by Marcus Leach
In life hardships will do one of two things; they can break you or they can make you. For Michelin-starred chef Adam Simmonds it was the latter. Struggling academically at school, a situation not helped by being identified as having dyslexia, he turned to cooking as one of the few things he excelled at and had a passion for.
Rather than let his dyslexia hinder him Simmonds set himself a clear goal; to become the best chef he could possibly be. Some years and a lot of hard work later it would be fare to say he has gone a long way to achieving his initial goal.
Having worked at Danesfield House, Le Gavroche, The Ritz, The Halkin and Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons, to name a few, Simmonds has proved he can cook with the best of them and has his sights set on running his own Michelin-starred restaurant in the coming years. But for now he is very much enjoying his role as Head Chef at Kensington Pavilion, where he took time out to chat with The Essential Cyclist about his career as a chef.
Marcus Leach: What first got you into food?
Adam Simmonds: Really and truthfully academically I was pretty shocking at school ,and it subsequently came to light I was dyslexic. I struggled sitting behind a desk, with concentration and attention span. From an early age at school I found cooking was something I enjoyed doing, and being creative with. I didn't need to be say behind a desk. Yes I had to follow recipes, weigh things out and be process ingredients, but that wasn't too much of a problem. So that was how I got into it to start off with.
ML: How did it progress from that initial interest into a full blown career within the industry?
AS: Ever since that time it was always something I had my heart set on, becoming a chef. To what level at that age I had no idea, but it was a case of I wanted to follow that dream, so throughout school I continued to pursue that. I left school when I was sixteen and went to college for two years and then came straight to London. If I am honest I crashed and burnt a little when I first got here.
ML: In what sense?
AS: Well I came to London and started at Le Gavroche and it was too much. I came straight from home into London, living at what was then the PM Club and coming into Le Gavroche and suddenly I was thinking, 'blimey, what is this'. It all took me by storm and I wasn't expecting it as collage never made you aware of that type of environment. I crashed and burnt there, I wasn't there long.
ML: Did you leave by choice then?
AS: Yes, I left by choice and Albert Roux sent a lovely letter to my parents, which they still have. It wasn't a case of them forcing me out, it was a case of me thinking I wasn't good enough to be in that kitchen.
ML: So having left there was it a case of dropping down a few levels and aiming to build back up to those standards?
AS: That's exactly what happened. I came away from there and I went to The Ritz and it was a big kitchen, there were loads of chefs. Looking back on it now was very good for me, was it what I wanted to do, probably not but it was a good way of getting my confidence back up. And if you work at the Ritz it's not a shabby place is it? It has a very high reputation and it is very well known across the world.
ML: What would you say has been the most influential place you have worked?
AS: Le Manoir, that place was phenomenal. Raymond Blanc and Gary Jones are brilliant teachers. I did three years there and it was fantastic. I was a sous chef in London and it was somewhere I always wanted to go but I actually bottled it the first time, I got to the gates and I turned around. But then Gary phoned me up and gave me a second chance, and from that I have always believed in giving people a second opportunity as I was given one myself, for which I will always be grateful. I wound up doing three years there, I was a chef de partie at 27, having worked my way back up and took an £8,000 pay cut to be there. I can't tell you how grateful I am for them giving me that second chance and calling and saying 'come on, don't be stupid'.
ML: Sometimes it isn't always about the money is it, it is about the experience and what value that can add to your career and personal development.
AS: This is one of the biggest problems with this industry now as the youngsters want the money, they want the celebrity status, they want the TV and everything that goes around it without doing the hard work.
ML: Fifteen years ago there was only one or two chefs on TV, where as now it seems that chefs are enjoying a certain degree of celebrity status, and this means more people see cooking and being a chef as a way of getting that fame.
AS: That's very true. It's almost detrimental to the business because most people have made a career out of it, but they have had to graft and work their way into a position. Back when I started it was all about hard graft. You were in the kitchen at six in the morning and you wouldn't finish until one or two the next morning. Now they all want to know how many hours they're doing, how much they're getting paid and if it isn't what they want they go around the corner and look elsewhere. Back in those days there were waiting lists to get to Le Manoir, La Gavroche, to Nico, to Marco Pierre White's, now it's not like that.
ML: Is that frustrating to you, as someone who has done the hard graft and worked their way up?
AS: Yeah, it's very frustrating for me in my position, but that's why I don't entertain it. If someone comes in here giving it Johnny big potatoes I won't tolerate it and I won't employ them, because I'm not like that. I would like to think I can cook to a high level, but I have had to graft at it to get to that level. I have been in the industry for twenty-five years and it takes that much time. I didn't become a head chef until I was 32, because I wanted to learn my craft, and it was important that I did what I did and I like to think that is why I am in the position I am in today. It took me a long time to get into a position where I started appearing on TV.
ML: On that topic, is it something you have enjoyed?
AS: I think as chefs you crave recognition, and you want that recognition from your peers and the public. The public that come in are the ones who pay the wages and you need the recognition from them, and as such you want everything to be right for them. When I entered into this industry it was never something I ever thought I would do, or contemplated becoming. I am fortunate enough to be in an industry that I love, and that I am hugely passionate about.
ML: I guess you need that passion in this industry with the hours that are required?
AS: You do, and plenty of resilience. This place here [The Pavilion on Kensington High Street] almost broke me. I like to think I am pretty resilient and can bounce back, but for about six weeks I was on a few hours sleep a night whilst we were getting this place off the ground. I'm here as head chef and am over-seeing it with a plan to do my own thing next year, which they know about.
I never entered into this to become a television, I hate the word celebrity, personality. It can be a little daunting at times when people want to meet you. I am a normal guy who comes from a humble back ground, and was brought up to respect others, the same as I would like to think most people are brought up. I don't see myself as any different from other people. Yes it is nice to have the limelight, but at the same time it can be a little daunting and embarrassing for me as I am no different from anybody else. I think it's my hair though, that's what people seem to remember me by.
ML: Do you think the recognition you have had from the public will benefit your own restaurant when you open it?
AS: I would like to think my personality on TV has come through and that people will come to my restaurant and that I am the same person they are expecting. That is very important to me. It's difficult though as you are then on show all of the time, and even when you are tired at the end of a long shift you can't not go and show your face, you have to be accessible. That is the position I have put myself in, it's the pay-off for doing the media stuff. So no matter what the circumstance you have to be accessible, as more often than not people have come a long way, or are spending a lot of money and they just want to have a few minutes talking to you about your experiences. If you don't make yourself accessible you will soon get classed as a jumped up idiot and that is not what I am about. I am not a celebrity, I have just been lucky to go on television with my cooking. I have enjoyed it and grateful I have done it as it has raised my profile.
ML: What was it like being on Great British Menu this year and making it to the banquet?
AS: This year's Great British Menu, to actually cook for those guys who put their lives on the line for this country, and honour what they did, I can't express what pleasure I had doing that. It was incredible, and to cook at St Paul's Cathedral was just the icing on the cake. I met some amazing people along the way, it was phenomenal. When we went to Bayeux in France and we saw the lines and lines of head stones, of guys aged eighteen, nineteen and twenty, it was incredibly poignant and moving. When you stand and look at what these people have done, and then think of the things we moan about in our lives, it just pales into insignificance in comparison.
ML: Coming back to food now, how important is the whole dining experience to you?
AS: Dining out now is the full package. If you look at it service is probably slightly more important than the food these days in the customers eyes. If they get bad service there is no way they will go back to a restaurant. However, if they don't get the best food but the service is excellent it can rescue the experience for them. But it is about making the whole experience right, even from the moment a customer phones through to make a booking, that sets the tone straight away. Do they then get a call the day before to confirm the booking? That sort of detail matters. If people are spending a lot of money they expect standards and the little details matter.
ML: You've got Michelin stars yourself and you've won other awards, does that add extra pressure to you?
AS: I think the expectations when you have stars and accolades are much higher. If you have a star the expectation is that you are one of the best in the country and people will automatically look to knock you down and become more critical. When I was at Le Manoir, which is at the very top of its game all of the time, people would come in with such high expectations so there were always people who would have to find faults.
ML: To a certain extent it seems that everybody is a food critic now.
AS: Everybody knows best. People eat out at a few nice restaurants and they think the are food connoisseurs. A few people are though, I've met some great people who have given good constructive feedback and I have acted on it. But what I can't stand is the people who are looking to complain to look like they know what they are on about in front of their friends. I look at food as art, which is very subjective. Yes they have a right to voice their opinion, but most of them do it on social media after they have been in to eat. At least if people complain in a sensible manner when they are in we can do something to rectify the situation, but what can we do once they have left? For that reason I can't stand Twitter or TripAdvisor, it's almost a licence for people to go on there and say negative stuff. If you have something to say come and say it to me in person, then we can try and put things right for you.
ML: With your awards, did you ever have a goal to win a star, or was it part of the process and your development?
AS: I think when I started out in the industry it was a case of focusing on being the best I could be. Because of the situation at school, and getting knocked there and with people thinking I wasn't the brightest kid in the class, which I wasn't, I was always very determined to become the best I could possibly be. I have been able to do that with the support of my parents, which I will always be grateful for, and I always strive for perfection. Over the time I have been in the industry it then did become 'yes I want a Michelin star', 'I want to be recognised for what I can do'. And then it becomes a case of the more recognition you get, the more you want. That's the driving force behind it all.
ML: So looking to the future and when you open your own place in the next few years, you obviously want to win a star there then?
AS: Yeah, definitely. Two.
ML: What does it take to reach those levels?
AS: The whole thing what we as chefs base ourselves on, no matter where it is, it's all about consistency. Here we aim to produce the best steaks and we have to maintain our standards. It's consistency, food is all about consistency, and that comes from service through to what you are producing on the plate. It's the whole shebang. The nature of what we do dictates sometimes we are not always spot on. Sometimes the produce might not be up to usual standards, or you might not be able to get an ingredient that you usually can.
We rely on so many variables in this industry, there are so many different people we rely on to help us along the way, so if there is something out of place it can have a knock-on effect and to a large degree it is how you manage those variables. As you get older you realise you can manage situations better, you can still keep as level if something isn't right. It's when I start losing my rag a little that those variables might have more of an impact.
ML: Are you calm in the kitchen?
Working in this environment, with an open kitchen, you have to be a little more controlled. But then frustration can take over sometimes, but I have to be calmer as I am on show. It's also about knowing how to manage people, some people have much more of an impact when you go up to them a talk to them quietly and not just barking orders at them. That said when we are in service the boys know when I say something I mean it, and it's service, so there isn't time to always be nice, it's a case of this is how it's happening and that's it.
I also think with age you learn to coach people and to train them, to help them develop. When I was head chef for the first time I used to be terrible as I would scream and shout all of the time, but it had no effect and no impact. I had a point to prove then, and now I have a point to prove but very much in a different way.
ML: What does your food say about you?
AS: I think my food is very clean, flavoursome and minimal.
ML: Is that your philosophy, to keep things simple?
AS: Now, yes. That's my lifestyle as well, minamlisitic, clean lines, no clutter. I think it's all about expression and being able to express yourself without having a thousand and one things on the plate. It's like you can wear nice watches and nice clothes, but they don't need to be so in your face. Years ago my food was very fancy, fifteen things on a plate, a little pretentious.
ML: Was it a case of trying to say 'look what I can do with my food?'
AS: Yeah, but now I would look at it and think 'what an idiot, why did you do that' as you didn't prove anything other than you can put a lot of things on a plate. But now it is about simplicity and putting a few products on a plate and allowing them to stand out on their own and speak for themselves.
ML: Do you have a favourite season for cooking?
AS: Summer. Autumn is ok, winter I hate because everything is so lifeless and dull, it is very difficult to cook with as a lot of things are the same. The meat is heavy, the fish is ok but what goes with it is heavy. I do struggle with winter generally, so i find that the hardest season. Spring is good as everything is becoming light and fragrant again.
ML: Within those seasons what do you enjoy cooking with?
AS: I love fish. Fish is so delicate to cook and so much more precise, in my opinion, than meat. The margin for error is so small and it brings out the best in you as a chef.
ML: What about away from the kitchen, what do you enjoy doing in your free time?
AS: I enjoy the gym, I enjoy snowboarding and wake-boarding. I tried kite surfing two years ago, which was brilliant but you need to do it regularly and sadly at the moment I can't devote that sort of time to it. I think it is important to have something that offers you a release from what you do, otherwise you start to go crazy.