'God bless my poor PA': Tom Kerridge on fame, fatherhood and 'forever projects'

Tom Kerridge
'I’m 100 per cent happier now', chef Tom Kerridge says he has learned to embrace fatherhood Credit: andrew crowley

This is picture-postcard England. A few days before the summer solstice, the sun shines from a cloudless sky and, if it was a Sunday, there would doubtless be cricket on the village green. Turn left at the top of the high street on the way from the railway station and you will find the final part of the jigsaw, the beautiful whitewashed, wood-beamed pub with the welcoming landlord.

God bless my poor PA. She gets texts at all hours about things that have to be sorted by 9am the next day. I can’t sleep if something isn’t quite right

Except this pub, The Hand and Flowers in Marlow, Buckinghamshire, is actually a two-Michelin-starred restaurant and mine host is the irrepressible Tom Kerridge – TV chef, bestselling author and now the Sunday Telegraph’s food columnist.

Kerridge outside the Hand & Flowers Credit: andrew crowley

“Yes, we’re very lucky to live and work here,” says Kerridge, dressed in jeans and a dark camouflage T-shirt. He is relaxing (as much as he ever does) with a coffee at the heart of his business empire, the phenomenally successful 50-cover gastropub that has propelled him to write several books and appear on shows such as Great British Menu, Food and Drink and Bake Off: Crème de la Crème. “There’s an amazing community spirit,” he smiles. “Since we’ve been here we’ve been made to feel very welcome and hopefully we’re now a big part of it as well.” 

Kerridge and his wife, Beth, a sculptor, were planning to open a restaurant in north London, “but that didn’t happen, so we were looking for somewhere else,” he remembers now. “We came across this place and kind of knew the area, so that was good, but when we came to have a look it felt right straight away. When I say ‘felt right’ I mean in terms of the space, because it was turning over about £500 a week and was at the point of closure; even the Guinness in the taps was off. 

“It’s just outside the centre of town, never on a drinking circuit, and there were six microwaves and three deep fat fryers in the kitchen, so in terms of food it wasn’t exactly a destination for people who wanted somewhere to eat.”

That was 12 and a half years ago and The Hand and Flowers is certainly a destination now, with a waiting list of people impatient to taste tenderloin of Wiltshire pork with pickled cabbage and mustard mayonnaise, or Essex lamb “bun” with sweetbreads and salsa verde, all modern British cooking that, along with his warm West Country accent and unpretentious television presenting style, has become the Kerridge hallmark. 

“The idea was to offer great quality cooking in an environment that’s comfortable for everyone,” he says. “Somewhere where you’d like to spend your days off and don’t have to get dressed up for. Somewhere I’d like to go.”

It is a formula that seems to work. Behind him on the bookshelves, between White Heat by Marco Pierre White (“A massive inspiration”), The Art of French Cooking, Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management, a 1922 Michelin Guide to Great Britain and two books on the history of sculpture, are a parade of awards. Not bad for a man who had no career plans when he left school.

Kerridge hard at work in the kitchen Credit: andrew crowley

“I grew up in a single-parent family in Gloucester, on an estate, and I enjoyed school for all the wrong reasons, like hanging out with my mates. I didn’t push myself hard because I didn’t find any of it very practical. I joined a youth theatre and that was OK. It was full of girls from Cheltenham Ladies’ College and it turns out,” he smiles, “that 16-year-old girls like boys from a different background.” 

Scouted by an agent, the adolescent Kerridge appeared in a Miss Marple Christmas special two weeks later, but “it wasn’t a career I wanted”. 

“Even though I enjoyed cooking, I wasn’t sure I wanted to be a chef either. But the moment I needed to earn some money, aged 18, I ended up in a kitchen – and loved it. There was a kind of reward system: you got paid, you had fun and there was a hierarchy, so as a young chef you are kept in your place and you learn the right route. I enjoyed that structure.” The die was cast.

Kerridge tastes his peach and raspberry champagne fool Credit: andrew crowley

Kerridge has compared the best kitchens to pirate ships (a brass plaque on the kitchen door reads: “DANGER. DO NOT ENTER. PIRATES WITH KNIVES AND FIRE”) but any conversation with him is seasoned with the words “structure” and “driven” and “standards”. It would be a mistake to confuse the surface calm and bonhomie for a man satisfied that he has reached his final destination; he calls The Hand and Flowers a “forever project”. There is no room for resting on laurels. 

“God bless my poor PA,” he says. “She gets texts at all hours about things that have to be sorted by 9am the next day. I can’t sleep if something isn’t quite right.”

He puts this quest for perfection down to mild obsessive compulsive disorder. “I think a lot of chefs have an OCD thing going on,” he shrugs. “As unstructured as my day is, I have to have a routine, whether it’s the way I pack and unpack my gym bag to the fact that I have to shave my head every day… chefs have to work like that because you have to be organised for a busy lunch and dinner. I’ve learned to turn it off at home but at work it has to happen my way.”

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In those last two words there is the determination that builds business dynasties and wins Michelin stars. The same single-minded drive that enabled him to lose 10 stone in two years on his so-called “happy weight loss” programme (as detailed in Tom Kerridge’s Dopamine Diet), go teetotal and, another favourite word, “embrace” fatherhood – Acey, his 18-month-old son, is affectionately known as “Little Man”. 

“I’m 100 per cent happier now. When I go swimming with my boy, it makes me realise the things I wasn’t embracing before.” 

Kerridge also owns and runs the Coach, another award-winning gastropub half a mile down the road, and intends to add a third, the Butcher’s Tap, in the town later this year. 

Further afield, there will be the reopening of the Rib Room Bar and Restaurant at the five-star Jumeirah Carlton Tower hotel in Knightsbridge, his first foray into London, a collaboration that has left him “thrilled and honoured”.

Spot the tattoo Credit: andrew crowley

“There are big responsibilities that come with this business,” he says. “But whether it’s television, books, products or the Sunday Telegraph column, the standard is driven by the Hand and Flowers. “The person on TV is no different to the person that works here almost every day,” he adds, “and hopefully that will come across in the columns. I’m not some stuck-up two-star chef, and it will be my personality in these recipes on these pages. There will be a few culinary techniques and tips, but they will be recipes you can play around with, and if you want to add two tablespoons of mint as opposed to one tablespoon of parsley then feel free, do it, there’s no law. It’s for people who like to touch and feel and cook.”

He crosses his formidable arms, a tattoo on each – the paw print of a favourite dog on the left, the Ursa Major constellation on the right. “I got that done, the Great Bear, when we won the first Michelin star,” he says proudly, “And because it also looks a little like a saucepan. And, erm…,” he adds, “because it’s something my wife calls me.”

Tom Kerridge’s ‘Sunday Chef’ column will appear fortnightly