So still mourning the loss of my mohair jumper but now a fully qualified chef with some credits to boot, it was my ‘hi ho’ moment – and, with two wheels, I was also a mobile chef.
I stayed around north Devon a short while longer, working at a small Italian restaurant in Barnstaple and then for a completely eccentric landlady in South Molton, who ran a large pub/hotel on the high street. She seemed to need half a bottle of whisky to get her up in the morning and insisted on my boiling ox tongues and enormous hams for the local farming community. It was the early 1980s and the emergence of something new in terms of cuisine was out there…but not in north Devon, and boiling hams just wasn’t quite my thing.
I decided to head back to my roots in Yorkshire in search of my first formal position in a country house hotel: this was where (apart from in London restaurants) it seemed things were beginning to change. I worked my way quickly through the ranks from Chef de Partie upwards and below is just a small taste of cheffing years there.
One of the hotels I worked in was owned by Stafford Heginbotham, ex-Chairman of Bradford City Football Club. He had bought a run-down establishment, gutted the whole place and started all over again with new restaurants, kitchens, the works. I was a junior Sous Chef in a brigade of 10. The restaurant operation was designed by a London consultancy, a pair of brothers, with one looking after front of house and one looking after the food side of things. The hotel had huge mirrors everywhere. It was very glamourous for the outskirts of Bradford. Stafford had one of those very notable toupees. Sometimes you would see him adjusting it in one those huge mirrors and he would just wink at you and carry on.
I also worked for a specialist French patisserie company making desserts and Viennoiseries for hotels and helped a couple launch their new small country house hotel with my menu and food, as their first Head Chef. By this time, being mobile meant four wheels, and I worked freelance for an agency for a while all over the county, stepping into the breach last minute at anything from a well-reviewed gastropub to a care home.
All this certainly broadened by experience and I wanted to settle down into more of a ‘regular job’, so I decided to pursue a career as a Chef Lecturer. I really enjoyed my year’s training to gain a Certificate in Teaching in Further Education, but at the end of it, government cuts to the sector were really beginning to bite. I secured two part-time college contracts, one at Old Trafford and one at Blackburn, and also taught on a specialist cookery evening class for adults. As we lived in West Yorkshire at the time, crossing the Pennines every day for work, especially in winter, was rather a nightmare. At the end of that year, the situation in further education had got even worse and there were just no full-time jobs nearby to apply for nearby, so with heavy heart it was ‘back on the knives’…but to what ended up being the best place I’ve worked as chef at: Holdsworth House near Halifax.
Holdsworth House is a Jacobean country house hotel with rooms and a fine oak panelled dining room. The kitchen was led by Eric Cleveau, a French chef who came from working in some of the fine country hotels in France and the pastry chef had had a stint at The Box Tree in Ilkley: so I was in great culinary company. As Sous Chef I was second in command and what is affectionately known as ‘sauce’: main courses and cover for everyone else in all the other sections when they were on holiday or ill.
When I joined Holdsworth House, the food had already got 3 AA rosettes (they later changed it to a 5 rosette system) and with glowing reviews a plenty, the team were hungry for their first Michelin star. Whilst everything had a modern French twist, we were all encouraged to contribute and develop new dishes on great seasonally, and sometimes weekly, changing menus. Freedom, at last, great ingredients and a great inspirational boss. Everything was scratch cooked from ice cream to canapes, from bread to stocks. No cutting corners, everything tasted, checked and signed off by Eric.
It was a tough 60 hour week on split shifts Monday to Saturday. In the summer, we would have weddings and then run a full restaurant in the evening. That elusive Michelin star never came. There was a rumour the man from Michelin came one Sunday night, when the hotel only had a skeleton staff plus one chef in the kitchen, as it was normally so quiet. It was odd for someone on a Sunday night to order such an elaborate meal and sit on their own. But who knows?
By this time, we had three children, I seemed to be living on coffee, sleeping all day Sunday and my knees were giving way: life as a chef was no longer sustainable. So off I went, back to university…Next chapter University, veg boxes and more