THE BLOG

Tom Kerridge Talks Pubs

17/09/2015 12:15 BST | Updated 15/09/2016 10:12 BST

In a leafy pub garden bordering the river Thames, Chef Tom Kerridge is dishing up BBQ delights on an impressive chrome-topped contraption. It's called the Hoppodrome and has been custom-built for the occasion, hewn from three hefty Greene King beer kegs. The sun is shining and the mood here is relaxed, almost bucolic: live music wafts gently through from the bar, a handful of people perched on straw bales, others approaching the food station eager to try one of Tom's four dishes. Everyone is clutching a pint of real ale, except the chef himself who chats congenially to guests across his magnificent machine. A moment later he's posing, spatula in hand, for a queue of star-struck selfie-takers.

I managed to catch five minutes with him whilst he took a break from serving food (pulled beef brisket in milk buns, pork green chili, 'Coach style' mushroom risotto and his trademark mackerel burger). He explained the purpose behind collaborating with Suffolk brewers Greene King for this Hammersmith popup: "It's a celebration of everything that is good about British pubs: people sitting outside, being comfortable in a social environment and having very tasty accessible food and beers."

With his frequent appearances on BBC cookery shows, it's easy to forget that Tom Kerridge is also a pub landlord, having opened The Hand and Flowers a decade ago. Previously he'd cooked for 15 years in top Michelin-starred restaurants. So why did he choose to take on a pub, rather than opening a restaurant? "The whole point of The Hand and Flowers was that it was set up as somewhere I'd want to be on my day off, somewhere I feel comfortable and somewhere that's accessible for everyone - where you can turn up in jeans and trainers and there's no bother and you can drink beer with your meal."

Comfort and accessibility are two words Tom Kerridge uses a lot, and his vision seems a far cry from London's traditional fine-dining eateries. But whilst he may eschew silver service and starched tablecloths, his two Michelin-starred food is more than a match for Mayfair. "My view is that it should never compromise on standards of food. Many of our customers have never eaten in a Michelin star restaurant before and for me that's a huge compliment that people feel comfortable enough to eat with us."

This brings me onto the business of pubs. There have been a steady stream of articles in the press reporting on the number of pub closures (According to the British Pub Association it's up to 29 per week). I ask what he thinks should be done to halt their decline: "As an industry, we need to look very closely at the reason why pubs struggle. For example, one of the major reasons is because people's drinking habits have changed. People don't drink as much in the evenings and definitely not at lunchtimes."

So what can pubs do then? He gives me an example: "We have to recognise that for social occasions and eating out, high-street pizza chains offer very good value for money. That's where the social market is. Pubs have to compete with that rather than just being a drinking environment. You have to offer what people are looking for socially and aim for that market." Success can come from "very simple fantastic food offerings that draw in customers who drink, have something to eat and can enjoy themselves. Pubs that adapt and change will survive. You can't just stand behind the bar and wait for customers, you've got to go out and attract them. As an industry we have to do that."

Tom Kerridge's philosophy of combining the friendly, relaxed atmosphere of a pub with world-class cooking has certainly paid off. His restaurant is fully booked until 2017. I ask if the plan had always been to achieve two Michelin stars: "Cooking for the guides? No. We were never intentionally aiming for two Michelin stars. But what's happened is that I've surrounded myself with some amazing people who've all driven forward and committed to improving by millimetres every single day. It's been little bits that make a big difference over a long period of time."

I name a few other chefs who seem motivated entirely by achieving Michelin-star status. He shakes his head. "Too many chefs and restaurateurs are looking at it the wrong way round. If customers are having a good time, then you're doing the right thing. If you're consistent and you're good, then the guides recognise what you do."

He also agrees that in general, fine-dining is changing: "Lines are blurring between really good pubs and really good restaurants. Fine-dining restaurants are taking away table cloths and becoming more user-friendly. And rightly so, eating out should be for everybody. And that snob value is disappearing, it's about people having fun. There are always going to be spaces for those special-occasion restaurants for birthdays etc. But on a daily basis in a competitive market, restaurants have to be busy on a Tuesday and Wednesday not just a Saturday night."

I ask if perhaps the culture in the kitchen is also evolving. Celebrity chefs on TV today seem a far friendlier breed than their foul-tempered predecessors. He nods in agreement: "As an industry, we've changed. I come from an age where a lot of chefs were subjected to that kind of training but it does nothing for growth or development of staff. You need to build a team and a family environment." So what has brought about this cultural shift? "I think as that public interest and perception of food has changed, we've seen a growth of interest in how food is produced. This has lead to chefs being much more open and talking about what we do. And a lot more chefs are friends with each other now, rather than it being the cauldron of hatred it was 20 years ago. We're a big band of brothers and the more we work together, the better it is for the industry."

Has being married to a sculptor, Beth Cullen Kerridge, influenced Tom Kerridge's approach to cooking? He thinks not in an artistic way but there are other similarities: "We have this argument quite a lot about whether chefs are artists. And I would say I am not. There are certain who are: Simon Rogan, Sat Bains, Paul Cunningham, they're all incredible artistic chefs. I view myself as a really good bricklayer. I've learned to trade, I understand foundations and building blocks and I build dishes with an understanding of a tradesman. Now I work with great products and fantastic suppliers and my wife also works with elements that come from the ground: marble and bronze. So that synergy with a real product, that's where our similarities lie." He pauses and adds with a grin, "But in terms of end result, she's way more talented than me!" And with that, he jumps back up to serve another round of mackerel burgers from the mighty Hoppodrome.

Just as jovial and easy-going in the flesh as he is on television, Tom Kerridge is clearly in his element here serving dishes to the public in a relaxed pub atmosphere. But having a successful two Michelin star pub and celebrity status puts Tom Kerridge in quite a unique position, being able to challenge attitudes within both the pub and fine-dining industries. And whilst events like this may not bring about instant change, it will certainly help to influence perceptions of pub food and remind us what a fantastic time can be had in a traditional British boozer.