Few industries have suffered more during the pandemic than hospitality. Thousands of restaurants and pubs up and down the country have been forced to shut their doors for good, following months of lockdown restrictions.
While none of Tom Kerridge’s eateries have suffered the same fate, it’s clear the chef has a huge amount of sympathy for his fellow restaurateurs.
“It’s very sad. There are bound to be more [closures] as the furlough scheme ends and that support system goes away,” he says, in his familiar West Country accent. “There isn’t much we could do about it, apart from take the huge amount of losses and come through the other side.”
For Kerridge – who owns a handful of restaurants and pubs, including The Hand and Flowers in Marlow, the first ever pub to receive two Michelin stars – and for his staff, too (affectionately called the “Pirates”), working from home just wasn’t an option.
“There are so many other industries where people can have conversations online and that’s fine and their business has been able to work. You get into hospitality and it’s a vocational job, it’s something that’s a way of life, it’s not something you can do on a Zoom call.”
When we speak, just before outdoor dining opens up again in the UK, the 47-year-old is knee-deep in preparations for the reopening of The Butchers Tap and Grill beer garden, also in Marlow, and raring for “the noise and the buzz of restaurants. The energy, the space, the people being able to smile at each other when you can actually see a smile without a mask…”
Not that the chef, who grew up in Gloucestershire, has been sitting around twiddling his thumbs up until now.
“To be honest, I’ve been as busy during the whole of lockdown as I am when the restaurants are open,” he says. “When you own businesses, you’re never ‘off’. We’ve constantly been driving as many things forward as possible, trying to work out what we’re doing, how can we get to reopening, being proactive about everything.”
Beyond the challenges, Kerridge, who lives in Marlow with his wife Beth and five-year-old son Acey, has been able to appreciate some aspects of lockdown life.
“The chief bonus is that I managed to spend a lot more time with my little man, hanging out a bit more, learning to ride a bike and all these sort of things that I may well have missed if I was fully immersed into restaurants.”
And now he’s launching his next book, perfectly timed for the arrival of summer. Outdoor Cooking: The Ultimate Modern Barbecue Bible is Kerridge’s ode to al-fresco cooking, which he particularly loves because it allows him to socialise at the same time as serving up delicious food.
“You’ve got your friends and family around, there’s people hanging out… For me it’s a great space to be. You’re immersed in it, you’re not just stuck in the back.”
Not that he’s one to hog the barbecue tongs, however: “No, I’m quite happy to let other people have a go! Although I do thoroughly enjoy when you’re outdoors, that social bit of cooking.”
Plus, he loves the variety of an international melting-pot menu. “You can travel the world with a barbecue. You can have Korean-style kimchi as a side garnish, and then you can have American-style barbecue stuff, you can have fantastic Indian cookery… The beautiful thing about it is there are no real rules.”
His favourite barbecue bite from the book is the perfect example, blending American, British and German dishes to create The Ultimate Hot Dog.
“It’s a large sausage that’s got a little bit of curry powder dusted all over it, and then it’s wrapped in bacon and served with a German mustard mayonnaise. So it’s kind of like a hot dog that everybody knows, but the best thing about it is that it reminds you of pigs in blankets at Christmas.”
“I grew up pretty much in a single-parent family with my mum and me and my younger brother, so we weren’t really barbecue aficionados. It wasn’t something we really got into.”
That upbringing is partly what motivated the chef to team up with Marcus Rashford on the Full Time Meals project, providing weekly affordable recipes as part of the footballer’s End Child Food Poverty campaign.
“Both myself and Marcus have very similar backgrounds in terms of upbringing – our mums had two jobs, it was a single-parent family,” Kerridge says. “It was kind of that idea of trying to reach the same sort of people and kids that we grew up with.”
The campaign hopes to get children excited about cooking, with the focus being on meals that are kid-friendly and nutritionally sound but, most importantly, filling – like tortilla pizzas topped with red pepper, courgette and sweetcorn.
“If you’re not eating very much and you only like pizzas, well, here you go, this is a really nice way of making pizzas, but this way you can get a bit of veg on it,” Kerridge says, well aware of the challenges faced by families in need.
“It’s all well and good if we’re sat in our middle-class world saying, ‘This is the healthy stuff’ – the healthy stuff is quite often the most expensive.
“From our point of view, it’s about very simple, quick and budget-friendly ways of creating great food that you can then adapt. It’s making sure kids can have something to eat and not go to bed with their tummy rumbling.”
‘Outdoor Cooking: The Ultimate Modern Barbecue Bible’ by Tom Kerridge (Bloomsbury Absolute, £22; photography by Cristian Barnett) is out now.