Chef Yes Chef (54 years and still Counting)

Chapter Twenty Two

2005 - 2007 Our Last Years in Norfolk

As 2005 rolled on I still had a fair bit of work and over the years had worked for all sorts of businesses and some great people. Joe Speroni of Just Joes in Nine Elms, London, an outside catering business producing mainly office meals like sandwiches, buffets, finger buffets, hot meals, he wanted to expand and improve what they were doing. Rossi’s Leisure Centre in Norfolk where they wanted to improve the food they were offering in their restaurant/coffee shop. I worked a lot with Norfolk college and even Stamford College too. I was running the Master Chefs of Great Britain Apprenticeship Scheme for a while, and this involved a huge amount of driving as I had apprentices to visit from Grasmere to Dartmouth, London to Birmingham, they were somewhat spread out. 

The travelling was really getting to me especially as I was travelling up and down to London up to 5 days a week both for the railway and for In House Catering. I was really stretching myself very thinly.

I did some work for a girls school in Monmouth, a vineyard in Hampshire and a fruit juice company in London, new salad concepts for a business in Portsmouth trying to get an M&S contract, a coffee company in Croydon and even some work for Anton Mosimann too. So it was very wide and varied, I was still working for the railways but it was now ONE not Anglia as the franchise had changed. The work was extremely diverse and spread out around the country.

Come early 2006 there was a little less work around, my own fault, I was enjoying life in Norfolk, with Jane & Connor and our 4 dogs. Shooting every weekend for the last 5 months, just generally having a good time. I was not bothered about chasing work. But I still needed it, and the money.

As 2006 went on work became scarcer, this happened for a short while around 2001 until I realised I had to pull my finger out and get out and find more. This time however I was finding it a tad more difficult. I guess my heart and mind were not really on it. I know I was starting to get a bit bored with consultancy, the problem with it was that there was not enough satisfaction to be had from it as at the end of the day it was sole destroying, as much as you could tell and show people what to do, they didn’t have to take any notice, in fact the majority of the time they didn’t take any of the advice they were paying for. The old adage definitely rings true – you can take a horse to water but you can’t make it drink.

It must have been December 2006, possibly January 2007, I was off to London again, I normally got up around 5.30am, left the house at about 6am to get to the train for around 6.40am. It was really cold and icy this particular Wednesday morning. The car, as it was in the garage, started first time and off I set, the car soon got warm and I just drove as normal. Until that is, I must have gone round a slight bend that I had been round so many times before just too fast for the road conditions, I lost control of the car. It was one of the single-track roads only around 3 miles from our house. I hit the bank on my right, it tipped the car forward, bearing in mind here I am driving a Land Rover Discovery. The car ended up somersaulting forward, it went over a ditch behind the bank and cleared the barbwire fence beyond that and came to a stop on all four wheels about 15 – 20 yards in a field. I have never heard of anybody having managed to somersault a disco before but I managed it – perfectly.

I was not wearing my seat belt.

As the car was obviously going to crash and there was nothing I could do to prevent it, I braced my legs to the right on the door, to the left on the centre console, I locked my arm to my right on the door jamb and to the left I could only hang on to the steering wheel for dear life. I don’t remember the somersault but I remember the landing, with a thump and my briefcase flying around and its contents, (it must have sprung open) laptop included going off in all directions. 

I eventually and somewhat groggily, got out of the car into the field and found myself surrounded by 20 or so sheep looking at me rather strangely. The car was in a bad way, the top corner above my head was caved in, the windscreen and the driver’s door window were both smashed, there was smoke and steam everywhere. Once I had determined that I had not landed on and killed any of the unprepared sheep I gathered all my bits, as best as I could in the pitch dark, and tried to exit the field on foot. 

It would have been difficult enough in daylight but in the dark it was even more so. I was freezing cold and couldn’t find a gate to climb so I had to resort to try climbing over the barbed wire fence with my briefcase. Not easy, it was quite high, but I eventually got over. Then up the bank and onto the road, only to immediately fall right on my arse! The road was just a sheet of ice, I couldn’t stand up, no matter how hard I tried I just couldn’t stand, I had to crawl on all fours to the roadside and try to stand up in the thick grass. I couldn’t walk on the road so I had to start walking back home on the grass verge, not easy. I’d walked about a mile when someone stopped and gave me a lift the rest of the way. By now it was just about daylight and as we pulled up Jane came to the door and Connor looked out of the upstairs window. I must have been a right sight. My overcoat covered in blood, my right ear close to coming off, my face covered in blood, quite a shock for the family.

We got Connor off to school then went to the local hospital, while I was there, I got a telephone call from the police asking me if I knew my car was stood in a field and in a pretty bad way. The farmer had phoned it in and they thought it best to check on me before getting the helicopter and possibly the dogs out to look for me, especially as they had found blood on the road! I think they were afraid they’d find me dead in a ditch somewhere.

The search then had to start for a replacement car. A bit of advice, if you write your car off and the insurance make you an offer of payment, reject it, and hold out for the amount you know your car was worth, do not be bullied by them. They offered my less than half my car would have been worth on the open market but I held out and kept rejecting their offers until they came up with the figure I was expecting. I could do this because I did my research. I found as many examples as I could of cars as close as possible to the same spec as mine, i.e model, colour, spec, age and mileage. And provided the insurance company with them all, I then managed to get them to pay me the average price being asked for this type of vehicle. It took a long time though; we all know they don’t like parting with money.

For many years, since at least 1992, we had been looking for an hotel to buy, to get away from restaurants and being a chef, I wanted to be a hotelier, even while we were in Ireland, actually before that, while we were in London, before we opened 116. My search had never stopped, only slowed down. Now even more than ever this is what I wanted. I’d looked all over, across England, Scotland, Wales, and Eire but not found the one or the one I could afford. I had to try harder! So in 2007 I started looking with more intensity than ever before.

We looked at hotels and properties that could be potentials all over, we offered on a few but were never successful, none of which in hindsight I’m sad about not getting. 

I was still working with In House Catering but that too was looking like it would not have much longer to run which saddened me. 

A small hotel/catering group in Norfolk were looking for a Food & Beverage Director, they had a couple of hotels and had just taken on a new one which they were busy refurbishing and were looking to open a new food concept in it so I applied and got the job. I had by now stopped working with In House and the lack of the salary from there really bit into our finances, this Job in Norwich, while it went some way towards what I had given up with In House was really only paying a pittance in comparison. 

This was also a really tough job for what was, on the whole, unappreciative owners. It was a family affair, with father at the head, mother and daughter were involved as too was the son. He, the son, was the main lead on the new venture, or at least liked to portray himself as such, but I much preferred the daughter and her father, both much nicer human beings. We got the new hotel and restaurant staffed and up and running and although my role was meant to encompass all aspects to the F&B across the company I got stuck at the new hotel. Along with the manager (Elliot) they had on board. We hired a whole brigade of chefs and restaurant staff and between us we got the hotel not only up and running but also doing very well. It took superhuman effort on behalf of most of the staff and many of them were awesome, there were hiccups as you’d expect but on the whole, we had a good crew that worked their nuts off while the owners pushed numbers ever higher day after day. Quality was not an issue, covers and turnover were. What things cost what we sold them for and how many people came through the doors, a number that seemed had to increase day on day, no let up. Given that I had strived the majority of my working life for quality over everything else this was a real eye opener for me. No matter how hard everyone grafted yesterday they were expected to work harder today and then even harder tomorrow.

I was called up for jury duty. This was the second time I had been called but managed to get out of the first one while in Southampton as I was self-employed. This time around I did not have that excuse as for the first time for many years I was fully employed and on PAYE. Also, if I remember rightly, you cannot be excused twice. So I accepted the call up. My employers were livid, they told me point blank that I could not go, I would not get paid if I went, it would be classed as unpaid unsanctioned leave if I did it. So I did it, happily and enthusiastically, I did my duty.

I’m glad I did do it, it was a fascinating experience, despite it being gruesome I enjoyed the process. It was a three-day rape trail and we found the accused guilty. In the end it cost me my job though, not that I minded really, I never was a very good employee and I was not enjoying the job either! 

Luckily, I still had some bits of work on going, I was still going over to Holland, and one or two other jobs I picked up but where I scored was I had more time and more impetus to find an hotel to buy now!

Over the space of about 3 months, I looked at a lot of properties, all over the country but more in Scotland than anywhere else as they were the cheapest. We both liked Scotland, I of course had already worked up there for some time, we had honeymooned up here, and am at least 1/3rd Scottish apparently, too according to my DNA. I think I went up twice in early 2007, about 5 days at a time viewing places for sale. 3 were in Dumfries and Galloway, one of them of great interest to me, the others not so. Jane and I went up to see the one I was interested in but the owners were playing at selling I think and their asking price was way too high so in the end we had to walk away from it, all for the best I think in the end as I do not think it would have suited us at all.

The day we got back home I got an email flyer from Christies with a property that had just come to market and it looked to be a prefect matched for what we were looking for. So that was me, back in the car driving up to Scotland again only 2 days after we got back.

It took a lot of travelling around but by mid July 2007 we had made an offer and had it accepted on a small country house hotel in South West Scotland.

We managed to scrape together enough for us to get the rest on a bank loan by cashing in what I could from my pension, premium bonds etc and still had enough left over to ensure we could operate for 4 – 6 months if things went badly, yep once again we were under funded, by who said it ought to be easy? If it’s not difficult is it really worth doing? We were about to find out.

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