Tell us about your childhood. “The one thing I never lacked was love and understanding – my Mum is amazing. We never felt deprived of anything even though we were clearly not staying in five-star hotels. But it’s not like my mates were doing that: we were all in the same situation, living on the same estate in Gloucester.
“It was just myself, my younger brother and Mum, who had two jobs. When she had to work in the evenings, I cooked for my brother. It wasn’t like I was making three-course gourmet meals; I was putting fish fingers under the grill, but it was the process of taking something, serving it and that sense of reward at the end – that you had made something – that I liked. I didn’t think then, ‘I’ll be a chef’, but I wasn’t scared to turn on the oven like some kids are.”
Tell us about your stint as a childhood actor and how you came to attend culinary school. “I left school at 15 but I did enjoy it – not because I was learning, but because it was a great place to hang around with mates. Acting was just something to do and quite good fun but not really me.
“I walked into a kitchen as an 18-year-old and started washing up. It was the industry I fell in love with: the guys in the kitchen, the front of house, the slightly left-field removed-from-society way of work, the fact that you’re still working Friday and Saturday nights and then getting up for Sunday breakfast, and in between that you still have a social life.
“People say social lives in the catering industry are rubbish but actually they’re by far the best, because you know all the places to go to, and get taken to them. It is slightly removed from society’s way of life but I like that, it feels like you’re looking in on everyone else while you’re getting on with life.”
You are known for serving traditionally British food. Does Britain still excite you? “God, yeah. It’s where I’m from and I’m proud of being British. We are lucky we have four defined seasons, which makes a difference to food. The vegetables change, moving from spring asparagus, to summer strawberries, to winter root vegetables, and so does the style of cooking: from slower-cooked braised dishes, to quicker-cooked fish dishes.”
Your pub, The Hand & Flowers, was awarded a Michelin star within a year of opening in 2015, and is the only one in Britain to have two. How does that feel? “To have the first pub to achieve a two-star status is groundbreaking for Michelin and for us, but, more importantly, I think it sent a message around the world that the British food scene is alive, vibrant and kicking.
“People in Hong Kong know who we are; we have been invited all over the world, to cook in the United States, Asia and Europe. It is a magnificent statement for great British food and an understanding that the pub isn’t about being a top-end restaurant that could be anywhere in the world, it is generic to being British, like French bistros or Spanish tapas bars. It has a vibe and a feeling.”
You’ve been quoted as saying you’re “not a Michelin star kind of guy”. Can you elaborate? “What I meant was we don’t do pre-starters, pre-desserts, formal tablecloths, napkins or have waiters putting things over your lap when you sit down. What we do is run a professional service that is warm, friendly and incredibly knowledgeable.
“Thirteen years ago, people’s perception of what a Michelin star meant was very different to what it is now. There are now hawker stalls in Singapore and Hong Kong that have Michelin recognition. There has been a big change in understanding that it’s about food consistency, heart and soul, rather than just a posh environment.”
What was the inspiration for your 2017 cookbook Lose Weight for Good? “As a chef and a face, people have seen my change in physical form over the past five years [Kerridge, who peaked at 190kg, now weighs 114kg]. [With this book], I could add my own feelings and understanding of the psychology of losing weight, and focus on flavour: on what you can eat, not what you can’t.
“When I looked at low-calorie recipes they were poor, the flavours were rubbish. That is why people yo-yo in and out of diets, because it becomes something that is painful for a small amount of time and then they go back to what they were doing. I wanted to focus on lower-calorie food that tastes great, so it naturally becomes part of people’s diets.”
So the book isn’t focused on your own weight-loss journey? “No, but the mentality and ethos are the same. If you are a 40-year-old overweight male being told how to lose weight by a 22-year-old six-pack gym instructor, it is so far removed from where you are that you think you will never get there. You feel like you’re up against a mentality. To be helped and pointed in the right direction by someone who has been there, is still there and has the same mentality, is key.”
What’s the best meal you’ve ever had, and where do you like to eat? “After work in Singapore four or five years ago, I was sat at three in the morning in an alley, nicknamed ‘Rat Alley’, on some plastic stools with two chefs and an amazing restaurateur. There were six of us sitting around ordering food from a street guy, and some of it was mind-blowingly good.
“I am fortunate to have eaten in so many places, but [Heston Blumenthal’s] The Fat Duck is very special. It’s a magical place, a little bit like the Disneyland of restaurants. I’ve never been to Japan, and would love to go and eat amazing tempura. The only problem I have is a shellfish allergy and I can’t speak Japanese, so I’m a little nervous.”
What advice do you have for young chefs? “Never give up. It’s incredibly hard work but it is one of the most exciting, vibrant, incredible, amazing industries to be in. The world of chefs when I first started was so much smaller and no one spoke to each other, but now it’s a very open community, so make the most of it and see, travel and eat as much as you can.
“Social media has had a big impact on the younger generation of chefs. Before you would hear about restaurants and wait and buy their cookbook to see pictures of the food, because you couldn’t afford to eat there. Now you can experience restaurants on your phone and that makes a big difference.”
Tom Kerridge was in Hong Kong last month for the Great Festival of Innovation.