taster menu.
Kneeton Lane, Middleton Tyas, Richmond DL10 6NJ