Chapter one: The Formative Years
I was born in Ferriby in the East Riding of Yorkshire. Some people, I have heard, called it
Humberside for a while – how dare they! My life in food was influenced, like most cooks, by
family. On my mum’s side, they were mostly pig farmers in East Riding, including my
Granddad who also had shire horses. Auntie Eileen and Uncle Philip, who had looked after
my mum a lot when she was young, had pigs and a market garden. They made everything
and stored everything. There was a bounty of food, from new potatoes stored in glass jars to
apples wrapped in newspaper, over wintering in the loft. Auntie Eileen was a very, very good
cook and the Aga always seemed to have endless cake or bread coming out of it.
My earliest memory is of pigs snuffling at my Start-rite red, yes red, T-bar sandals (I will
return to this painful memory – that is the T-bar sandals – in later chapters) and picking
raspberries with Uncle Phillip.
Mum was a great cook too. She died last year and I inherited her cookery books, including
one of those indexed books into which you can stick recipes from magazines or write up a
recipe passed on by a friend. Each entry transported me back to the early 70s, when it was
quite unusual to have spag bol or curry – round our parts, any way. It was a culinary
adventure to read through the book and all her little added notes. I remembered every dish
including the butter bean and tuna tart with lemon and freshly chopped parsley: we always
had freshly chopped parsley.
Our staple diet during the week, however, was recycled from the managers’ restaurant in the
flying club canteen at Hawker Siddeley, later to become British Aerospace. Mum was the bar
manager and Dad was a turner fitter in the workshops. I can’t quite remember the routine,
but it was something like liver and bacon on Monday, gammon on Tuesday and fish on
Friday: you get the idea. I don’t think we had a great deal of money, but as a kid you don’t
tend to notice.
We ate well, if not a little repetitively. So me and my Dad longed for the weekend when Mum would cook. She taught me lots of things and we did the usual making scones together. She said in her loving, but direct, Yorkshire way, “You don’t want to end up useless and not being able to fend for yer self like yer farther”. It was true, my father really couldn’t even boil an egg. Whilst there were many favourite things my mum cooked, it was egg and chips and banana custard that have such a lasting memory.
When I did become a professional chef and then met Mary, we never would get invited for
dinner, as hosts would say, “But what would I cook for you, you’re a chef?”. To which I would
reply, “I am happy with egg and chips”. And I was. I think it was the fact that Mum double
fried them before it was trendy. And as for me and my Dad: well, “anything and custard” was
always a winner. But bananas and custard was the most comforting, good hot or cold and
even better with hundreds and thousands on top.
Fast forward a few years. Mum and Dad divorced and I ended up living with Mum and my
stepdad down south in Olney in Buckinghamshire, thrust into private education and very
disillusioned. I was saved by skateboarding and punk rock. It was 1976, so of course what
else was a disillusioned youth supposed to do in Olney?
I wasn’t really interested in education at this stage of my life. I wanted to skate, go to skate
parks, chase girls and listen to the Sex Pistols as loud as I could. Mum threw my favourite
record out of the front bedroom window on the Olney high street one Saturday morning,
saying it was obscene. That at least made Saturday morning in Olney interesting.
Anyway, back to food, I needed to earn money to fund skateboards, records and mohair
jumpers. I still had an interest in food and some inclination that I might want to cook. I landed a pot washer’s job in the Bull Hotel in the middle of town, run by two aspiring chefs.
My life in food began. I saw dishes and food I had never seen before: Steak Diane, fondant potato and Black Forest gateau (remember, it was the 70s). Whilst my new bosses liked to tease me, they also recognised my interest, so I progressed (as many pot washers do) to preparing veg and the first dabble of cooking in a professional kitchen.
Oh and yes, here is an angelic picture of me and those bloody Start-rite sandals.
Next chapter: Off to College