I was born in food. My dad used to say: “We don’t have much money and we don’t have fancy cars, but we always have good food in the fridge and on the table.” My parents would buy fillet steaks, foie gras, oysters, lobster; they love good quality food. Every day we had a three-course meal: starter, main and dessert and cheese before dessert. Every single day.
My parents were nurses in a hospital in Limoges and they talked a lot about work at the dinner table: about patient care and the service that was provided to the patient and how they were making the customer, the patient, feel. And, for me, this informed the way I work in restaurants [as a maître d’hôtel]. It was about organisation, it was about trust, it was about efficiency, it was about timing, it was about attention to detail. And it was about quality. I was cradled in it; I was almost brainwashed in a particular way of doing things.
My mum’s rabbit with mustard sauce is incredible. It’s a very French recipe – just shallots, mustard, a touch of white wine and the cream, a bit of butter, salt and pepper, and that’s that – but I haven’t tried one that’s as good. In France, people have pet rabbits, but mainly rabbits are there to be eaten. So, since I was a boy, I saw the rabbit in the hutch and I saw my dad pick up and kill a rabbit. I don’t question it; I don’t think anything. It was a very natural, very humble, down-to-earth life where you kill a rabbit and two hours later, it’s on your table. And you think: “Oooh là là, this is good!”
I’ve lived in England longer than I lived in France. I’ve been here for 30 years and I’m 49. And I still sound like this, right? As much as you can take me out of France, you can’t take France out of me.
The French, we’re very structured and organised and disciplined when it comes to eating. So you eat between 12 and 1pm, and between 7 and 8pm. It’s about the respect for the food. Like, for example, when I cook and I call the kids and they’re not coming, it’s so annoying – I’ve turned into my dad now! Because you’ve got to respect the food. I put in all this effort. It’s got to be eaten when it’s ready, otherwise you’re going to lose some of the pleasure, some of the flavours. And why would you do that?
I wanted to be a pastry chef, but my mum said: “No, you should be a chef, there’s more possibility, pastry is too limited.” So I went to catering college. And I was good, I was cooking well. But I changed my mind. When I changed my option for front-of-house at the last minute, the school couldn’t believe it because I was one of their best students. But I haven’t looked back since, it’s been fantastic for me.
When you’re a chef, you’re an artist. There’s a lot of creativity. But there’s a lot of repetition, too. And as much as I understand the value of repetition in order to master a skill, this is not something that I wanted to do and I thought I could embrace and enjoy and have fun doing. I thought it was just going to kill me. Kill my soul.
The greatest chef I have ever worked with is … well, I’m not sure he’s the greatest, though he is great. But I loved working with Michel Roux Jnr, simply because he is a kind man. And you see, that’s what I remember. Talk about talent and all those things, I’m not interested in that. Everybody can cook an egg. I can cook an egg! But somebody who’s kind, for me, that’s the most important thing. I’m happy and proud that my daughter was at the Olympics [she finished seventh in the 10m diving]. But I’m more happy that she’s kind.
We don’t value hospitality in this country, that’s for sure. There’s a lot of examples to show that: it was labelled as low-skilled only recently. If you speak to a career adviser, they wouldn’t recommend hospitality as a career for kids. But it’s just incredible what you can do in hospitality. Also, it’s a meritocracy. That’s what I say when I do talks in catering colleges: if you work hard, you’re going to go all the way to the top. It’s your time now.
Part of me misses working day-to-day in a restaurant. But also, it was the right time for me when I stopped, just because I’ve had such a busy, busy time since then [with Channel 4’s First Dates and Gino, Gordon and Fred: Road Trip on ITV]. What’s important is whatever you do, you’ve got to do it well. And to do it well, you got to give it the time and the attention it requires. But you can’t be doing something for so long [being a maître d’hôtel] and just not miss it. So we’ll see what the future holds on that front. Certainly I’d love to get back on the horse.
I am the cook at home. I’m in charge of pleasure. My main cooking is French, of course, but I like to explore and do different things. I have been practising my curry goat in lockdown. And I have to say, it’s authentic Jamaican cooking. It’s a bold claim, but it’s true!
My favourite things
Oysters. Fat, rich, juicy Irish oysters. I love all oysters, but I had some Irish oysters recently and I have to say that they were bloody good.
I am biased to a good bottle of bordeaux. I recently had a Château Batailley 2014. That wine, oh my God. Bordeaux, when it’s well made, it’s just something else.
El Pirata in Mayfair. A lovely Spanish restaurant, I’ve been going there for more than 20 years now. It’s like a traditional French brasserie, but it’s Spanish, it’s tapas. Not chi-chi, not frou-frou, great service, and the food is as delicious as it ever was. It just ticks every box for me.