My Nan was the first person I ever cooked with. We used to grow our own vegetables in her garden, things like carrots, potatoes, cucumbers, tomatoes, lettuce, cabbages and strawberries. I really wanted to grow grapes, so I used to buy seeded grapes. I’d eat the grapes, keep the seeds, then bury them in a part of earth and water them. The next morning, we’d rush out to the greenhouse and find grapes buried in the soil where the seeds have been!
Nan loved cooking and she was quite traditional. Meat and two veg with gravy was pretty much her offering, and she taught me well. Cooking was my fun time. Our family didn’t really go for convenience food, so we cooked from scratch every day.
I remember when The Naked Chef started because Nan wouldn’t let me watch it as she thought it was a naked chef on TV. So, aged five, I used to sneak upstairs to watch it. What was exciting from me about Jamie Oliver was his freehand, easy approach to cooking, with no long lists of measurements to bog you down, which was way easier than following a recipe in a book. To me, a salad was tomatoes, lettuce and cucumber, and perhaps some celery, red onion and radishes. To Jamie, a salad had peaches, prosciutto, rocket leaves, fennel – all sorts of exciting ingredients that really got me thinking.
By the time I was twelve, it was clear that I was going to be a chef. My uncle arranged a day for me at the local butchers, Steve Vaughan’s, where I learnt about making sausages, burgers, black pudding and basic butchery. I asked if I could come back and I ended up working there for a couple of months. By the end, I was breaking down whole lambs into chops, legs, shoulders, racks and saddles.
When I started high school, my cookery teacher, Mary Richmond (Miss), noticed my huge love of food straight away. She took me to Soughton Hall, a local hotel and restaurant, where I have met the head chef, Dan Hunter. Dan offered me work experience, which I think he intended to last week, but two years later I was still there. I would work most evenings after school and weekends.
By then, I was reading everything I could about food, restaurants, future trends, international cuisines and famous chefs. Food was my life. I saved up my tips and took my mum and Miss to the chef’s table at Gordon Ramsay’s Claridges restaurant at the time. It was my first Michelin star dining experience. I was absolutely amazed. The focus on the level of service and their generosity left a huge impression on me. It made me wonder if they made all their guests feel this welcome. It’s only after working in equivalent restaurants that I realized that this is the norm when you are cooking at this level.
My next mission was to get myself behind the stoves in a Michelin-starred restaurant. The Chester Grosvenor offered me this chance. Simon Radley, their executive chef took me under his wing. I remember my first task there on day one was to dice a pineapple. I thought, no problem! But on completing the task and having effort thrown away, I realised how much I had to learn about cooking at this level. The chef took out a ruler and cut a perfect cube to make his point! I trained there for two-and-a-half years.
Following eighteen months of further training and work experience, mostly with Iain Donald, a director of a large restaurant group, I met Mark Fuller who took a chance and gave me my first head chef position at Sanctum on the Green. I was eighteen at the time; we called the restaurant Luke’s Dining Room. I remember sitting down to write the first menu, recruiting the new team… It was quite different from planting grape seeds!