He may not be the heavyweight of the industry he once was, but Tom Kerridge in his new slimline form is just as influential and we were lucky enough to enjoy an evening in his company courtesy of Arena. The Audience for Tom Kerridge event was held at the stunning Corinthia Hotel and saw people from across the hospitality and foodservice industry gather to network, dine and hear from the man himself. After taking on the challenge of the wine tasting quiz, catching up with industry contacts and partaking in the obligatory bubbles and canapes, not to mention the delicious three course meal prepared by the team at the Corinthia, it was time for the main event as Tom took to the stage. He regaled us with his path to success from his school days in Gloucestershire to cooking meals on a Wednesday to eat on a Thursday, through to his current empire with the latest addition due to open in Manchester on 15th November.

His education was more school of life than uni with a brief stint ‘dossing’ from 16 to 18, then time as an unlikely actor with roles in Miss Marple and London’s Burning before finding his true calling when he started washing up in the Painswick Hotel and fell in love with the world of hospitality and cheffing. He counts himself very lucky to never have had that Sunday evening feeling of dreading going to work on the Monday as his work is his passion. His career progressed to Clacton Manor where he stepped into the pastry chef’s shoes with his own ‘work around’ on soufflés involving baking parchment to improvise a rise. Then Tom headed to London starting at the Capital, then with Stephen Bull on St Martin’s Lane (next to Stringfellow’s) at which point he met his wife who was and is an artist (not from Stringfellow’s I might add). He worked under Gary Rhodes then headed out of town to Norfolk to work with David Adlard and then left Norfolk, (partly by finding somewhere where Beth could showcase her art) and famously set-up the Hand and Flowers as a Greene King Tenancy after being inspired by the relaxed Michelin starred dining at the Trouble House in Tetbury.

It took some doing, costing around £45,000 to set-up, funded by loans from the bank for a spurious extension and two maxed out credit cards, but 14 years on it’s clear it was all worth it! With Beth front of house and Tom running the kitchen it was all hands to the pump. The £10 menu, launched to counter the recession in 2008, kept the place buzzing but didn’t bring in the margin, so Tom worked through the night, pulling 48 hour shifts baking bread to sell at the farmers’ market to make ends meet. The Great British Menu put Tom and the Hand and Flowers on the map as well as shining a light on chefs across the whole of the UK rather than just London. In 2011 he, and importantly the team as a whole, gained two Michelin stars and was the first ‘pub’ to do it! It took the Hand and Flowers from a neighbourhood restaurant to a destination booked up months in advance, which led Tom to open the Coach which you can’t book, ensuring that walk in trade is its focus, serving 40 covers and 65-70 people a day. Then followed the Butcher’s Tap helping to keep this historic site alive and of course Pub in the Park which continues to go from strength to strength.

Despite his exceptional success, like everyone, he has had his challenges, with his heavy drinking (driven by his need for release when under such pressure) well documented (he used to drive around with a case of Stella in the boot in case the bar wasn’t open when he wanted a drink). However, this is now a thing of the past, as he is equally, if not more famous, for his transformation – giving up the booze and embracing healthy eating and the gym (along with his books and TV shows to inspire others). Despite being half the man he once was, he’s always remained true to himself, “disarming people with complete honesty”. Not for him the hushed dining rooms of the stuffy white table cloth restaurants of old, he loves buzz and vibrancy when it comes to dining. His advice to up and coming chefs looking to make a name for themselves? “Cook for the guest not the Michelin Guide”. On the chef crisis he cites The Caterer back in 2003 which featured the chef crisis on its front cover, so this is something we have had for a long time and as long as eating out continues to grow probably always will to some extent. His top tip for dining out? Perilla in Stoke Newington (book while you can!). His take on mental health and addiction issues? He pointed out that this year has seen a step change in talking about mental health, but we need to do more with working hours and environment and he applauds the work Hospitality Action do to support those suffering. His final word – say yes to everything and just do it – and frankly it seems to have worked for him.

Well done to Tom, a man clearly comfortable in his own skin (with only one regret it seems, that one of his dishes once went out with raw batter rather than the correct accompaniment – all long forgotten I’m sure!). And congratulations of course to the Corinthia and the team at Arena on another great event. My top take out? We’ve all been making Spag Bol wrong, apparently we need to roast the mince so it looks like coffee grinds before we add it to the sauce. I for one am going to give it a go. In the meantime we look forward to December’s Christmas Arena event.