Chef Yes Chef (54 years and still Counting)

Chapter Twenty

Still in Norfolk - 2002 to 2005

2002, we’d been in Norfolk since 1998, for me that long in one place was a getting to be a long time, other than when I was growing up, I had not been anywhere for longer than 5 years and we were by now well into our 4th with no plans on going anywhere else for so many reasons not least because we both loved Norfolk. Business was also booming which helped dramatically. It’s quite easy to enjoy life when you’ve got some money in your pocket, but for me money is not enough, I need to be working, and I was, I had lots of work, for now anyway. Having money in my pocket was also a fairly new phenomenon for me, and given the amount we’d lost over the years in our various businesses, but more so in our failed London venture – thanks Jonathan Meades. Okay I know that it wasn’t just down to him, but he certainly played a very big part in us not succeeding. Had it not been for his callous and thoughtless intervention we may still have fallen but then again, with our natural tenacity, we may also have managed to survive. We had a great restaurant, okay not in the best of locations, but we were serving exceptional, yes, I do mean exceptional, food and we were being noticed and had good bookings. The thing we had against us was the cost of doing business back in the late eighties/early nineties and the astronomical interest rates at the time.  

But that was then this is now 2002, I’ve had a lot of work with the NHS, and am still working for them, I had a great contract with the railways that was still ongoing and I was pootling over to Holland every other month. I had a steady stream of smaller jobs coming in and I was still doing some work for Harrison Catering, I was also now writing a monthly 1500-word column in the EDP monthly Norfolk Magazine. I wrote my monthly piece for 3 years and towards the end of that term I got another column, this time in the Northern Echo in their supplement which I had for around 6 months. To cap it all I was living deep in the countryside, I had 2 great dogs with whom I went shooting most weeks and a great shoot in the south of the county that I was a member of. Great times.

My Publicity Photo from My Column in the “Norfolk”

Around March 2002 (boy this was a really busy year for us) we had been thinking of adopting as we had not been blessed with children in our 28 years of marriage but were unsure, would/could we cope, were we too old, could we really take on someone else’s child? 

It seemed at the time that our choice was either taking in teenagers who at the age of 16 years were just coming out of the care system and who needed homes (assisted lodgings) or volunteering to befriend disadvantaged children. We weren’t sure if we could cope with having our home invaded by a possibly unruly teenager so we decided to start to borrow someone else’s child for just a day at a time to see how we would get on. I think I had seen an advert – in the chippie actually – regarding looking after children whose parents needed respite from them, some time to themselves. So we looked into it.

The possibility back then was to have either a child from a disadvantaged background to become a friend and confident to, or a disabled child whose parents and family just needed a day off every now and then from caring on a regular basis. In no time at all we were approved to look after someone from care, the system changed to just disabled children.

We waited a few weeks before we were asked to look at several profiles and make a choice. One of these was a young lady, I use that term purposely, Louise, and we could not have been luckier. She was only 12 or 13 years old and suffered from cerebral palsy and had a mental age of about 5 but she was an absolute joy. She wore callipers on her legs (which she hated) and came with a wheelchair (which she was happier out of rather than in). Living in North Norfolk not too far from us with her mum and dad and two sisters, she seemed perfect for us. We agreed to have her once a fortnight to give her parents some much needed respite, which was more often than not every week rather than once a fortnight, and she changed our lives, for the better, she was such a joy to be with. Occasionally out shopping she would wander off, all we had to do is look around for someone smiling or laughing and looking down, that’s where Louise would be, making someone else happy.

She loved the 2p arcade machines, similar to the now well watched show “Tipping Point” these 2p machines, where you feed a never-ending stream of 2p pieces into the slot to try to push more out than you’ve deposited into the hungry monster, they were all she really wanted to do much of the time. We would save all our 2p’s up and exchange large denomination pieces of paper for more of them and she would stand for hours popping them in (and getting very few out again).

                                      Louise                                                   together in our kitchen at home, she liked to cook with me

In all we probably saw Louise for around 4 going on 5 years, until a little after Connor came into our lives but more about him later. I miss her to this day; she was always happy and helped keep us young and our feet on the ground.

Early in 2003 I started working with a small pub in North Norfolk, it was caught in a real time warp dating back to the 1970’s. Part of a small group they asked me to improve the menu, the food and whatever else needed doing, no small ask.  It wasn’t until I spent a day in the kitchen with the sole chef, a rather elderly lady who had been working there for many years and I don’t think she had cleaned the kitchen once in all her time there, it was a real shock to my sensitive eyes. The caked-on grease on the fryer was something to behold. Then one of the most bizarre things I have ever seen, the first job she did each morning was to throw out the pan of peas that had been on since the previous day and start a new pan. She put a large bag of frozen peas into a pan of water, cold water of course, then sat it on the edge of the solid top stove she had just put on (it was about 10am). It stayed there all day, literally, the pan never moved, if she ran out or was in danger of running out of peas (peas were of course on every plate as too were chips) before the end of the day she would just throw some more in. No, not into a clean pan, just into the one already there. By 9pm the resulting mush of greyness may have a few green spots in it if you were lucky but no matter the colour or texture they would still be served, then thrown away the following morning. They had some standards don’t you know! I did my best, I tried to change the menu and her way of thinking and understanding but we all know the old adage, you can’t teach an old dog new tricks! The owner and his wife were nice people though, can’t say that about the manager of the pub however.

In 2003 Jane had herself a big birthday and given the choice of going to see a friend in Bermuda or going to see one in New Zealand she chose to go on a holiday to see a very good friend of ours and someone we had relied upon very heavily back in our Canterbury days, David Spice. David was now back in his native New Zealand, working as a lecturer at Christchurch Catering College and now had a large family too. New Zealand had always been somewhere we wanted to go to but I for one was afraid that had we gone say 10 years or so earlier we would never have come back. It was great seeing David again and how well he was getting on and equally great to be in NZ, what a great place, within a day of being there I knew I was right, I didn’t want to return to the UK!

But we had to come back. As a sort of insurance policy, to make sure we returned and didn’t just end up staying out there, just before we went off on that holiday of a lifetime to the other side of the world, I had ordered myself a new car! Anyone would think we were rolling in money. The truth is we were okay but making up for what we had missed out on over the years. I’d been through quite a selection of motors since passing my test back in 1974. First a daffodil yellow Triumph Herald bought for £100, then a dark red Volkswagen Beetle in Germany bought for pennies, a Volkswagen Camper van which we brought back from over there full of our belongings on returning to the UK. Then a bright orange Nissan Sunny 120Y, then a Morris 1100 (this was a dreadful car), from that I got a New Ford Fiesta with my job as Head Chef at Eastwell, I once had 14 people in this to take them all down to the pub! Then when I left there and started up Restaurant 74 I bought a cheap, and falling to bits, Vauxhall Estate car which the floor was falling out of. I then got an old Range Rover and I loved that motor, I went everywhere in it, got stuck in fields occasionally, but always managed to get it out again but had to sell it when we were moving out of Canterbury into London as it was only doing 9 miles to the gallon around London! We then bought a new Volvo 740 Estate from the proceeds of selling Restaurant 74. This then went to Ireland with us but I managed to write that off! I then got an old Volvo 240, that was a real tank and I didn’t have it long before I was given a new Wentworth Edition Volvo 740 Estate by Wentworth when I started there. That was a lovely car but of course it had to go back when I left there. Jane bought a small 4 wheel drive, an Isuzu Trooper, we used that for a while before buying a 2nd hand Mitsubishi Shogun from one of our customers down in Southampton. A great car which we both enjoyed driving. I had built a set of drawers under a full size shelf in the back of the car so the dogs could go on top and the guns and paraphernalia could go out of site in the draw. On moving to Norfolk we needed a 2nd car so I got a rather old Peugeot 406 from Shaun’s neighbour which was a real dog, the car not the neighbour (although!), but it served a purpose for a while. I then chopped that in to get a Rover 820 in British Racing Green. I liked this car too, again a bit of a tank but good to drive and it cruised well on motorways and also had a great turn of speed, after that it was a Mercedes C180 Estate, basically I like big cars!

Anyway back to that new car, it was a brand new Land Rover Discovery XS 2.5lt diesel Auto, in dark green with walnut trim. Jane had already written off the Shogun unfortunately, not her fault I may add, a very old man, almost 90, ran into her side and pushed the car into a tree.

Just some of the cars we’ve had over the years

I was due to pick it up the day we returned from our New Zealand trip, something to look forward to, making sure we came back and didn’t just stay over there. Till then the best car I had ever owned, absolutely no doubt about it, a fabulous vehicle.

It was 2001 when I started working with Mark Herman and In House Catering and 2002 when they made me company Executive Chef, working on average 1-2 days per month which then built to more days as the months went on, then towards the end of 2002 I became Culinary Director with them on a much more full-time basis which meant I was in London 3 or 4 days a week normally. They were a great bunch of people to work with and for, they were only a small company of around 25 contracts in and around the city of London with some really good chefs in them. 

It was interesting work and good to be working around so many units, not tying myself to one place. Some of the chefs were also extremely good as were some of the clients too but as with everything there is good and not so good everywhere and unfortunately my time with them came to an end all too quickly when a new chairman was appointed and he and I never really hit it off so it was around late 2005 that I eventually left, again, sorry to be leaving them.

I was working with them when the London bombings happened at Kings Cross and the Bus just off Tavistock Square which killed 13. I was due to be in London on that day the 7th July 2005 but it was only two days to my birthday and we were planning on going away so I had decided to stay and work from home instead of going into London. The bus was only yards from one of our contracts and the chef from there was one of the first people on the scene. I just can’t even imagine how he coped after witnessing that horror.

In 2004 I was still doing some work with the railways, by now it was ONE not Anglia and in July, August and part of September of that year, 8 weeks in total, the Ipswich Tunnel was being closed to have works done on it to make it larger, which meant there would be no more trains direct to London from Norwich via Ipswich, the new route was to be via Cambridge until the tunnel works were completed. I managed to persuade them that they needed to keep their first-class passengers sweet during this time especially as the journey was now going to take at least 30 minutes longer. I proposed that they should have a breakfast tray and a dinner tray for every 1st class passenger in both directions each day, as a freebie. They agreed. I then got In House Catering to make up the individual trays each day at their biggest unit IEE and deliver them over to Liverpool Street station to the trains. Good business for me, In House, One, and their customers, everyone was a winner! I introduced a lot of new dishes onto their menus complete with specifications and photographs of the finished dishes and most of the time what was produced came relatively close to what I was trying to get them to do.

          Anglia Train Table Layout                New Dishes: Roast Rack of Lamb                         Stuffed Pork Fillet

In 2004 I got a consultancy job in Istanbul, that was exciting. A restaurant and brewery in Istanbul wanted to upgrade their menus and make them more European and exciting. The restaurant itself was in the centre of Istanbul and set over 4 floors with the kitchen in the basement and the bar on the ground floor and restaurant on the other two floors, the brewery was within the pub/restaurant with the start of the process at the top of the building and the beer tanks on show on the ground floor. I revamped their menu bringing in a whole raft of new dishes and ideas. It was exciting, working in a new country, where I could not speak the language and very few of those I was working with spoke English, oh I do like a challenge.

Thanks to our experiences with Louise in the Spring of 2003 Jane and I started the adoption process, Louise had shown us that yes, we could care for someone on a permanent basis and bring them into our lives and hopefully improve theirs. It was not an easy journey, nor should it be. It was intrusive, it was lengthy, oh so lengthy, it was arduous and involved a lot of soul searching and honesty being shared. We made friends with another couple on the same journey and in the end we succeeded.

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