You don’t get awarded two – that’s two – Michelin stars unless you know a thing or two about food and it is clear that few people in Britain know their way around the kitchen quite like Tom Kerridge.
Owner of revered gastro pub The Hand and Flowers in Marlow, Buckinghamshire – perhaps the most famous pub in the UK and definitely the first to be awarded two Michelin awards – Tom Kerridge’s standing among chefs and the general public is at its pinnacle.
Now a TV star thanks to his various BBC projects, and a best-selling author thanks to his book Proper Pub Food, the 40-year-old is also recognised as one of the best in his profession. This means that any project he lends his name to automatically gains attention, and that’s certainly the case with Britain’s Next Top Supplier, a venture in association with online supermarket chain Ocado to find the next big thing in food and drink production from the lesser known forces in this £96billion pound annual market.
Pitching their idea and produce to Kerridge and retail legend Sir Stuart Rose, the winner will receive a £10,000 marketing package to promote their product, and the Salisbury-born chef is more than happy to lend his expertise.
“The reason I am behind it is because it feels like such a massive opportunity for a small scale supplier. It’s the sort of guys we use at the Hand and Flowers: small, artisan, good food suppliers that have good ideas and what to take it to the next level. This means they would be able to reach a whole new level of people but stay artisan and within their means. It is very honourable, and I am delighted to be involved.”
Is part of the appeal of this project the chance to give some help to an industry that has struggled as the economic downturn took hold? Perhaps even boost some of the excellent producers working in his county of birth?
“Absolutely – like anything it is very difficult for people to make their way in business, and in the food sector it’s especially difficult. We are hoping for people who have got heart and soul and love for their product.
“Relationships with suppliers is huge – we always look for new people and new ideas – but you can’t change people because things go up a few pence. Ocado knows it is all about relationship building and that then goes onto the customer.”
Yet relationships are a two-way street, and suppliers queue up to work with Kerridge because of his status in the food industry. The chef’s forthright nature is well known – “I look for the best – just because it is local doesn’t mean it is good. ‘Local’ is a catchphrase just to make things sound good. Just because tomatoes are grown down the road it doesn’t mean they are good” – but his love of food and the process of creation is there for all to see.
His enthusiasm for the lifestyle that comes with being a chef (long days, hard graft, unsociable hours) is remarkably infectious. “That is what I love about the job, the way of life,” he says. “Being in that kitchen, in that environment with a load of other blokes -that is what drew me to it and that is what I really enjoyed.” It’s a far cry from his first professional job, appearing as a child actor in a number of TV dramas including an episode of BBC-TV’s Miss Marple.
Aren’t the antisocial hours something that put people off being a chef?
“People you find in a kitchen are looking for something different in their lives. Being a chef is a way of life and if you love being Salisbury Born and Bred a chef – that is your life. It is social, but it is just different. It is fantastic, that nocturnal lifestyle. It’s different, we don’t go out at 8pm on a Saturday but chefs can always find that bar. If we go to a town for one day, chefs will always have found that late bar. We have a nose for it”.
Yet aside from the life, Tom loves food above all else.
“When you first start your business you just want to be a success and you try to get better every day, and the awards have come. But we don’t cook for awards, we cook food that is lovely and not fashionable. We don’t aim to please guide books, we aim to please customers, and everything I put on a plate I want to eat myself.”
And even with lots of work in the pipeline for 2014 (including more TV work) Kerridge refuses to rest on his laurels.
“I don’t ever feel like we’ve made it; I am terrified it will end tomorrow. So we’ll keep pushing on, working hard and enjoying it. The moment we stop enjoying it is the moment we stop. But at the moment everything is great.”