“I was born in Portsmouth, a navy brat. But we never had exotic postings, we always ended up in places like Plymouth and Faslane in Scotland. I did spend a lot of time in Weymouth as a youngster. I remember Weymouth very distinctly as a summer place with peeling paint and windswept sand blown streets My mother was German born, married my father after the war, he was a Yorkshire man. And in deference to her continental background, he would let her keep the rural Germanic traditions in the house. We celebrated Christmas Eve, for instance. Food wise, my dad had grown up with a very austere Yorkshire kind of diet. He quite welcomed the flamboyant variety of food that he was not used to. So I grew up taking a lunch box to school with things like rye bread with cream cheese and salami and a gherkin, which got a lot of strange looks from people who had a jam sandwich and a cold sausage.
After that I went to Scotland. My dad helped build Dreadnought, England’s first nuclear sub. We lived in a small cottage where we ate very much the Scottish traditions of sausage and soda farls and all these other delicacies. But my greatest food memory, certainly from that era, was when my dad was doing torpedo trials. We lived with a Scottish lady who would always give us venison and that was my first taste of venison. I suspect it was poached because a man came to the door with a brown paper parcel under each arm and I think a sixpence or a shilling, passed between them. And my father asked the lady after a while, what was in the other parcel. She eventually admitted it was salmon and when my father asked if we could have some she said, “Commander, fish is not fit food for man.” And that shocked me because we’d always regarded fish as absolutely acceptable. When I was about 10 she gave me a shotgun. This was at an age when I wasn’t even allowed an air rifle by my parents. She told me to go and hunt for rabbit up the glen at the back. And I just thought I was in heaven. She was a widow woman and she thought it was a man’s job to bring home the rabbit for the pot.
I remember good food on board ship, I had my first fillet of beef carved at a function. And although forces cooking has always got the billycan reputation, the officer’s mess was pretty damn good. It was the era of sherry and canasta. I remember the sea being frozen over and the postmen bringing the mail over on a sledge, those were very innocent days of growing up.
And then it was boarding school in Wiltshire. I belonged with the crowd that had a good time and partied, and I was actually expelled from there. I was never academically brilliant, I scraped by. In the ‘50s, I remember my father went to Trinidad on a trip and he sent us back a crate of fresh grapefruit, which I’d never had. I think it was one of my earlier taste epiphanies, a fresh grapefruit. And he brought back Calypso music and a whole waft of exotica, and suddenly at the parties, there was still sherry, but also cocktails. Suddenly there was limbo dancing – my mother’s friends in slacks and beehive hairstyles doing limbo.
I suppose the food influence was always there, because my mother came from very much a peasant background. They believed that if you didn’t have art on the walls or silver on the table, even if you were of quite poor means you could demonstrate hospitality by the stiffness of the drink and the size of the portion on your plate. So there was always this philosophy in our house that all was well if your fridge was full. I learnt a lot of my early cooking hints from my German grandmother. I had oxtail and neck of lamb years before it ever became, in modern British terms, fashionable.
I had kids very young and went to Oxford and worked on a rose growing plantation. With my first born on the way I decided that I had to do something settled and sensible. I had a vision of going to work in publishing. In the ‘vision’ I would be sitting in a tweed suit with a bow tie flicking through the odd manuscript, sipping cognac, smoking cigars and occasionally going out for very long lunches. But I worked for Robert Maxwell, so it was anything but. It was a sausage factory of production. Maxwell, as we know, was quite an entrepreneurial character. He had a lot of agendas that we didn’t know about at the time. But we did regard him as a rather charismatic figure. I was involved with the NUJ at the time and came across him, as it were, head to head at the negotiating table, and he was a man who was not to be trusted – which we found out in much later years was par for the course.
Then I went to work on one of Richard Desmond’s music magazines and I went from moving typography around a page at the desk one day, to sitting at Monterey Jazz Festival the next day drinking beer in the sunshine and thinking, “This is it.” Because I’d always been a music fan. So suddenly I was having supper at a table with Peter Tosh, Rory Gallagher from Taste and all my kind of childhood heroes. I then moved to the advertising side which didn’t sit well with me because I had to wear a suit. I went from one extreme to the other.
After that I helped start an outside catering company. We worked on a few feature films. I remember doing the War Requiem particularly. The young German soldier was an unknown called Sean Bean. The nurse was Tilda Swinton, she was quite mesmerising. The old soldier was played by Lawrence Olivier. My infamous part in it all was that after a late shoot in Kent, we were in some chalk pit which was made to mimic part of the First World War trenches, we had a late break where I cooked something, I think it was a shepherd’s pie. It was a typical paper plate and plastic fork kind of job, and he died that night and all the crew teased me mercilessly saying that I’d killed England’s best actor of the 20th century.
Around then I teamed up with a chap I had worked on a commercial with and we became the Cooking Duo. That was the Nosh Brothers. The idea was that we were going to try and create a stir in an industry that had become a little bit above itself. We regarded the world of food as rather over embellished. We’d just come into a recession where we couldn’t afford to eat out how we’d like to.
Marco Pierre White was the new enfant terrible. People were still speaking French in kitchens and as non-trained chefs, but what we call good eaters, we couldn’t understand why this was. We started the restaurant, in ’92, ’93, in Fulham and had an influx of chefs who came from New Zealand and Australia. We had to close in ’96 because I had a bad car accident so it was impossible for me to continue in the kitchen. And we realised that, rather than get other people in who would not follow our style, we would rather close and go elsewhere. So we opened up in All Saint’s Road after that.
And the whole Nosh philosophy was all about robust cooking and getting away from the needless frills that we paid through the nose for. We had a very mixed bunch. There were a lot of rock ‘n rollers, a lot of actors. And minor royalty. We had engagement dinners with Viscount Linley and would tease him to see if he could sort our chairs out. I used to feed lunch to Laurie Lee who wrote Cider with Rosie. It wasn’t quite Chelsea Arts Club, and it wasn’t quite some of the nightclubs but it was a strange mix. We had a lot of fun. One day we were arrested by the Special Branch for trying to depose the King of Tonga. That was the sort of mad thing we used to do. He was losing weight and planning to democratise the island so we wrote a letter to him saying, “Obviously becoming thinner, as your girth diminishes you are losing the grip on your kingdom. So because we have more massive girth than you, we would ask you to desist, cease and abdicate in favour of us. If girth is a mark of nobility, then we would like to take over.” Special Branch swooped in to check us out. We ceased the partnership around the millennium as I had become ill with diabetes. So I decided I had to click down a gear which is how I came back to the country. After writing the Eat Dorset book I cooked at The Fox Inn at Corscombe and would have stayed there if I hadn’t become ill. I think I mourn for my lost cooking activity, but then I’ve done a hell of a lot. So it’s not like I’m clamouring to get back. It’s a hot sticky old environment, the kitchen. I am nearer 60 then 50 these days so I’m allowed to slow down. As I put on my Facebook page: ‘People always remembered me as the short cropped haired chef, now I am the slightly sort of eccentric furniture restorer.’ But I don’t want to lose touch with food and people, because that is where my passion is”.