Meet the Chef: Emily Watkins

Life//People

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Running an award winning restaurant is a full-time job in itself, add in being a mother to three young children, as well as a wife and you have your work cut out. But that is exactly what Emily Watkins does, and does well judging by the success she has enjoyed both at The Kingham Plough, as well as outside of the restaurant on this year's Great British Menu.

Unlike many chefs, who find themselves in the kitchen from as young as sixteen, Emily didn't start her journey into the world of professional cooking until she had graduated from university. It was then, armed with a copy of the Michelin Guide, that she bought a one-way ticket to Italy and set off on what was to be a life-changing trip. With no formal training, not to mention not being able to speak Italian, it was the steepest of learning curves for her, but then they say you discover your true self when the pressure is really on.

Now, having been inspired by the passion she saw in the Italian kitchens, and with fond memories and valuable lessons from her time at The Fat Duck, Emily and her husband run their own establishment that consists of an award winning restaurant, as well as a bed and breakfast business. She took time out of her busy schedule to catch up with The Essential Cyclist and talk about her career, and the challenges of juggling it with her family life.

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Marcus Leach: How did you get into food and cooking?

Emily Watkins: Total greed, I love eating so the better I could make my own food the better I could eat. In terms of professional cooking my mum had a country house and hotel down in Dorset, so I guess I subconsciously picked up on it there to start off with. My first real job as a chef though wasn't until I had finished university, when I took myself off to Italy on a one-way ticket with a Michelin Guide and just begged for a job at restaurants out there.

ML: That must have been a great learning experience?

EW: It was absolutely brilliant. It taught me an awful lot, including the language, which I think was a good think that I didn't understand it when I first got there, especially when I was being shouted at in the kitchen.

ML: Nothing like going in at the deep end. Was it very difficult to have to learn cookery and the language at the same time?

EW: Luckily I was quite young and naive. In hindsight yes, it was fairly stupid, but actually looking back it was brilliant and I am so glad I did it the way I did. Because I was young and new I was very determined to get into it, especially working in a kitchen with people who had a few years more experience than me having started at the age if sixteen. I was twenty and had been to university, got a degree and had a job in an office, which I hated, so I was so determined and focused to make it work.

ML: Having been to university, and gone down what some people may see as the traditional career route, were your parents supportive of your change of direction?

EW: Not really. They had done their best to put me off being a chef from the beginning, which is why I ended up going to university, as I had been thinking about becoming a chef when I left school. But I think they just wanted the best for me, and didn't feel that being a chef was a real career. Certainly the attitude towards chefs has changed a huge deal over the last fifteen years, especially since I have become a chef. There is a lot more respect for chefs now, the hours and effort they have to put in to gain any degree of success. The whole food industry has seen a change in attitude.

ML: The industry has changed to the extent whereby now it is a very respectable profession, which wasn't always the case in the past. What has brought about that change in your opinion?

EW: I think the general food scene in the UK has changed so much, and it probably goes back to when TV chefs started becoming popular, and it increased the awareness of these people. They were not just drop outs from school but real people working in a real career, fuelled by a huge degree of passion and putting in a lot of time and effort. Our whole dining industry has changed and developed, pushing the quality of establishments up and thus meaning everyone has to raise their standards.

ML: We do see a lot more chefs on TV now, yourself included, have you enjoyed the limelight?

EW: I don't want to sound ungrateful as I have had some amazing experiences, Great British Menu was absolutely brilliant and it has been great for business, but it's not why I went into the industry. I am a chef and want to be cooking, I never set out to get a career in television or anything like that, but obviously you do these things for the good of the business, and it has been fantastic for everyone involved at the team here as they have enjoyed the exposure it has given us. Like I say, I want to be a really good chef and I'm not desperate to be a television personality.

ML: What was it like cooking on the Great British Menu? Was it a big learning experience for you cooking with so many other great chefs?

EW: It was a huge learning curve, and it was it was brilliant to go and be a chef for a week on an equal par with the other guys. When you are running your own establishment, it's a case of being at work all day with your brigade coming to you with questions, where you are expected to know all of the answers, and you have to run a business. So it was great to just chat food, exchange tips and see what other people are doing, because you can be so busy and caught up in your own little world that sometimes your opportunities to be creative are diminished, so I really enjoyed that side of the process.

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ML: How daunting was it putting your dishes up in front of the veteran chef?

EW: That was the most terrifying part for me, as you're wearing your heart on your sleeve and you are putting up a dish you have poured so much time and effort into and it is open to criticism. You have tried your best at everything, and it is a stressful environment to cook in, and then you haver to have it judged by a two Michelin star chef, it was terrifying. But at the same time who better to get feedback from than that calibre of chef.

ML: Speaking of Michelin stars, you have worked at the Fat Duck in the past. What was that like?

EW: Absolutely brilliant, I loved every minute of it. My only regret is that I wasn't there for longer. Heston was a great boss, a very good tutor and he made you think in a different way. Because I hadn't gone to collage I didn't have the sort of mindset that says 'I have to do it like this, as that's how I was taught', but he always questioned the processes. He always had this mindset of 'why are we doing it this way?' 'Is that the best for that ingredient?' 'Does it bring out the best flavour?' It was really refreshing to know you can question things, and have the courage to try out different ways of doing things that are not necessarily in the old manual.

ML: Do you think that approach reflects in the food you are producing now?

EW: Very much so. I think not only for myself but nationwide people have had more courage to try new things. Sometimes it doesn't work out, other times it does, but throughout it all you learn from everything you do.

ML: That must be the joy of cooking, being able to make new discoveries and experimenting with different foods and techniques to see what you can create?

EW: Exactly. You lean something everyday in the kitchen, and I genuinely believe you never stop learning. It is not a career where you can just tick a box and say I'm done. You can always get inspiration from others, always learn something new and apply it to what you are doing, and thus bettering yourself in the process.

ML: The world of professional cooking is quite male dominated, and yet you are hugely successful within that world, has it ever been an issue for you?

EW: I've never had a problem with it myself. Obviously there has been some banter along the way when I was a junior chef but it depends on how you take it. It's a tough industry, but if you want to be a successful chef it doesn't matter what sex you are, you have to be prepared to do the hard work and put in the hours.

ML: How do you juggle the long hours with being a Mum and a wife as well? Is it a tricky balancing act?

EW: It's quite tricky, I'm not sure how good a wife I am (laughs). I used to leave meals at home for my husband and children, but now they are lucky if they get leftovers (laughs). On a serious note we are very lucky as my husband is a saint and we also have a fantastic nanny, who joined our family last year, which changed our lives enormously. The children are in good hands all of the time, which is important to me. Yes, I would love to spend more time with them, but as a family we have a career we enjoy and are very lucky in that fact.

I love my days off with them, which are probably more exhausting than the long shifts in the kitchen. But that's because we are busy as a family, not to mention cooking and filling the freezer with meals for them all for the week, and making sure they have all their favourites. My eldest, who is five, is a little foodie and is quite particular about his food and likes things to be just so.

ML: So you have your work cut out with a critic outside of the restaurant as well as inside?

EW: Very much so. In fact we had a relief chef here back in the summer who left a meal for the kids. Alfie, my five year old, said his fish goujons were a little bit dry!

ML: It must be nice that your kids are taking an active interest in food though, and appreciate what is good quality produce?

EW: They do, and they enjoy food. They love kids food as well but even that is all homemade. They will try anything and love Indian food, curries, naan, poppadoms. We cook quite a lot of Asian food at home, which they also enjoy. Whilst what we do in the restaurant is very much a British focus on my days off I quite like to cook something totally different. But one thing we always do is have a traditional family Sunday roast and the kids take it in turns picking what meat we will have.

ML: Do you do all of the cooking at home or does your husband help as well?

EW: No, I do the cooking at home for them all. My husband actually is a very good cook, but he obviously thinks I can do a better job so lets me get on with it.

ML: And what of the future? What are your plans and goals?

EW: My ambition is to be here and to be the best I can as a chef and head of the team. We love what we do here and it might be the old cliche but we just want to focus on being the best we can and ensuring that every customer that walks through the door leaves happy. We have a few projects on the go this year, with the big one going green as they say. We have a new kitchen coming in which is going to reduce our carbon footprint, and have a demonstration kitchen to show people what can be done with modern technology in the kitchen.

ML: Do you have a favourite ingredient to cook with?

EW: (laughs) It changes every day. I am always so excited by what is coming up and what each season brings in terms of fresh produce. That's the joy of cooking, there is always something coming into season that you can be creative with. I love spring, it's the most exciting time as we have been through winter and come out the other side. I love the first few weeks of hearty winter cooking but there isn't as much choice as other seasons, so by the time spring comes around, with all of its wonders and variety, I am always so excited to start using everything. It's almost a case of too much choice to pick from.

ML: Finally, what was it like for you on a personal level to get through to the banquet of the Great British Menu and cook for the D-Day veterans?

EW: It was amazing. The significance of cooking at St Paul's Cathedral itself, it was a little intimidating when you walk in to that great building and then it suddenly hits you who you are cooking for and what they have done for this country. These are ladies and gentleman who have put their lives on the line for this country, yet seemed totally bewildered as to why we were going to so much trouble for them.

If it wasn't for them we would never have been there doing that, St Paul's may well have been razed to the ground and future generations may have had a different life to the one we enjoy now. They were all so humble about what they had done, and they loved the evening. We met some brilliant characters and it was a truly wonderful evening, one that I will never forget.

To find out more about the Kingham Plough click here.

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