Chef Yes Chef (54 years and still Counting)

Chapter Nine

My First Book, A Feast of Fish, is Published

It was about the October before the book was published, but there it was, on the bookshelves in shops up and down the country. I can’t describe the feeling I got walking into a book shop and seeing it there, it was mind blowing.

Then there was the whirlwind that was the promotional tour of the country, from Glasgow to Southampton and lots of places in between, I was being flown from here to there and everywhere, appearing in bookshops up and down the land doing little cookery demos in said shops and signing copies. I ended up in Glasgow to do a lunchtime TV slot, the dish I was doing required the oven. My piece was in danger of overrunning and the presenter was dragging me around the kitchen on live TV trying to speed things up. I ended up taking the tray out of the oven with my bare hands as there was no cloth near me, burnt the hell of me but hey that’s live TV for you.

I was on local TV in Kent doing interviews and cooking some fish, it was a real whistle stop exciting time and I was becoming quite the celebrity for a while and of course I loved it! I was in magazines and newspapers for weeks and now have cuttings galore of the press the book got. While we never made it to the best sellers list the book did receive great reviews and was well received by both the general public and chefs alike. We sold a lot of copies and it stayed on the shelves of book shops for 13 years before being discontinued in favour of my 3rd book. 13 years is not a bad run! It was of course quickly followed by its paperback version the following year which also sold extremely well, we also sold lots through the restaurant. 

Caterer Magazine Cover

Front Cover of A Feast of Fish

We had an incredibly loyal and regular clientele at 74, some lovely people many of which we are still in touch with today some 40 years later. So loyal in fact that many came quite a distance to eat with us and incredibly regular too. It wasn’t long before I started up our cookery class. This came about when I started selling our Veal Jus by the pint to some of the keen cooks that used to frequent us. Fully reduced ready to use Veal Jus I was selling in milk bottles at £4 a pint – ridiculously cheap for what it was.

The classes used to take place on a Saturday morning once a month and after the first one the next 6 were fully booked the same day all with the same people. If you gave up your place one month, you may have been on holiday, had a death in the family, taken ill yourself, it didn’t matter, there was no way you would ever get your place back again. I only took 6 people at a time as there was no room for any more. It was a demonstration only, no hands on, I would demonstrate and make 6 portions of each of 3 dishes, starter, main and dessert each time. The 6 would then sit down and have these for lunch. I know it was a long time ago now but for £35 per person a 2 hour or so demo and three course lunch, with wine, now that is what you call value for money!

It was also around this time that I had an idea, the food I was producing was bringing with it a fair amount of off cuts that were not getting used, meat, fish, vegetables, nothing wrong with any of it I guess it was just a sign of the times. I trimmed the whole fillets down to the size I wanted on the plate therefore had perfectly good fillet trim left over, I pared vegetables down and had trim left, I was buying chickens and using the breasts and the carcasses and sometimes, but not always, the legs, same too with game birds. There were only so many terrines and pates and mousses one could make and use. So, my idea was, what about opening a brasserie, and using these less than prime cuts and trim there?

At the time we had a couple used to come to us that had a shoe shop in St. Peters St., in Canterbury. They were moving to the States I think it was and they convinced me that the building they were in would make a great restaurant.

Coincidentally at the same time we knew a chef who had gone over to the dark side and become an Egon Ronay inspector but was looking to return to the kitchen. The two things coming together as they did seem to be perfect timing so we thought we would give it a go, but more about that in the next chapter.

1987, about 6 months prior to my first book being published, I was to be awarded Chef Laureate of the British Academy of Gastronomes, a society set up by Egon Ronay, and there were to be 5 of us that year, Betty Allen, Sonia Stevenson, Joyce Molyneaux, Richard Shephard and me. Myself, and Sonia along with Raymond Blanc and Philip Britten, who at the time was working for Chez Nico, were chosen to cook the lunch on the day which was being held at the Inn on the Park Hotel in London. Each of us had to cook a course the British Academy of Gastronomes lunch when we would receive the award. There were I think 100 guests for a 4-course menu. The room to be divided into 4 sections of 25 people and each section would get a different course from each chef. Meetings were held at the Inn on the Park with the chefs, someone for the Egon Ronay organisation and David Petrie who was the food and beverage manager there. We each had to submit a number of dishes and from our submissions, Egon I presumed, chose the 4 dishes each chef would cook. 

I really don’t remember the list of dishes I proposed but the ones chosen were, Tartlet of Brill and Baby Leeks, Chicken and Lobster ‘Sausage’ on a Puree of Spring Onions, Sautéed Fillet of Lamb with Mousseline of Scallops and a Tarragon Sauce, all of which were in my first book, (all the photo's are from "A Feast of Fish") followed by Rhubarb Sorbet in a Brandy Snap Basket, Rhubarb Sauce, I recall at the end of the final meeting after the dishes each chef were to cook had been disclosed Raymond came up to me, stood on his tip toes (he is a lot shorter than me) and put his arm around my shoulders, patted me and said “don’t worry Ian you have all hot dishes I will help you on the day”. How to make a man angry, or at least me anyway!

Brill and Leek Tart                                                     Award                                          Chicken and Lobster Sausage

The big day came, my team and I turned up and claimed our work station, we were all basically taking over the main kitchen of the Inn on the Park for the day. All the others were soon there too, except of course Raymond! Come service time the 74 team were all ready to rock ‘n roll and the others were soon ready too, all except Raymond. He had turned up late along with his pastry chef and immediately seemed to be playing catch-up. 

Lamb and Scallops                                                                            Rhubarb Sorbet

The meal seemed to flow well, I know from our side all was good and we got through it all easily enough, after all it was only small numbers. Come time to serve the dessert Raymond by then was so far behind, he was making his famous apple souffle with a port sabayon. I watched him put his egg whites and sugar into the big Hobart in the kitchen and he could not understand why it would not whip, three times! In the end he got it right. Michael Deane, who was with me along with Paul and Lynnette that day, went into the Pastry to help him, I too joined him, put my arm around him and said, don’t worry Raymond, we’ll help you get this out today. David Petrie was storming up and down outside the pastry section, where the desserts were in the oven, clearly in a state of extreme worry and anger, eventually with a bit of assistance from Restaurant 74 Raymond’s Desserts were sent, considerably later than they should have been but they did eventually go. I bet he won’t remember it though!

Once again I have to mention the staff we had over the years at 74. Darel Turney and Mark Dobbs who came with me from Eastwell along with David Eggerton in the restaurant and young Chris Egginton, he was working as a part time waiter at Eastwell and was at college I think, he then came and joined us at 74 after a few months. We had Jo Vickops, as she was then, wife of Alan Vickops, I had worked with them both at the Dorchester and when Alan took the job as head chef at the County Hotel in Canterbury Jo came and worked with us at 74, a great pastry chef, now going by the name of Louise and living and working in Shetland, we are still in touch. Then we had Lynnette Hart a young Brummie girl who came as pastry Chef at the same time as Phil Vickery (of This Morning Fame) was my sous chef after Darel had left.  Phil came to us from Gravetye. I also took on a young lad who had come to kitchens a bit later than many. Paul Kitching, came to me as a commis having worked at the Viking Hotel in York. I think he found us via Jean Michele Gauffre who of course was my sous at Eastwell. Jean Michael had recommended Paul to contact me for a job. How glad I was he did. Both Jane and I ended up with a real soft spot for Paul ever since, not only did he have a deep passion for the job but he was a good cook that turned into a great one, and a really creative person. He of course went on to make a huge name for himself. Then there was Patrick Reubinson, he came in as sous chef from being head chef at one of Gatwick Airports hotels after Phil left. Before them though Michael Deane, now of the Deane’s chain of restaurants in Belfast came to me. He too was a great guy and very good chef too, another to go on and make a huge name for himself. I certainly can’t forget David Spice in all this, if you recall he worked with me at Eastwell, and then came and took over our brasserie but read about that in the next chapter. I apologise to you all however if I have misremembered dates, age has taken hold of my brain!

It must also have been in 1985, may have been in 86, not sure, anyway we did a charity dinner, we had been to one at a friend’s restaurant and thought this is a good idea. We got a group of people together, an artist; Graham Clark, a chef; Peter Chapman, a Chinese Chef from London; Kam Po Butt, and along with Jane and myself we put a dinner on, each one of us doing a course, more fun than serious. The artist made a landscape scene out of smoked salmon and various vegetables and it was superb, Kam po Butt demonstrated making noodles and that was fantastic to watch, at the end we held an auction of donated items. All our regular customers attended along with some celebrities, we had Rod Hull with his wife and Emu, Anton Mosimann and his wife came, the famous cartoonist Ralph Steadman who drew caricatures of many of the guests and auctioned them off. A great night was had by all and we managed to raise over £3000. I only wish we had phones with cameras back then for as far as I am aware no pictorial record exists now, as is the case for much of my life to date, neither Jane or I have ever been ones for taking photos and it’s too late now!

Staying in business back in the mid to late 80’s was tough going, interest rates were high and getting higher, rates of 10% were difficult to deal with and they just continued to rise, the low rates that have been enjoyed by all over the last 4 years or so we could only dream about. 4.5%, 4.75% – oh how I wish they were that low back then! 

We were struggling, no matter how high profile we were we still struggled. I was constantly on the lookout for an investor but could never find one. I guess it wasn’t that surprising though given the state of the markets. Restaurants were never seen as lucrative, not that that has changed much but back then a restaurant never had the same kudos as it does now and Michelin Stars, as thin on the ground as they were, never got that many people excited, other than chefs!

We just had to find some way of staying in business, the banks would not lend us more, investors could not be found, all we had open to us was to work harder for longer, with less staff to get through, and to try to find a £ wherever we could, hence the cook school and selling our veal jus by the pint. The book of course helped; I got an advance which of course went straight into the business to help pay the bills but we needed more. This was about when we looked at opening a brasserie.

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