The day I told the man from Michelin to stick his star: TV chef Phil Vickery on his love for Homepride curry sauce, fish fingers and Bird‘s custard
He has earned countless awards over the years, among them a Michelin star and a slew of AA rosettes. So if you ask chef Phil Vickery about some of his favourite meals, you might expect a dash of haute cuisine at the very least: a splash of jus here, a reduction there.
Far from it. What Vickery likes to eat in his own kitchen is comfort food of the highest order – mixed in with some guilty pleasures.
‘My idea of a nightmare is a ten-course tasting menu,’ he declares.
‘I love cottage pie, fish fingers or packet rice. And you know what else? I love Homepride curry sauce in a can on rice.’
He could go on: tinned lentils, frozen salmon, Bird’s custard – it turns out they’re all on the 57-year-old’s menu, whether he’s cooking at home for wife Fern Britton, 61, and their four children or on ITV’s This Morning, where he’s been resident chef for 13 years.
Never frightened to use shortcuts to encourage people into the kitchen, his accessible, tasty culinary style has won him legions of fans who enjoy his no-nonsense take on eating well without breaking the bank.
It’s a philosophy he has brought to his latest book, Save Money Good Diet, recipes from which featured in The Mail on Sunday’s You magazine last week. He says: ‘I’ve spent 40 years as a professional chef but now I get more of a kick out of looking at cheap ingredients and making something delicious.
‘To me that’s a real achievement – it looks like you’re not being a proper chef, but you are. I’m applying my Michelin star and 40 years of experience to these dishes.
‘Every dish I look at, what is in my head is, “Can I get it in the supermarket? How much will it cost? Is it available frozen? Can I make it go a bit further?”
‘I have no problem making shortcuts – there’s nothing wrong with using canned stuff or a bit of frozen fish. Salmon, pollock, cod, smoked haddock, prawns – they’re all fantastic.
‘There’s this thing that it’s inferior or you’re cutting corners. It’s not – it’s about real food. We all work hard and families are stretched. The last thing they want to do is spend hours slaving over a hot cooker.’
Vickery knows that first-hand. The son of an engineer and a stay-at-home mum, he was raised in Folkestone, Kent, in the 1960s – a frugal era of no-fuss dinners. ‘Spam, Vesta curry sauce, freeze-dried risotto in a packet – those were the tastes of my childhood,’ Vickery admits.
His career began, aged 18, in the kitchen of a local seaside hotel, and he worked his way up the culinary ladder until, at 29, he took over the Castle Hotel in Taunton, formerly owned by Gary Rhodes.
The renowned hotel was a big name – albeit now minus its Michelin star following Rhodes’s departure – and it came with an equally big debt.
‘It was in a mess when I arrived,’ Vickery recalls. ‘The owners owed £700,000 to the bank and they were going to shut the doors. It was a nightmare. It was 1990, the middle of a recession, and interest rates were 16 per cent. It was awful.’
Turning things around required both commitment and ingenuity. ‘One of the reasons I cook the way I do now is because of what happened back then,’ he says.
‘I had to choose cheap cuts and make them go as far as I could. I was using pig’s cheeks way before they became trendy. I’d buy a five kilo lobster and make 120 sausages out of it. But I was determined to succeed. I wanted to get back that Michelin star.’
He pulled it off in two years – only for it to be taken away again four years later when a Michelin inspector suggested that his food was inconsistent.
‘I’d won County Restaurant of the Year in the Good Food Guide, I had four rosettes in the AA Guide for five years – but no star,’ Vickery recalls.
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‘The head of Michelin sat in the room with me and went through these tiny details. He told me some of my desserts are two Michelin stars, but it was about consistency.
‘I know where I wanted to insert his star! That was the defining moment when I thought, “I don’t care any more. I’m here to cook real food for real people.” ’
It’s a reminder of the perennially precarious nature of the restaurant business in a week in which Jamie Oliver’s empire went bust. ‘I have immense sympathy for Jamie,’ says Vickery.
‘You can be the best in the land but you are still hostage to people coming through the front door.
‘It’s such a saturated market now too – there are so many alternatives on the high street, there are so many catering outlets, tapas bars.’
Vickery remains a part-owner of The Castle but has no plans to open another restaurant of his own. ‘You wouldn’t drag me into it again for all the tea in China,’ he says. ‘You work so hard for so little. The margins are so wafer-thin that you can have a bad winter, a small increase in interest rates and that’s that. It’s horribly precarious.’
It was TV that propelled Vickery to national stardom in the 1990s – and it was where, by now a divorcé, he found love again. He got a job on daytime show Ready Steady Cook, presented by Fern, and she later became Vickery’s second wife.
He says: ‘We were friends for about 18 months or so, then she kidnapped me in her car after filming,’ he laughs. ‘My taxi was waiting but there she was in her soft-top Mercedes. She just said “Get in the car”, so I put my bag in the boot and that was it. That was 1998 and I’ve never looked back.’
At the time Fern was separated from her husband Clive Jones and had three young children – twin boys aged six and a girl of just 17 months. ‘It was quite a lot to take on but I think it helped meeting later on in life,’ Vickery says.
‘I was a bit of a tearaway when I was younger but by the time we got together I was my late 30s.’
The couple married in 2000 and had a daughter together, Winifred, now 18.
The older children are now at university or working, and Vickery paints a happy picture of their blended family. ‘We’re really simple eaters. We very rarely go out for dinner.
‘At home, we’ll have a roast chicken for Sunday with the family. Fern does a lovely roast lamb with peas, mint sauce, roast potatoes. And the kids prefer her bolognaise as she puts ketchup in it.’
Vickery has been resident chef on ITV’s This Morning since 2006, and continues his crusade for simple, affordable food, recently creating on the show student dishes costing £1.09, 69p and 49p.
He says: ‘I’ve got four kids, with three going to university, so I have an idea of what it’s like.’
His aversion to what he calls ‘pompous b******t’ is something Vickery applies to his own diet too. ‘I’m not a saint, but it’s about being careful. I believe there’s no such thing as bad food – what’s bad is the amount humans put in their bodies. Gluttony kills a man, not food. You can’t demonise a certain type of food, you just have to be realistic.
‘A piece of cake in the afternoon is fantastic, but not three times a day. It’s about being sensible.
‘The Government is right to say we eat too much, especially too much red meat and salt.
‘You could take 50 per cent of your meat content out of your diet and not know it’s gone.’
Many recipes in his book contain tips on doing just that, whether it’s replacing pork sausages with chicken, or bulking out lasagne with lentils or mushrooms.
‘I hope the takeaway from the book is that it can be done,’ he says. ‘You don’t have to be a three-star Michelin chef to get good results, and you don’t have to break the bank either.’