Marcus Janssen meets the Mr. Nice Guy of the culinary world at his two Michelin-starred pub, The Hand & Flowers, in Marlow.
Tom Kerridge must be the nation's favourite chef. Not because he sells more cookery books than Jamie, or because his two Michelin-starred grub is better than Michel or Heston's, but because blokes think he's a right geezer and want to go to the pub with him, and every woman you meet wants to cuddle him and then take him home to show their husband what a proper man looks like. Before sending hubby to walk the dog while Tom rustles up an intimate dinner for two.
I was due to meet him the day after the London Marathon and everyone I had mentioned this to had been envious. “Oh, you lucky sod. Do tell him that I say hi,” they had all gushed as if he'd know who they were. But, in the same way that Gordon Ramsay can't possibly be that much of a tosser in real life, I was concerned that Tom might turn out to be a little less likeable than he is on screen.
“Alright, chief!” The voice, already so familiar, was unmistakable and, as I looked up from my camera, so was the smile.
By chance, I had heard a rumour that Tom and fellow chef Claude Bosi of Hibiscus have recently taken up shooting. “We started on clays about 18 months ago now,” he confirmed. “And last season we did a couple of driven game days together which were great.”
Tom was introduced to shooting at EJ Churchill by Sir Edward Dashwood, and it was Rob Fenwick who organised Tom's first ever day's game shooting at West Wycombe Estate last year. “It was run incredibly well, everything done so professionally. And Sir Edward is a great guy, as is Rob. And, of course, because of their location, it is very convenient and easy for me to fit into my hectic schedule.” The estate is a 10-minute drive away from Tom's base in Marlow. “I usually head down to the shooting ground once or twice a week; it's just great to get away for an hour.”
Tom shoots with a Beretta EELL 12 bore that he got from his wife for his 40th birthday. “It's a beautiful gun,” he continues, “and although my shooting has come on leaps and bounds, I've a long way to go. But I like being rubbish because I relish the challenge of getting better at something. I guess that comes from my career as a chef – you have always got to push yourself.” So, how is he coming on with the clays, I ask.
“I could pretend to be a great Shot,” he says with a cheeky smile, “but there's always the risk that Rob Fenwick will tell you the truth!”
Despite recently moving from clays to live quarry, Tom makes it clear from the outset that he does not like to think of game shooting simply as a sport. “It's a personal thing,” he says, “for me, it is a form of executive shopping, in that on both the occasions I have shot game, I have brought back more birds than I have shot. Admittedly, that might have something to do with my skill as a shooter, but the ethics in producing any of my ingredients are very important to me.”
Tom's two Michelin-starred pub, The Hand & Flowers, in Marlow
A big advocate of using game in his kitchen, Tom always has at least one game or venison dish on his menu at any given time. “We like to use venison in the summer months, he explains. “A lot of restaurants will have venison on the menu in the winter, but because of its low fat content, it can be a very light, lean meat which goes well with more summery dishes and ingredients.” But then as the seasons change, so Tom's attention shifts to grouse, partridges and then onto pheasant. “We try to find a dish that can move with the seasons. There's no point in having grouse on the menu in November when partridge and pheasant are at their best.”
This brings us to cooking methods and the common misconception that all game is strong and overpowering in flavour. “One thing I never really understood about traditional game cookery,” he says, “was this fashion for shooting something that you didn't know the age of, hanging it for an indefinite period until it was almost rotten, and then cooking it so it was pink. You would have this huge, pungent, off-putting flavour!”
Indeed, Tom believes that the recent surge in the popularity of game in the UK is largely down to the skill with which it is now cooked. “We are able to extract the more subtle flavours from our ingredients now. As chefs, we have toned down the robust, intense game flavours and are focussing more on the finer flavours that people find more appealing. And from the consumer's point of view, it is so healthy and sustainable and has, on the whole, had a very pleasant, free-range existence, a far cry from battery reared animals.”
As with all good chefs, the provenance of Tom's fresh produce is central to his whole food philosophy. “As chefs, we are the end of the line in food production. By the time an ingredient arrives in my kitchen, the hard work has already been done by the farmers, the producers, the butchers, the suppliers. Think of the game farmers, the estate owners, managers and the keepers – it's a long process, and we have a responsibility to get the last stage right. It would be pretty upsetting for a cattle farmer who's just spent 18 months rearing a beautiful Angus cow if you were to ruin it by putting it in a deep fat fryer! The same principals apply to all ingredients, good wines, ales or whiskies – great care has gone into producing them, so we should take great care in preparing and serving them.”
And at that, Tom's development chef, Chris Mackett, emerged from the kitchen with another exquisite dish for me to photograph. “I'll let you get on with it chief,” said Tom with a genuine smile. “Thanks so much for coming, it's really appreciated. And once again, well done on completing the marathon, you should be very proud of yourself.”
Indeed, I can gladly report that the big man of British cuisine is every bit as warm and charming in person as he is on The Great British Menu and Masterchef: The Professionals. After our interview, I had to stop myself from asking if he wanted to go for a pint some time. Which of course left me wondering if Gordon Ramsay is a complete tosser after all.