Following on from the first of our interview series with the ever-captivating Jeremy Lee was always going to be a tough one, but in the end we didn’t need to look any further than our customer list when a name jumped right out – one Stephen Terry with a delivery address in Abergavenny.
Stephen is one of Britain’s finest chefs and has a CV that you’d struggle to better. But other than a victory on the BBC’s Great British Menu in 2008, he remains relatively under the radar and very much a chefs’ chef. A self-confessed lover of simple things elevated to the highest level, Stephen fittingly ordered himself a pair of our collaboration Sneakers last Autumn and we have been meaning to interview him ever since. Stephen talks fast and loves a laugh so it was a really entertaining conversation, much edited for public consumption.
You ordered yourself a pair of our Sneakers last year, how are you getting on with them?
I think I’d seen you guys on Jeremy’s Instagram a while ago, but I actually spotted the Sneakers in an article in The Times and managed to sneak an order in before they closed. I’ve got them on now but I’ve got to be honest with you, they are so lovely that I only wear them when I know I’m not going to get them dirty. I take my shoes very seriously and I look after them. I have an amazing pair of Tim Little boots with a commando sole that must be 16 years old. I like nice things but the quality must be there and that’s what I saw in your shoes.
Your CV is a comprehensive tour of the UK and French food scene over the past few decades, but how did it all start?
My first job after college in the 80s was at Brinkley’s on the Hollywood Road in Chelsea. It had a good heritage and everything was cooked to order, but they started opening wine bars and I knew instinctively that I didn’t want to be working a bank of microwaves. I then met this hundred mile an hour character called Gordon Ramsay and we became best friends, bought a flat in Stockwell and started working together at various restaurants around London.
You worked for Marco Pierre White at Harvey’s in the 90s and you can be seen in the photos for his famous book White Heat. What do you remember about that?
Those photos were taken by Bob Carlos Clarke who was just a legendary photographer. Harvey’s had a tiny kitchen so to capture the atmosphere so perfectly is real skill. There’s that mad photo of us fighting and I remember Marco grabbed a waiter called Vincent, who started screaming in this high-pitched voice so I put my hand over his mouth so the customers wouldn’t hear from the kitchen (it was definitely the sort of place that you didn’t want that to happen) – and that became the iconic photo from White Heat.
Photo: Bob Carlos Clarke
After working with Marco you were involved with some of the biggest names in the business at La Gavroche under Michelle Roux Jr and then Coast with Oliver Peyton. How did that all come about?
After the first 2 year stint at Harvey’s, Marco got me a job at La Gavroche where Gordon had already started six months earlier. As a 3* they had people queuing out the door so you only did a year there, split across 4 sections and it was somewhere that I was really able to learn my craft – a solid foundation to build upon. I ended up back with Marco at The Canteen where I received my first Michelin star, but after 18 months I fell out with him over something silly, as most people do!
In about 1995 I was approached by Oliver Peyton who was opening Coast in Mayfair. A couple of Martinis later I said yes and it was an amazing time, with a groundbreaking restaurant designed by the legendary Marc Newson, a fantastic team [including Jason Atherton, Ben Tish and Mark Sargent] and I was finally in charge of the kitchen and the menu.
I read that The River Café is a favourite of yours, why is it so special to you?
I’ve been eating at the River Café for twenty odd years and it’s such an amazing place. A really old friend of mine is one of their veg suppliers and first took me there and I just thought it was amazing. It’s all about quality, seasonal produce cooked simply and it was a huge inspiration for me. Then a couple of years ago I was getting close to my 50th and I asked if I could come and do a stage, basically come and work for free, and they let me which was brilliant as it’s not something they usually allow.
Meeting Gordon was obviously an important part of your early career, but it seems that at some point you made a conscious decision to go in a different direction?
At that time Gordon had Aubergine and he was just starting to grow by setting up L’Oranger and he wanted me to go with him, but I was at Coast and really enjoying cooking without the shackles of traditional French cooking. When we opened Coast I said to Oliver [Peyton] that I didn’t want the stress of being in the Michelin Guide. I’d seen so many chefs obsessed with stars making it hell for themselves and their staff and having to deal with the constant question, “are you going for a star?” Oliver was fine with it, so I called Michelin and said we didn’t want to be part of the guide and that was that really.
The Hardwick is regularly listed as one of the best ‘gastropubs’ in the UK. How would you describe what you do there?
I like simplicity and I don’t want to cook complicated food that people don’t know how to eat. I’m all about simple things done well with the best ingredients. We were just cooking the most lovely haricot beans today and they are done in pork stock we made from pork belly and chipotle peppers, that we then turn into a velouté to serve with the beans as a small plate. I don’t need to dehydrate it and turn it in to a flipping bonbon do I? The older I get the more I’m turning into a purest and traditionalist. Not meat and two veg but I just like things done nice and simple, which takes a lot of effort.
Finally, have you got anything else in the pipeline at the moment?
We have just had a beautiful new 9m bar put in at the restaurant by a local joiner with some new bar seating which will be great to push our small plate dining experience. We’ve just done Tom Kerridge’s Pub in the Park in Marlow, which is a big family music and food festival touring all around the country. I got to listen to David Gray who’s one of my favourites from back in the day, so it was a flipping great day out! We’re also going to be at the one in Knutsford in a couple of weekends and then St Albans towards the end of September.