Chef Interview: John Campbell (May 2011)

Posted on: June 30th, 2011 by Simon Carter & Daniel Darwood

Having achieved a first Michelin star at Lords of the Manor and a second at The Vineyard at Stockcross, John Campbell has firmly established himself as one of the industry trailblazers. One suspects there remains untapped ambition to go further and leave a strong positive mark on the industry for the future. John found time to speak to Simon Carter of fine-dining-guide, interview took place in the beautiful semi-private dining area of his eponymous restaurant, interview published June 2011.

John Campbell

Tell us some background about yourself?

I wanted to be a chef from a very early age so I’m delighted with the way things have worked out! I have friends who work hard in the city and come home every day from jobs that they don’t like, whereas I do something I love and as such feel I haven’t worked a day in years!

When I was very young, I was really taken by the resourcefulness of my grandmother and the twice daily trips to the butchers, the fishmongers, the greengrocers and the bakers were fascinating to me – this was in the heart of Liverpool and we had no refrigeration in the house so these regular trips were out of necessity. This wasn’t your provincial style of visiting local farms, it was the good old fashioned high street city shopping but nonetheless probably a similar shopping experience to classic French towns where (albeit more artisan) suppliers would all be available on one street.

My grandfather cooked an amazing Sunday lunch – I still can’t get my roast potatoes to taste as wonderful as he produced them and couple that with my grandmother’s resourcefulness, warmth and natural sense of hospitality then you probably have the key triggers for my following this profession. In fact I never had aspirations to do anything else but cook so I was very lucky to find my calling early.

My family instilled in me a number of values that hold true to this day. In terms of personal character – I’m fair, straight down the line, I expect and give honesty and have a moral compass of integrity. Professionalism must also win over every time – my father particularly impressed this upon me at an early age. Loyalty is something you tend to find reciprocated in life, so I have a philosophy of being loyal to my team and they in turn are loyal to me.

From a professional perspective I established a food style that I could say was my own (Lords of the Manor) from around 1997. Before that time it was all about learning, and I mean learning about everything! I was researching and taking in information about all aspects of the ‘product’ and the ‘business’: The science behind the food, the finance behind the business, the infrastructure of the kitchen, how the kitchen and front-of-house can work together most effectively and seamlessly and so on.

It is so important to have the kitchen/business understanding mix right as early as possible and I was fortunate to have this grounding. This partly came from a scholarship with Forte Hotels, which took me all over Europe working in some wonderful kitchens but mainly looking at the business side of new operations.

By the age of 25 the only Michelin starred eating or working experience I had had was at Louis Outhier in France and London and Marco Pierre White at Harveys and then at The Hyde Park Hotel. So when I came to develop my own signature I had not really come from Michelin ‘stock,’ so I had a freedom in a way to express myself in an uninhibited and uninfluenced style. I just wanted to develop and practice my cooking as it inspired, excited and drove me forward with a passion.

From 1997, I wanted to bring everything together – the business side, the kitchen side and in the middle of that a food style or signature. I had realised through experience that it is the team ethic and the people around you that make it work. Perhaps a leader is the example setter, the driving force or the conductor but no more than that – looking after people, nurturing them to bring out their best delivers the strongest results.

It is fundamental to get a strong grasp of the big picture of the product and the business first and then develop your style. Perhaps too many chefs get tunnel vision too early about what they doing on a plate. Without all the fundamental foundations of the bigger picture clear in their minds, after all it is the foundations upon which the house is built. Success is more likely to come and be enduring by approaching the profession in this way.

At the same time, my management style was developing – my son was born in 2000 and this had a significant impact on my outlook – my role became more pastoral. My affection for my son naturally created a greater sense of professional empathy for those around me – I became more concerned with all aspects of man management and the sense of team spirit and lifting morale.

I remember taking a chef to one side who was having a tough time and giving him a real dressing down and then it suddenly occurred to me that he was somebody’s son and needed understanding and nurturing as much as correction. That was quite a moment that I remember to this day. It made me realise that if I set up the menu, explain the processes and manage the people properly then if something is not perfect it is because I have not explained something correctly in the process. Responsibility and accountability have to be the watchwords of a head chef.

In 2002 I joined the Vineyard. This was a big move as I stepped into an environment that throws everything at you that this profession has to offer – Spa, room service, terrace, banqueting, fine-dining, lounge, afternoon tea and so on. That was a challenge; to get the proposition right across the board. In addition, the kitchen had to be working in the right ethical manner, some money had to be made for the property as well as find its place on the culinary map.

I had a very enjoyable time there; the first and then the second star came along, the AA Rosettes and Which? Good Food Guide recognition.

After 7 ½ years at The Vineyard I felt that I had to make a decision whether I was going to stay there for the rest of my career or look for a new venture. I made the decision in June with the Vineyard and spent some time at Cranfield University then came straight to the Dorchester Collection. In fact, The International Gastronomy Course at West London University (which was piloted as a B.Sc – now a BA – I gained while at Lords of the Manor) and the course at Cranfield I would recommend to any chef who wants to grasp the broadest scope of the profession and take on board vital practical knowledge.

From last November conversations with The Dorchester Collection started around what my best skill sets were – as an Executive Chef; as a Head Chef; with the media; for business knowledge; for a professional network; for public speaking and so on. The challenge was that choices had to be made as to how to optimise my time with the company. When you spread yourself too thinly, you start to dilute the potential assets. We sat down in January and discussed in more detail the best ways to move forward and my consultancy role started at the beginning of April (2011). So it was always on the agenda, it is not something new, it was a strategic decision to make the very most of the restaurant John Campbell at Coworth Park.

In every way, my role can only add profile to the restaurant. If I get media opportunities, for example, then it is all about Coworth Park. At the same time three days a week I will be doing everything in my power to ensure the delivery of the best possible product to the largest possible audience. The restaurant here is a great gift – the set up costs would run into millions if it were my own venture and I’m very conscious of that when setting out my priorities. You know, this is probably a unique commercial arrangement in the industry and perhaps the industry have yet to appreciate the full facts.

It’s the 50th Anniversary of Practical Cookery and for this year we’ve come up with something really special and dynamic. It’ll be my seventh year of doing it and it really needed to move away from a box-ticking manual for government charts and genuinely rediscover itself as everything about Practical Cookery.

The muddy waters of NVQ and City and Guilds have not helped make the right kind of educational opportunity for chefs.

What are the rules of your cooking philosophy?

Everything has to be in sync – match our audio to our video – first rule is that the menu must be seasonal. It would be no good to see a strawberry on a winter seasonal menu. And when you receive the product in season – a strawberry for instance – it has taken nature fifty, one hundred or a thousand years to make that product as perfect as it is and who am I to argue? So the full flavour of that strawberry is to be enjoyed by our customers.

Then I ask, can I optimise the dining experience, given the history of scientific background through the way in which the ensemble of ingredients are combined and cooked?

Thirdly, I want the food to be playful, to be fun and to be enjoyed in every way.

What is the creative process in your kitchen?

There are five people in the team who participate in the creative process for new dishes in the kitchen. There are many advantages to this: developing and nurturing talent: gaining optimum ‘buy in’ to any new dish: developing and maintaining a team spirit: morale building and so on.

Olly (Rouse) and I will set the parameters and be custodians of whether a new dish is in line with these parameters and suitable to be offered at Restaurant John Campbell.

We will also look at the aforementioned philosophy and then consider the flavour profile. All our dishes are built are around a model that is based on a three dimensional sphere – the sphere of taste. The centre of the sphere is the point of balance. It’s not as complex as it sounds but hard to describe without drawing diagrams for you (smiling). The challenge as cooks is whether to leave the point of balance in the hands of a Sommelier or to balance the food on a plate.

Tell us an anecdote about one of your early (not too) technical discoveries?

In the 1980s and 1990s there was a fashion to get a sauce that was just sticky – not roux based with flour but a reduction of jus. The aim was to get the stickiest jus in the world! (Laughing). The funny thing was that in the vast majority of cases the methods of achieving the jus were mis-guided. The bones of the stock were cooked at the highest possible temperatures, which not only extracted the flavour but (for basic scientific reasons) also extracted bitter notes into the stock. To compensate for this bitterness, sweet, sticky ingredients may have been added – honey, tomato puree, redcurrent jelly as examples.

It has been shown that were you to cook your stock at 84 degrees it leaves 20% of the collegen in the bones, which extracts the flavour but not the bitterness. Commercially you would think it not viable to produce the jus correctly as it takes 24 hours at 84 degrees to produce 3 litres of stock, but the resulting stock is significantly more intense in flavour so you use proportionately less of it in your sauce!

What is your view of Michelin Starred Chefs participating in the media?

I think it’s great to have a commercial foot in the media door. If you have 6 million people watching MasterChef live and 4 million after that viral then commercially you’d be strange not to take advantage of that level of profile.

It’s also a huge morale boost for the property and all the team, so it helps in every way. It is a challenge and it is high risk. With high risk there is high reward so it has to be one of the priorities.

What are your strongest culinary influences?

Accumulated life experiences (smiling)

Do you eat out much yourself?

Yes, as much as I can. I enjoy Indian and Thai food or sometimes just a simple steak and chips. I very rarely eat out at the gastronomic style of restaurants.

What are your ambitions for the future?

If I can look back on my career and feel that I’ve made the smallest of differences to way the industry works – for the better – then I’ll be a very happy man!

John’s warmth, charm and humility had made a strong impression – so too the way in which his eyes lit up while passing on knowledge of the trade – a man who has achieved and one who is interested in ensuring others do the same.