“The point of going out to eat is to make sure you have a good time, surely? Too many people take food too seriously. At the end of the day it’s just food. If it tastes nice, great.”
“Whatever you need, whenever you need it, just shout—our home is your home,” Tom says, in his warm and friendly West Country accent. Tom is in the kitchen, midway through breakfast service—the reason for the lovely smell of smoked bacon and black pudding wafting out of the kitchen and into the surroundings of The Hand & Flowers pub. It’s late September and just a few days before Tom is presented with the Chef’s Chef of the Year award at the AA Hospitality Awards 2013. It’s no surprise that Tom is the recipient of this year’s Chef’s Chef award. Of course, being nice doesn’t get you awards, it’s about the cooking and service, but Tom is a real chef’s chef and one that happens to speak highly of culinary awards.
“I’m very supportive of these award dos. There’s ten of us going to London on Monday [the day of the AA Awards] and we’ll have a nice lunch somewhere, then go to the awards in the evening,” Tom says. “Awards like these, they help get your name out there and give you recognition with the wider general public. We now have guests coming from around the world and a lot of that is thanks to awards like Michelin and the AA.”
Displaying his many plaques and prizes in the pub for all to see, Tom is unashamedly proud of his achievements. And why not? For Tom is the recipient of two Michelin stars, the only publican in the country to receive such an honour and in the same gastronomic league as his fellow chefs, and friends, Simon Rogan, Sat Bains and Claude Bosi. But the Michelin Guide doesn’t dish out stars for being nice, either. And the Guide certainly doesn’t dish out two stars easily—The Hand & Flowers being one of only 21 establishments in the country to hold the accolade.
“For me, it’s brilliant. The Michelin Guide is respected the world over by chefs and customers. It’s never affected by fashion, by trends. It’s affected by good quality cooking. And you can dispute some stars all over the world, but the reality of it is, most Michelin star restaurants you go to—whether it’s here, Italy, New York or Tokyo—you’re going to have a great meal. Well-cooked, good food,” says the Gloucestershire born chef.
Reflecting on what took The Hand & Flowers from one to two Michelin stars, Tom says it’s all about consistency. “The menu slowly evolves through the seasons. There are some dishes that have been on the menu since we opened. Some change slightly with the seasons—they become better rehearsed, tighter dishes.
“The reason why I think we’ve achieved two Michelin stars is because we work very well with our producers and suppliers—we talk to them everyday about what’s good, what’s not good and we don’t continue with something if it’s not very good or if it’s out of season.”
I don’t think Tom ever chased Michelin stars. They just came to him, quite naturally. From moving to London in his twenties, Tom worked with top chefs Phillip Britton, Stephen Bull and Gary Rhodes, before leaving London to head to Norfolk, where he earned his first Michelin star at Adlard’s. Tom has stayed true to his own personality, keeping his cooking within the context of his surroundings, which has played a big contributing factor in his culinary success and accolades thus far.
“I’ve been a chef that has worked in Michelin star restaurants for most of my life and when I had the opportunity to work somewhere for myself, I wanted it to be a little bit more user friendly. No, that’s not quite the right words—I wanted it to be more appealing to me and my own personality.” Tom explains: “That perception of Michelin star restaurants, especially ten years ago, was one of hushed fine dining and I didn’t want it to feel like that here.”
When Tom and his wife Beth took on the pub, in the centre of Marlow, in 2005, it was making little more than £500 per week and in need of some life injecting back into it. “It was dead. And from that point of view it was an ideal space—we had no customers to alienate by changing things and so it started off as nothing and everything has been built to get to this point, where we’re at right now.”
Although, for many publicans in the country, ‘right now’ is a pretty abysmal time. According to The Good Pub Guide 2014, thousands of pubs will be forced to close over the next year. But this is Great Britain —we’re famous for our pubs, so where’s the industry going wrong? “The thing about pubs is, people perceive them as being cheap. Pubs don’t have to be cheap, they just have to offer value for money.” Tom explains: “We might have luxuries on the menu here, like line caught seabass, fillet steak and I love using truffles, but the dishes do still have to offer value for money.”
This is where Tom’s personality really shines. He doesn’t push a tasting menu or wine pairing on his guests. He doesn’t insist that, if you are going to order the line caught seabass, you must have a particular wine to accompany the dish. “The point of going out to eat is to make sure you have a good time, surely? Too many people take food too seriously. At the end of the day it’s just food. If it tastes nice, great. If you want to drink red wine with fish, that’s fine. Just make sure you’re having a good time, that’s all I want to hear. You can pair wines or beers with dishes and make it as self-important as you like, but the biggest point is to have a good time,” he says, reinforcing his point with refreshing honesty.
“In the summertime people turn up here in shorts and flip flops. How cool is that? We have two Michelin stars, but if you want you can have a pint of a locally brewed ale sat in your shorts, you don’t have to sit down for three hours and have ten courses to come here.”
Tom might be a publican, but he’s a chef all the way and he knows that his most valuable asset is the produce he puts on the plate. “At the end of the day, food is always just food. A piece of seabass is always going to be a piece of fish. It always comes down to the produce being great,” he asserts. “The farmer, the producer and what comes in through that back door of the kitchen—that’s always the most important part, not how you make it look on a plate. Lots of people can draw pretty pictures, but with food, if the produce that comes in isn’t first rate, then it might look nice but it isn’t going to taste the best.”
September saw the launch of Tom’s first book, Tom Kerridge’s Proper Pub Food, coinciding with the six-part BBC2 television series of the same name. The book showcases over 130 recipes based on the ethos of The Hand & Flowers—understanding the produce and cooking it well. “It encapsulates what all good pubs should be about—simple, good cooking,” Tom says.
“Doing this book and TV show gave me a chance to showcase to the rest of the world that we [the UK] can do really good pub food. There are 13 or 14 pubs with Michelin stars and loads of pubs out there that are doing phenomenal food that treat their food with love and respect—which is also what this book and TV show is about. It shows the world that there is a great food scene here.”
Once the butt of all culinary jokes, British cooking has come far over the last ten years. Tom believes the reason for this is that we now understand our produce and what we’re good at in this country, instead of trying to emulate what other countries are doing.
“One of the big changes that has happened over the last ten or so years is that we used to try and copy the Spanish, French or Italians, when the reality of it is, we’re a northern European country and we do really good carrots, potatoes and turnips and slow-cooked pieces of meat, curing and smoking. People have started to understand and embrace the food, ingredients and dishes that we do very, very well.”
While Tom is in the kitchen at The Hand & Flowers most days, he tries to get out and experience some of his favourite restaurants as often as possible. “I probably eat out once or twice a month—we’re very lucky around here because you’ve got The Waterside Inn, The Fat Duck, Dominic Chapman at The Royal Oak at Paley Street, Alan Murchison’s L’Ortolan and The Hinds Head, which is just brilliant.”
London’s dining scene is one of the most fast-paced of any capital city in the world right now, so I ask Tom where he heads when he makes the one hour commute? “For the last six years my favourite London restaurant has pretty much been Anthony Demetre’s Arbutus. For me, he’s one of if not the greatest British chef that’s been around. I’ve never met a man with such a worldwide knowledge of food and understanding of cooking—the way he drives and pushes flavour. There are always fashionable restaurants that open—the next hottest thing—but someone like Anthony is deep rooted.”
When it comes to talking about other chefs, Tom talks openly about his early inspiration as an 18-year-old boy on the verge of adulthood. It was the iconic White Heat by Marco Pierre White that spurred him. “That book drove me to become a chef—you look at the photographs by Bob Carlos Clarke and suddenly it made cooking look cool. As a naughty-ish 18-year-old boy, looking at Marco in his white apron, smoking with his scraggly hair—he just looked fucked—that is rock and roll. It is cool and I wanted to be a part of that.”
Tom also speaks warmly about the great Alain and Albert Roux and their lasting legacy on the British dining scene. “There would be nothing and nobody without the Roux brothers. I’ve been very fortunate enough to eat all over the world and never have I been anywhere that has been so lovely, where you’re made to feel comfortable and welcome like you are at The Waterside Inn.” Tom jokes, “The greatest thing to ever happen to British cooking was two Frenchmen!”
He also heaps praise on Rick Stein for his business acumen and good seafood. “It’s not about Michelin stars, it’s about a restaurant that works as a business, first and foremost—fantastic seafood in a brilliant setting that has an understanding and provenance of what it is and a guy that has built it over 25-30 years. People in the industry love Rick because of what he’s done, the public love Rick because when he talks about food, poetry or fishermen, it is so full of enthusiasm, love and understanding. Rick Stein is probably my biggest food hero.”
Tom is particularly enthusiastic about two stand-out restaurants he’s visited recently—Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare in New York and Andre Chiang’s eponymous eatery in Singapore. There’s sincerity, admiration and passion—in equal measures—in Tom’s every word as he talks about other chefs and their work, before he turns to me and finishes: “I’ve been a chef for over twenty years and that’s what I am, it’s what I do. I’m happiest in a kitchen. I never get that Monday morning feeling.”
PHOTOGRAPHY BY JEAN CAZALS