The Big Interview: Tom Kerridge has thick skin

By Amelie Maurice-Jones

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Tom kerridge London Chef Gastropub

Speeding breakneck round racetracks and sweating it out in the gym are probably two of Lewis Hamilton’s favourite hobbies.

But they’re also pastimes of pub icon Tom Kerridge, who, while a less distinguished athlete (although, granted, we’ve never seen him behind the wheel), holds all the acclaim when it comes to British cuisine, TV cooking and gastropubs.

They’re two of the ways Kerridge takes care of his mental health in an industry stereotyped for burnt out chefs and steamy, sweaty, angry kitchens. The gym is a ‘self-preservation’ space for the Hands & Flowers operator, who made headlines a few years back for dropping 12 stone.

And track racing? “You have no phone or interruption, and your focus solely has to be on trying to go as quick as you can without crashing”, explains Kerridge. “They’re days where you can go away, and you can forget everything.”

Kerridge meets me at the Bar & Grill in the glitzy Corinthia Hotel, central London, on a rainy Thursday afternoon. Homely lamps, pop-art and potted plants splash colour onto an ornately pillared room of smart, dark furniture at the site. It’s five-star hotel meets local boozer.

And the chef is immediately genuine and hospitable, taking my coat as we head into a private dining area for tea and coffee in blue-and-gold china. He’s also modest, shunning the ‘celebrity’ label (“you used that word not me”), preferring to be known as “a professional chef, professional restaurateur and professional hospitality operator”.

Culinary career: Kerridge was 18 when he took his first job in a kitchen (Credit: Cristian Barnett)

However, being a big name on TV means, whether you like it or not, you end up with a voice. With this comes responsibility: “You have to represent the industry in the right light and encourage young people into the industry as well as making staff proud of the sector they work in”, says Kerridge.

“But you also have to be real with it, and let people know the difficulties hospitality faces,” he adds. “There’s no point sugar-coating everything and saying it’s magic, you have to be honest and truthful.”

"Failure is a growth pattern. If you didn’t [make mistakes] you wouldn’t learn from the process or get thicker skin, an understanding, or self-drive"

It’s a fine line to navigate. Kerridge unapologetically holds a torch for hospitality. His annual festival, Pub in the Park, champions the pub sector, and in a recent BBC​ series, he lifts the lid on the highly skilled and passionate staff behind fine dining establishments, for instance.

But he’s also candid about the challenges. At the moment, opening four new rooms at the Hand & Flowers has piled on pressure, and he’s preparing to launch the second Butcher’s Tap & Grill​ in Chelsea come December. There’s much to look forward to. The wet-led, dog-friendly operation will offer a selection of British-centric butcher cuts, burgers and hot dogs in a two storey Victorian property. But financially, it’s been a case of re-mortgaging his personal home.

Business challenges

On top of this, his sites are not immune from the broader issues facing the sector. You name it: inflation, soaring energy and utilities costs.​ There’re also staffing shortages which the publican puts down to Brexit, the pandemic and poor management structures.

Leadership can also be a lonely place,​ the 50-year-old opens up. Few understand exactly what you’re going through.

“At the end of the day, the sole responsibility comes as yours,” he says. He stares out of the large window where cars meander through puddles. If something goes wrong in a kitchen, the whole team shoulders the blame, but in a business, when making decisions like loaning money, “you’re on your own,” admits the chef. “However,” he adds, “if you’ve got a good network of people around you, it’s not lonely at all, because you’re only a phone call away from somebody else who runs a business.”

But leadership has taught him a lot. He thinks building an environment where people can flourish personally and professionally may have made him a better parent.

Xmas opening: The second Butcher's Tap & Grill is coming to Chelsea in December (Credit: Christian Barnett)

Neither Kerridge nor his wife, the artist Beth Cullen-Kerridge, work a traditional nine-to-five. Many of her sculptures are actually on show at Kerridge’s Bar & Grill, with the dining area circling around a magnificent headless bronze centrepiece.

It’s tricky to balance family life with a hectic work schedule, Kerridge admits. He talks of his seven-year-old son Acey with pride. Like his mum and dad, he’s an “extreme character”. Kerridge tries to take Sundays off and the two go to rugby training together. “We don’t live a normal life,” says the operator, “but I hope what it does is encourage [Acey] to be himself and follow a career path he wants to follow rather than a path you just think you should be doing.”

There’re signs he’s a budding chef. Kerridge cooks with his son on the weekends: “He likes helping make beef stew, getting things into the oven, then leaving them there.” (Don’t we all).

Educational tool: "Food's magical, particularly for kids" says Kerridge (Credit: Cristian Barnett)

You can learn a lot from cooking, Kerridge thinks. He takes his son on “trips around the world” where they walk round a supermarket, pick a cuisine (e.g. Chinese, Greek, Italian), then create a dish from that country. “We could talk about geography, we could talk about history, we can talk about flavours and profiles,” he explains passionately. “Food’s magical, particularly for kids.”

Personally, I feel like I could learn a lot from the bookshelves that line the dining room we sit in. They boast Kerridge’s own titles, as well as foodie reads (Dinner With Jason Pollock, Kitchen Confidential) and drink guides (Hacking Whiskey, The Joy of Mixology).

Straight from the kitchen, Kerridge dons a grey pawprint apron with a stylish red collar studded with gold buttons for the interview. Watching the 50-year-old gush about food surrounded by his own cookbooks, it’s easy to imagine he’s been sporting chef whites and singing hospitality’s praises since he was as young as his son.

Michelin pressure

But it wasn’t until he was 18 that Kerridge ventured into a kitchen in need of money. “I started washing up, and that was it”, he fondly recalls. “The energy of the kitchen was the place I wanted to be.”

After a stint in the West Country, he worked for a number of British chefs in central London. Then came a brief spell at Adlard’s, Norwich, where he won a Michelin star. In 2005, he opened the Hand & Flowers in Marlow, Buckinghamshire – his first foray into the pub sector.

Then came the Coach Marlow in 2015, followed by the Butcher’s Tap in 2017, the Bull & Bear​ in Manchester in 2019, a fish & chips space in Harrod’s in 2021, and, of course, Kerridge’s Bar & Grill, which launched in 2018.

The Hand & Flowers won a Michelin star​ in the first 10 months of opening. “I wanted to work in and create a space removed from the pomp and ceremony normally associated with Michelin star spaces, but also be a pub,” says Kerridge. There’s no doubt he’s achieved this: the site scored its second star in 2011, and to this day, it’s still the only pub to hold two Michelin stars.

Star-studded: The Coach gained a Michelin Star in October 2017 (Credit: Cristian Barnett)

But the weight of two stars is heavy. Kerridge explains: “It’s pressure that I suppose you kind of put on yourself because you and the team want to keep it every single year.” For the first few years it was “almost unbearable” for a lot of people working in that kitchen as the pressure was huge.

He reflects: “There was a lot of external criticism from people who didn’t understand what the two stars meant in terms of, it’s in a pub, you have to take it within its context, and make sure it is understood for what it is. It’s not a five-star hotel, it’s not a posh Mayfair restaurant, it’s a pub in a market town just outside of west London, and that weight feels very heavy, and that sense of responsibility was massive.”

“There’s a bit of me that wishes I’d spent a year or two in France"

But the pressure has eased as the gastropub has grown over a decade. “It’s something we play very safe and straight, says Kerridge. “We know what works, and we know what keeps consistency. There’s no freestyle. We all go to work every day and try to be the best we can be. If it hits that level, then that’s a great place to be.”

And scoring two Michelin stars has also been his biggest achievement. Anything’s a double-edged sword, but it’s the “most amazing” accolade to have. “We’re so proud of it,” he says. “As a group of people, we’re exceptionally proud to be recognised in that realm of professionalism.”

He also stresses that The Kerridge Group is “very conscious” of staff mental health.​ The pressure can become too much, but Kerridge explains that there’s an adrenaline-fuelled buzz that comes with the atmosphere. This keeps people hooked.

Team pride

But the excitement must be balanced with a sense of encouragement. Kerridge is grateful for the opportunities that have come winning Michelin status, but he also credits his team: “We wouldn’t be sat in this dining room now without Nick Beardshaw, who heads up here, who was part of that team,” he says, gesturing with a silver-watch-clad wrist to the exposed oak table, melting candles, lively red bouquets, and coiled napkins.

He goes on: “Or we have Sarah Hayward at the Coach, which has a Michelin star, and last year, she won Michelin young chef of the year​. These are wonderful achievements. I feel so proud to have been part of that process.”

It must feel good to play such a big role in helping people achieve their dreams, I say. His response is typically level-headed: “The way you phrased that is very nice, but they’ve done it themselves. All we’ve done is provided a small platform for them to be able to grab every opportunity that’s in front of them. They’ve grabbed those opportunities – we don’t make them. It makes me feel very proud, but they're creating their own journeys.”

Michelin-ranked: Sarah Hayward is head chef at the Coach (Credit: Cristian Barnett)

And what about his own journey? Is there anything he’d do differently if he could start from scratch? Any golden opportunity he regrets not having grabbed by the horns?

“There’s a bit of me that wishes I’d spent a year or two in France,” he confesses. “It would be nice, if I was 20 years old, to spend some time in Paris working in a French kitchen.” But he also doubts if he’d actually have had the guts to follow through with it.

He does have advice for his younger self, though: “All the people that sit around in boardrooms, in suits, they’re all making it up. That suit is a suit of armour, it’s not something they’ve necessarily earned, it’s something they wear to protect themselves from the insecurities and weaknesses they have. Follow your profession, be as good as you are in your profession, because they can’t do what you do. They don’t have all the answers, they are not the problem solvers. In a lot of cases, they’re the problem makers.”

Dish example: 30 day aged fillet of beef with potato buttermilk waffle, crème fraîche & chive butter (Credit: Cristian Barnett)

It’s advice Kerridge, who has a pretty thick skin, seems to have taken on board. These days it’s not just people in suits, but also a mob of guests, journalists and website reviewers who are quick to raise their pitchforks and slam his business for faults.

Often it is the price of his dishes​ that comes under fire. Recently, the TV chef hiked the price of his fish and chips at the Harrod’s site to £37, with fans calling the portion of fish “scrawny” and others criticising the accompanying “thimbles of sauce”.

Thick skin

“The only person that knows how to run your business is you,” is Kerridge’s philosophy. He’s happy to hold up his hands if he gets things wrong. “We get it, [it] shouldn’t happen in the first place, however, allow us to solve it rather than being an angry baby.”

But he’s a staunch defender of his prices: “When you find the best produce, you treat it with love and respect and you put it into an environment that is expensive, the end result is going to be expensive.” 

No one is up in arms because an Aston Martin costs more than a factory produced car, he argues. It’s the same principle when it comes to his menus. “When you compare Harrods fish & chips​ to your local chippy, there’s two very different product lines there. You could argue they are the same thing but they’re not.”

Scaled up: Kerridge has come under fire for raising his fish & chips price (Credit: Cristian Barnett)

Anyhow, he isn’t fazed by the media storm: “If you choose to be naïve or not educate yourself into understanding perhaps why is that product more expensive, and you just want to get angry about it, then that’s cool with me.”

In fact, looking back at his career, he doesn’t regret a single thing. If you make mistakes, you do it again, he says, and then you do it again.

For Kerridge, living a life means you have a go at stuff: “You have to pick yourself back up. Failure is a growth pattern. If you didn’t [make mistakes] you wouldn’t learn from the process or get thicker skin, an understanding, or self-drive. You learn a lot more about yourself and your business from the mistakes that you make than you do from the successes.”

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