'It’s like being in the SAS, except no-one’s dying, we’re just cooking food'

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Deputy Editor

Michelin-starred chef Tom Kerridge is a man of many mediums. After building a successful pub and restaurant empire, organising festivals, publishing books and appearing on TV shows, he recently launched a podcast. 

Co-hosted by BBC Radio presenter and DJ Chris Stark, 'The Pirate Ship Podcast' is a series of conversations with public personalities, mostly, but not exclusively, about the world of food and drink.

In this week's episode, in an effort to demystify the world of professional kitchens, Tom Kerridge and co-host Chris Stark decided to discuss the inherent pressure of being a chef.

“There’s a standard phrase that everybody uses,” Tom said, “and it’s, ‘if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.’ Everybody recognises that and that comes from kitchens being pressured environments."

 At The Hand and Flowers, he said: “We put on the door, ‘Danger, do not enter, pirates with knives and fire.’ And it is.” 

No office job

“They are pressured environments," he added, "but they are exciting."

"They’re adrenaline-fuelled," he explained, conceding that, "there is a fine line between it being adrenaline-fuelled excitement, professionalism and strive for consistency, success and perfection – to it flipping over the other side of that line and it becoming horrific, horrible, can’t deal with the pressure, can’t deal with the stress, can’t deal with the number of covers coming through, can’t deal with the other pressures of people in the kitchen, the way that they react and talk to each other.

 “It isn’t the same as an office environment, where people are constantly polite and HR teams are consistently there making sure that people are okay, it’s a fiery space where people need something now. We need it now, stop being an idiot, give it to me now.” 

Thinking back to the hardest kitchen he’s ever worked in, he names The Capital, when chef Philip Britten was at the helm. After working in country house hotels and at a small 20-cover neighbourhood restaurant, it was something of a shock to the system.

"It was an eye-opener," he chuckled, "a West Country bumpkin turning up to the centre of London. It was like, night buses home or sleeping in the changing rooms because it was too late and you were on breakfast the next morning so you’d just sleep on a bench.

"It was a very, very, really difficult environment and as a chef Phil was an exceptional talent but at the same point was incredibly driven and at the same time had complete lack of empathy for chefs and probably guests. It was just all about food.

“It was a pretty scary thing. I constantly felt out of my depth.

When he was put on the pastry section, he said, "you’d be burning yourself and the chef’s are saying, ‘you’re an idiot!’. It was massively one of those environments. So it’s not just coupled with the mental pressure of trying to get it right, you’re burning yourself, you might have at some point cut your fingers as well so now you’re pouring hot butter into your burnt cut fingers, and it’s just that, constantly.” 

“You’re exhausted, you’ve got something called ‘Chef’s Arse’,” which we know as code for severe chaffing of the buttocks from working long hours in hot and sweaty environments, or Tom compares it to being “a bit like marathon runners getting to the point where they can’t walk.” 

“You’re massively under pressure, you’re burning yourself with your hands, you’ve got cut fingers, you’ve got the chef shouting at you, you’re getting paid £12,000 a year and you’re hating life, that’s where those pressures are. 

“This is the thing of a commis chef in London in the 1990s – I’d get in at one, turn on the shower and by that time there was no hot water so you’d end up having a cold shower - it’s the worst thing. Get into bed at half one then my alarm would go off again at ten to six. Off you go, back to work."

Just cooking food

However ghastly this might sound, and despite the conditions being totally different in his own kitchens, the chef looks back at this time with an element of fondness. 

“Absolutely loved it. It was brilliant. Loved that pain – and this is the thing, this is why so many people will go, ‘there is no way I’ll work in that environment' and they walk away from the industry but actually, if you love the fact that you’re going ‘oh my God, this is so mental, this is so extreme," he added,  “It’s like being in the SAS, except no-one’s dying, we’re just cooking food.”

“It’s not that pressured – I mean it is, but you’ve got that pressure on yourself.”

As for the image he gives off in the public eye, where he is known his bright and friendly demeanour and kind nature, he explained , “that is the real me, when I’m not in that space, in that two-star environment.” 

Tom's are-a-changing 

With his team, many of whom have been with him for more than ten years, he said, "Every now and then we reminisce about the points when we were together at The Hand and Flowers kitchen. I was that person that was driving it relentlessly," jokingly comparing himself to football manager Roy Keane.

“We reminisce about times when I fired people on the spot – I wouldn't do that now, times have changed -  but people have walked out on the spot, I’ve thrown things, we’ve been really angry, there’s been all sorts. But those are the sorts of pressures of running that sort of space for me then, as a business owner. 

“That’s before we had two stars and that’s driving it to that point. Now, it’s very different, there’s a huge amount of investment gone into time spent with chefs, into their wellbeing. It’s a very different thing to being a business owner building it up to that space, to the comfortable zone that we try to create now.

"There’s not very much in the way of shouty sweary stuff going on", but he admits that on the occasion where he cooks at The Hand and Flowers, "I do find myself getting into a space where I get slightly wound up very quickly about things not being right.”

pressure makes perfect

Despite having stepped away from many of his duties in the kitchen, Tom said he misses the type of rush you can only get from the pace of service.

“I am living the dream. I’ve got pubs, I’ve got restaurants, I’ve got festival businesses, I’ve got an amazing family, I’ve got loads going on and I love being busy.

“But we’re not touching the food. We’re making sure that everything is right, we’re making sure that the restaurant is running properly, we’re making sure that the environment is great, so all of that is an amazing thing to be a part of. But I do miss that cooking."

“So," he added, "that adrenaline buzz that you get from a Saturday night, that meat, fish, cooking energy level, I get from being busy in lots of other ways." 

So, his co-host pondered, is pressure inherent to producing high quality food at volume?

Of course, Tom replied, as human beings, "It’s not just press go and a vending machine throws out a Michelin-starred dish,” and that future will never come. 

“As human beings, the things that survive all of time, whether it’s live music, hanging out with your friends, walking into a coffee shop or a restaurant, they’re personality-led.”

“They’re things that as human beings we relate to, and it’s very easy to convey a relationship to people through food.”

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Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Deputy Editor 11th June 2021

'It’s like being in the SAS, except no-one’s dying, we’re just cooking food'