Chef Yes Chef (54 years and still Counting)

Chapter Sixteen 

Southampton, here we come

I felt like I had let a lot of people down when I left Wentworth even though it was not really my fault that I had gone. Well maybe it was, partially, as I would have gone of my own accord soon enough anyway but I had still left a lot of good people behind, as I had done at Flitwick too if I’m honest. I was recently reminded of Shaun Smith Roberts again as he came to join me at Flitwick after leaving Ireland. While I have not written much about Shaun up till now he is due to feature again, quite prominently later, both in this chapter and the next! 

Towards the end of my days at Wentworth Jane was working as a sort of company F&B manager for Queensborough Holdings, they owned Holiday Parks, Camber Sands, Hunstanton and others and Martin Truscott, who previously was the Finance Director for our restaurant in London was now Finance Director for Queensborough Holdings. Jane worked directly for them for a while traveling between sites – big distances. I too tried helping them out but what I/we did and what they needed were light years apart. 

So here we were again, it’s now mid to late 1994 I think and once again I am looking for a job! Martin, told us about a pub QH also owned down on a Marina in Hythe on the opposite side of the Solent to Southampton. They were not into pubs unless they were on their holiday parks and this one, they simply did not know what to do with it, they couldn’t shift it as they were locked into a long lease. Did I fancy taking that on? So off we went down to Hythe to have a look. 

This pub, The Lock & Quay, was in the middle of a very smart residential marina development owned and run by MDL (Marina Development Ltd). It consisted of a few hundred houses of various sizes each one with its own private mooring right outside their door. At the hub of the marina there was an Italian Restaurant, a convenience store, a chandlers, offices, a boat selling business, and the pub. The pub looked directly over the marina, was flanked on two sides by a raised deck, and had water on two sides, lovely position. 

Inside though it was dire, dark, dingy, dated and dirty the 4 d’s, but we could see what we could do with it. It also had a bit of a reputation locally as a drug dealers paradise, there were enough dark and dingy corners in the place for all sorts of nefarious activities to take place unnoticed. It was well known in the area for drug dealing, easy to see why, but we could easily solve that.

While it was quite large downstairs it was even larger still upstairs where it had a whole new floor that also included a commercial kitchen and a balcony that ran the length of the building, behind that it also had a two bedroomed flat, very handy!

Jane had worked in a pub or two over the years and I had been in plenty but neither of us had ever run one before. Neither of us had tapped a barrel or cleaned the pipes so that side was going to be a learning curve.

Our idea was to turn the place into a Brasserie. It would have a slight nautical theme, silly not to really and we would change its name form the Lock & Quay to The Boathouse. So we struck a deal with Martins employers and took the plunge. We would set it up and run it like it was ours, they would foot the bills, and we would get paid, win win!

I knew a good designer and Martin knew someone good with PR. In just a few short weeks we transformed the place from dark & dingy to bright and cheerful with bargees festooning the place and pictures of sailing yachts adorning the walls, so The Boathouse Brasserie was born:

Gareth and Cathal joined me in the kitchen from Wentworth and I took on a young local lad called Sam. The staff downstairs were all local and to start with all women, the likes of Debi, now in Canada, Linda, and Beth and many more. We put lovely wooden tables and chairs outside, had a few bar stools around the bar but the rest of the ground floor was set for dining. It was food I was interested in selling not beer! The locals that came in to begin with were the ones we inherited and among them there were some really lovely people. There are of course always exceptions and thankfully the druggies and dealers never returned. We very quickly built-up a following too, they would travel from quite a distance as well which is always gratifying. 

I was getting back to cooking and serving good food, simpler than I had done previously and definitely the way forward. Casual, inexpensive and innovative cooking, just what I needed to do. 

Dishes from our menus at The Boathouse

The day-to-day pub customers did not really get what we were trying to do, they pretty much only saw the pub as a pub but were glad we had smartened it up. Less glad when it seemed over run with dining customers instead of drinkers but hey, there was a happy medium to be struck here. We did of course have some locals that really appreciated what we were doing on both counts, Colin and Yvonne were a couple that stood out as too did John and Dianne. We still kept the pub element and the locals feel, it needed to be retained as it was the pub for the marina. I stocked real beers that were locally made alongside the more bog-standard beers and lagers. Mick who came in most nights, sat on the same seat every night and said very little having recently had a stroke and could hardly talk but was a very nice chap and we made sure we looked out for him. Ken a retired airline pilot got me into fly fishing, a hobby I have kept up to this day and loved from day one, thanks for that Ken. Many of the regulars were only so when they were on the marina because for many it was a 2nd home, Marcus and Judy spring to mind who lived just outside Bicester for instance. Many of course were retirees or had made their money and now preferred sailing to working. 

One chap Ian, a Scotsman, was rumoured to be an arms dealer, and he certainly was something along those lines, lived on the marina, had an office in Southampton and seemed to spend a lot of his time in the middle east. We got on really well and for a while he very nearly bankrolled us to buy a small country house hotel but in the end it never came off, definitely for the best. There was one time we had flown up to Scotland from Southampton to look at a property then flew back into Gatwick. Ian had arranged his driver to pick us up at the airport in his roller, he had a lot of cards, collected them, some beauties too. On the journey back to Southampton we drank two bottles of champagne which just happened to be chilling in the car, both of us were totally pissed by the time we got back. Just as well we never did buy anywhere!

One of our best customers were Gareth’s parents, Geoff & Lorraine and they became good friends too. Geoff had just recently set up on his own, he had been in contract catering pretty much all of his working life and now set up his own catering company, Harrison Catering which is still going strong today with Gareth and his sister Claire running it, a real success story. 

It was a great kitchen to work in as it looked out over Southampton water, we were opposite the Cunard berth so whenever the QE2 was in she was directly opposite us and there was always something interesting to see out of the kitchen windows day and night. Cowes week was always a good time to be there as it was extremely busy.

We also won a fist full of awards while we were there. I remember the AA inspector coming in the first time, although we had not clocked him, he called me over once he had eaten and paid and was very complimentary, so I awaited the outcome with baited breath. When that eventually came through, I was apoplectic with rage, one bloody rosette! ONE! I opened the box with the plate in it and was about to smash it up, return it to its box and post it back to them, what an insult! Jane stopped me, I wish she hadn’t! The following year a different AA Inspector visited, again we did not clock him and again he called me down after paying. His first words were, “I have to apologise to you Mr McAndrew, how you were only awarded 1 rosette I don’t know I am really sorry but I guarantee that this time you are going to get 2” Even two I felt was one light! Still, it was twice as good as the previous year I guess. I have to say I have felt this way about the AA every year before and since, not just this one!

More dishes from The Boathouse

We were serving some great food there, with the really good team I was once again blessed with. I also had a young chef who used to come to us almost every week for a good while to do a one day a week stage in my kitchen, a stage in the culinary world is to work for free to gain experience in another chef’s kitchen for a while, a practice that is carried out in well-respected kitchens of well-known chefs around the world. A stage can be any time between one day and 2 years, the big names have wannabee’s queuing up to do a stage. Simon, his parents owned a country pub not too far away, was mad keen to gain extra experience. While it was not new for me to have people do a stage with me it had been a long time since it had happened. 

Many of the recipes in my 3rd book were on the menu at The Boathouse but despite the great food we were turning out I still felt we were not really getting the recognition we should have, or deserved. Yes, we went on to gain Hampshire Brasserie of the Year in the Good Food Guide. The following year we were awarded 5/10 in the Good Food Guide and 2 rosettes from the AA but this was still less than I’d previously had. 

Like always we had our fair share of trauma too. We had a young Australian girl come and work for us, Kerri, all bright and bubbly, butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth. It soon transpired though she couldn’t tell the truth, about anything! She also liked to play games with people, she and Sam ended up going out together but Sam bless him (sorry Sam), was very gullible back then and she turned him against us, against Jane in particular, so much so he almost attacked Jane with a knife, but thankfully after a short falling out he saw the error of his ways, and to this day remains a dear friend. Then one day shortly after New Year, and after she had upset a large number of our good customers we found out she’d tried to forge a cheque, her wages cheque, yep, before bank transfers that’s how we paid people, she tried to falsify the cheque by adding an extra 1 in front meaning the cheque was now worth £1000+ pound instead of the £100+ pounds it had been made out for, then she had forged Janes handwriting to add in the words “One Thousand” in front of what Jane had written, luckily enough we found out before it made its way to a bank. After she was (obviously) sacked and presumably returned to OZ we found out from her boyfriend at the time that she had stolen a cheque from the middle of his cheque book (so he would not notice it in time) and cashed it, made out to herself for the sum of £900, having forged his signature.

Then there was the head waiter we took on, Laurent. He came to us from Mauro Bregoli who had a fabulous restaurant in Romsey, The Old Manor House. He was okay, originally from Alsace he really didn’t seem to know if he was German or French. He had the confidence of both but probably erred more towards to his Germanic side no matter how French he wanted to be. Any way, he had been off for a week or so’s holiday and the day he returned to work it was our turn and we headed out for a few days away, leaving him in charge. When I say a few days away I mean about 3 possibly 4, a really long break for us back then. We got back on the Sunday night and came into work on the Monday morning. Laurent was off for the next three days. He needed the break as he had covered us for 4 days!

First thing that Monday morning Customs & Excise came knocking. They do that, just turn up out of the blue, looking to do a weights and measures test. No worries though we were totally legal and above board. One of the series of tests they do is they check your bottles of spirits; do you have in the bottle what it says it is on the label? E.g. is that Gordons in the Gordons bottle, is that Grouse in the Grouse bottle and so on. All good until she said, “can I look in your bottle store”, “of course, no problem”. “Okay I am sorry but I need to take a sample of this bottle of Vodka on the optic away for analysis”. “Why”? “Because it says Smirnoff on the bottle but I’m afraid it is not Smirnoff in the bottle”!

Every proprietary brand has a marker in them identifying them, so the likes of HMC&E can tell exactly what brand each one is. Who knew? I didn’t! A week or so later the results came back. Luckily enough for us, while they could tell me that it was vodka in the bottle, they were unable to tell me which vodka it was, not only that but they were unable to exactly quantify the alcohol content accurately enough but it was greater than 40%. 

Had they been able to determine either of these accurately then we would there and then have lost our licence and probably never have gotten it back again for a serious breach of licencing laws. We bought all our spirits from Cash & Carry in Southampton, always. The only explanation we had or could come up with was that while we were away Laurent had either cut the vodka bottle with another blend or replaced it totally with a blend brought in from outside the country. He must then have been pocketing the proceeds of all vodka sales for those days we were away. We had no defence in law as he was not there when the inspection took place and had not been there since the day prior so we had no way of proving it was not us but rather him to blame. We came so very close to losing our livelihood, careers, accommodation, income, reputations, everything, thanks to us wanting a coupe of days off. Had it not been for the Customs & Excise visit we would never have known we were being fleeced. I remain as angry with him today as I was back then.

It is one thing to talk about the bad un’s that we unwittingly employed but the good ones often get forgotten, one of these was Rosie! Rosie, because his surname was Rose. He was a shunt train driver at the oil refinery down the road at Fawley. He applied to us as a part time pot washer, he was brilliant. He didn’t take the job because he needed the money in fact I wouldn’t be surprised if he never actually opened a pay packet. He did it because I think he was bored at work, I didn’t care I wanted more like him, he was awesome, a great guy that just got on and did the job, never stood around, never complained except when there was nothing for him to do, came to work when he was needed, never missed a day, just did a great job every time.

Once again, I was getting itchy legs, Southampton was not enough for me, we’d been there 4 years, I didn’t know what would be enough but Southampton was not it any more. I remember Gareth told me he was leaving, he was off to join Nigel Howarth, I was devastated. Thankfully his northern sojourn did not last long and he came back! It was around the time Gareth returned that I got a call from the publishers Littlebrown, they had taken over the rights to my previous 2 books, did I want to write another book? Possibly fish again?  Too bloody right I did!

So along with running the brasserie and cooking there I started to write another book. Around the same time, Shaun, who I mentioned at the beginning of the chapter got in touch. He had had an idea, pretty unique one at the time. This would now be around late 1997, early 1998. Computers were starting to make a bigger mark in the world as too was the internet, or at least I had started to notice they were. Shaun was well into them and really seemed to know what he was doing and I had only recently started using them more and actually had an email address! His idea was to start an online food/recipe/supplier/produce web site. One where anyone could log on to and learn about anything food related. Aimed not only at chefs but the public in general, anyone that cared about or wanted to know anything about food. The idea was to offer information on all manner of food related subjects in what, at the time, would have been known as a magazine format.

The Repertoire Logo

I have always been a sucker for new ideas and I loved this, I didn’t need to understand how computers worked, that was Shaun’s domain, mine was to provide content, recipes, articles, content on all things foody.

With this idea and the fact that I had just been commissioned to write a new book and the thought that along with this web site we could also set up a consultancy business it seemed like the perfect opportunity to leave The Boathouse behind and branch out on a new career.

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