Taking time out from his busy schedule for an interview with Food & Drink Guides, Keith Mitchell, executive chef at The Grand Hotel in Eastbourne, offers inspiration for would-be chefs and provides a humble and enlightening insight into his long and illustrious career.
What/who inspired you to become a chef?
How long have you got? It began at school aged 15 or 16. It was the first year that the school leaving age was raised from 15 to 16 and in conjunction 16 year olds were given subject options. Until then girls had always done ‘domestic science’ and needlework, while boys had done woodwork and metalwork – that’s just the way it was. Needless to say there was a certain amount of novelty value in these first-time options and many chose to reverse the norm just because they could. I elected to study domestic science and I loved it!
Where did you train?
From school, I applied to attend catering college at Thanet Technical College (now East Kent College) but was talked out of the chef’s course in favour of a National Diploma in Hotel Management. I failed to obtain the entry qualification and ended up on a general catering course, which was made up of 50% chef and 50% waiter aspects.
In my second year we went on a college trip to the Hotelympia exhibition, seen by most as a student ‘jolly’. Little did I know that I was heading for a life changing ‘Wow! Eureka!’ moment. Shortly after entering, we stumbled across the Salon Culinaire – the UK’s largest and most prestigious chef competition. I could not believe what I had found. I was not just inspired – I was in awe of what I was witnessing. I had never seen anything like it in my sheltered culinary life. Whilst the rest of my pals continued their jolly in search of free samples, I spent the entire day alone, absorbing the Salon Culinaire. I knew that one day I had to be able to do this. It was a watershed and I was back on track with my career objective of being a chef.
I was lucky that this coincided with the college starting a specialised third-year chef’s course. I think I was the only general caterer that elected to stay on for that course. Following this third year, I set off to the West End of London, as was considered the only serious way for a chef in those days – how times have changed! My first position was as a commis chef at Crockfords Club in Carlton House Terrace (now relocated to Curzon Street). Whilst there, I returned to college one evening a week to study for my City & Guilds 706/3 Advanced Catering Certificate, this time at the renowned Westminster College for a further two years.
What do you enjoy most about being a chef?
The daily challenge, the sense of achievement and satisfaction, the pleasure of my guests, moulding future chefs, the respect … if I’m honest, being the king of my castle and kitchen – that is my comfort zone.
Which chefs have most inspired you, in terms of both your career and cooking style?
Sadly few will recognise the name now, but I owe so much to my very first head chef – at Crockfords Club. His name was Leon Portavecchia and he had formerly been the head chef of the Ivy in its heyday. Prior to that he was sous at the Mayfair. He passed away some time ago.
When I was senior sous at the Ritz Casino, the head chef, John King, provided me with the environment in which I could create innovative dishes and develop myself. At the same time, Paul Gaylor, then at Inigo Jones, inspired me to move way from the classics and investigate a more modern approach.
Have you or your restaurant won any awards or received any notable accolades?
I think my biggest achievement is probably consistency. There is no Michelin star – but I have had two AA rosettes for 30 consecutive years, since my first year in my first head chef position. Our Mirabelle Restaurant is one of just a small group recognised for its longevity in The Good Food Guide, now featuring in its 26th or 27th consecutive year.
I was a fierce competitor in my younger days and was well respected on the competition circuit. I have many gold medals from all the major UK salons and from overseas, including the World Culinary Olympics, and I am a former captain of the British team of chefs. I came second to Gordon Ramsay in the National Chef of The Year in 1992 and won the British Taittinger competition before representing the UK in both the semi-final and the international final in Paris, gaining a Mention d’Excellence. I have also won Grand Prix d’Honneur titles for the most outstanding exhibits in both cold display and live competition categories – I am not sure if anyone else has this boast.
What’s your most memorable cooking experience?
Perhaps surprisingly, it doesn’t include me! My son is also a chef and at an elaborate awards dinner in the presence of all those I respect, my most memorable experience was hearing his name announced as overall winner of the Annual Awards of Excellence of the Royal Academy of Culinary Arts. It was one of the proudest days of my life and it brought a lump to my throat and a tear to my eye.
What are your hopes for the coming year?
The industry has a real recruitment problem that it must recognise and deal with in whatever way it can. My hope is that as an industry we start to examine ourselves more and accept some hard truths about what is needed to improve.
To be a good chef you need to be… in no particular order…
Prepared to make sacrifices, focused, committed, emotionally controlled, enthusiastic, realistic, driven, disciplined, a people-manager, a multi-tasker and at least a little bit perfectionist …