Unusually for a top chef, you didn’t grow up in a culinary home. What drew you to the work?
I was 14 when I really started to want to be a chef and I can’t pinpoint why. I didn’t have too many options, so I took that one. When I spoke to the careers officer at school he said that the army might be a good thing for me – for the discipline – but also suggested cheffing, so I joined the two together and joined the army catering corp. The army wasn’t really for me. I did my basic training and got out, never went back, but really wanted to continue cheffing. I realised that moving to London was the only way I was going to learn that properly because back in ’86 there weren’t many great restaurants around my hometown of Skegness, I can tell you that. And it hasn’t changed.
Did you learn much from the army that you applied in your later life?
Nothing, really. One of the things I really struggled with was not the discipline of the army way of life, but discipline more broadly. I got into four fights and spent two nights in prison in army barracks. You had the ‘red badges’ – the junior, trainee sergeant major types – and they were like a red flag to a bull. I liked to rumble. You’d take hours to press your clothes and polish your boots and they’d chuck them all on the floor. I understand now that that was all part of the discipline programme. They’re trying to stretch your mentality, to see what you can take. Well, unfortunately for me I couldn’t take that much. But when I got into cheffing in a Michelin environment that discipline made sense. Having discipline is an important part of success.
What makes someone like you borrow, remortgage your house and put all your savings on the line to open a restaurant?
It’s just the dream, isn’t it, to own your own restaurant. My wife [and business partner, Irha Atherton] and I wanted to have our own destiny in our hands. We didn’t want to be forced to do what others said – though “forced” isn’t fair, because Gordon [Ramsay] was very good to us and pretty much let us run our own affairs. But you want to build something using your own skill set, and see how far you can take it. It was very real of course, when you have so much on the line. When you’re two people who came from nothing and are already living a pretty decent life, earning decent money, doing OK, it feels even riskier. But we never had delusions of grandeur, never wanted to be flying our own jet – we were just seeing if we could create our own little legacy to pass down.