Sally Thomson caught up with Richard Corrigan, Michelin star chef and three times winner of Great British Menu, to name just a couple of his achievements. He now runs the Corrigan Collection, and has also penned a recipe book called ‘Cookery School’ and also ‘The Clatter of Forks and Spoons’ about growing up in rural Ireland and some of his favourite recipes.
Sally: So the thing we of course MUST talk about is the Great British Menu! I didn’t realise how many years you have been a judge on it! Where have the years gone?
Richard: Do you know, where have the years gone indeed! It’s like water under the bridge you know? You look back every 4 or 5 years and you think ‘yeah, that’s been a long time’. Then somebody says it’s been 12 or 13 years and you go ‘oh no!’
Sally: And you’ve been involved with most of it! Man to boy!
Richard: You know, of all the things I’ve done, being involved with the Great British Menu has been great fun. Because there’s been very little change to it in those years. I mean, there’s little differences now, Prue has gone on to the Great British Bake Off, which was of course a great replacement, but there’s Matthew (Fort) who is fantastic, and then Oliver (Peyton) is Oliver!
Sally: How do you get on with them?
Richard: I get on with them pretty well to be honest with you. Oliver tickles me a little bit, I’ll be honest with you, being a fellow Irishman, he annoys me a little bit. But overall he is great fun, plus he’s been through the business and out the other end.
Sally: And they’re honest when they judge and when they’re delivering aren’t they?
Richard: And a lot of great chefs have crashed and burned on The Great British Menu, so you know what I mean. I frankly think we’re more ambitious with the standard of chefs than we were 14 years ago, I really do. Being a judge on the latest season…I mean I can’t give too much away but it was absolutely amazing, it really was! There was one person in particular who you will find out about when you watch it…
Sally : It is one of my favourite programmes on TV! We all watch it together at home, and the whole family absolutely love it and we are all really looking forward to it
Richard: When the editors get down to work, they can cut it all down to exactly what everyone wants to see. I make sure I’m never mean. I don’t think I’d ever want to be mean. If you look at my judging I would never give them bad scores.
Sally: That’s something else I was going to say, you are always kind to people. Because people respond better to kindness.
Richard: I think I lost my rag with one chef a few years ago who told me that his trout was wild, but I knew it was farmed, and I just thought why come on this programme and lie? That really got my goat up but I thought afterwards I shouldn’t have reacted like that. But you know, there’s a lot of integrity on The Great British Menu, a huge amount, because we are showing off some great food stuffs, from some wonderful suppliers, farmers and small artisans, so it’s a great leg-up for them and the young chefs, it can start careers.
Sally: Has it changed your life a lot participating in it? Do you find it’s bought you attention?
Richard: I’d just opened Bentley’s when I was doing the first Great British Menu for the Queen’s birthday, and it was an incredible event, with the mansion house cook-off at the end, so yeah of course, and to have been part of them at the end of the day… you should be very proud! You’re then one of an awful lot who didn’t get through, purely with a bit of luck.
You know, I’m a pretty simple home style cook, I don’t like a lot of things on the plate, I like 3 things on the plate and I like them to be great ingredients. I always ask about the ingredients. One of the greatest dishes I ever tasted on The Great British Menu was from a woman called Lisa Allen, from Northcote Manor in Lancashire, and the dish didn’t even bloody get through! It was wild sea trout and honestly it was the best dish I have ever tasted on The Great British Menu. It was fantastic and I think that Lisa Allen is the best chef that has been on The Great British Menu ever.
Sally: Who does she work for?
Richard: She works in Northcote Manor, up in Lancashire, in the river valley. Lisa, because of her modesty, you never really hear a lot about her overall but she’s there and she is just a champion of the rural farming and artisan community, and I love that.
Sally: But you are as well. You are passionate.
Richard: Listen, I just love my little farmers. I just love them. I just think, I can’t do these things. I know when something is small, and when something has come off of a battery farm. I don’t want to eat animals that are lined up, and aren’t looked after. I don’t want that. I would rather be a vegetarian than eat industrialised meat, end of story. That’s my view. And it’s not everyone’s view I know, but it’s my view. I come from a farming background, and animals feel pain. You should see chickens roaming free, and you should see animals rooting freely for their own food instead of in a cage and fed.
Sally: There’s an honesty about it isn’t there.
Richard: Yeah absolutely, and it’s not just about shopping in the finest marble-countered shops. There’s some great food in Britain now, there’s great food to be found all around the countryside and there’s no excuse for eating badly. There just isn’t. Programmes like The Great British Menu, I’m not sure you could say they’ve revolutionised people’s kitchens, but hopefully we might inspire people to look and be a bit more adventurous, to try things, taste things and do things, and it’s the same with The Bake Off to a certain extent. To make stuff. If you have an oven, put something in it!
Sally: So how does the filming take place? Is it all done and dusted or is it something you go back to?
Richard: No it’s finished now so it is coming out near the end of August. I think it would have been aired earlier, but a lot of things took its place, such as the royal wedding, so it’s running a little late but it will be out Autumn time.
Sally: Do the chefs have to be there for long stints?
Richard: It’s done over 4 days
Sally: That’s amazing, especially when you consider they’ve got their own restaurants to run as well. They must have a good team behind them.
Richard: Ah yeah, when you are head chef of a restaurant, its rarely the one person. You have a good team. A lot of the chefs try to fit the filming around their schedules, so they know they won’t be as busy as they would be otherwise. So you would see very few chefs filming in December, and very few at the other busy times of the year. Everyone tries to fit it around the low traffic times so that they can get 4 days out.
Sally: Have there ever been any serious disasters? Have you ever looked at something and thought ‘Oh my gosh they’ve really made a mess out of that’?
Richard: Yeah, I think there’s one on the next series coming up. A legendary fish cook with a great background and he overcooks this piece of fish, and then tries to tell me it’s not overcooked!
Sally: That might have been a mistake!
Richard: I love it. I’ve gone past even being annoyed. I look deep into their eyes and say “Please don’t bullshit me.” You know? Don’t kid a kidder.
Sally: So am I correct in saying that we are entering the peak season for native oysters, which I understand, are one of your favourites?
Richard: Ah yes, start to kick in on the 1stSeptember. It’s not exactly the greatest time, on the 1stSeptember, but from the 1stSeptember onwards, especially October and November, the native oysters, native to the UK and Ireland, are the best.
Sally: Where do you get yours from then?
Richard: I get them from Dorset, I get them from West Merseyside, Colchester, Loch Lyon, then straight down to Cornwall, then from Carlingford, Galway Bay and that’s it I think!
Sally: So that’s why we should all come and visit you at Bentley’s is it?
Richard: I’ve been involved with Bentley’s for about 25 years. I was head chef there 25 years ago, I’ve now been the owner of it for the last 12/13 years, and to tell you the truth it’s a unique, British restaurant that’s been there for 102 years which in itself is incredible. There’s not too many like that. I feel that its not necessarily about the chef’s ego, it’s about great food served beautifully. It’s incredibly busy and very successful, and there I just feel I’m the custodian of it. I came to it, got it back to what it should be, and I’ve been involved with it for a long time. 25 years to be around a place is a long time, and who knows when I’ll be finished with it. It could be 35, 40 or 50 years. So you feel, in the restaurant business when things come and go every 10 years or so as we all know, Bentley’s is a very unique place.
Sally: Well it’s found it’s way into your heart hasn’t it?
Richard: Yeah, of all the things I’ve done, I just feel I am the custodian of it. I have to really look after it for the future, hence we are always reinvesting in it, we just got a new bakery, a new fish prep area, because everything the prepped freshly. Our bread is freshly made, our fish is taken off the bone, our crab is boiled and picked, so there’s nothing brought in in bags. We get in 10-12,000 oysters in during high season. It’s a great trait, because the amount of oysters we go through, and the great people opening the oysters, the oystermen, chefs aren’t allowed to touch oysters..
Sally: Oh really I didn’t know that, why is that?
Richard: I don’t like chefs to open them. We use oyster barmen to open all the oysters because chefs are too busy, and a bad one might end up slipping through, but with oyster barmen, that’s all they are doing, they don’t handle any other food, only oysters. They will spot a bad one a mile off, they’ll know by the touch, and the feel. It hasn’t happened on my watch, a bad oyster getting through at Bentley’s, and that’s because of the energy and the effort we put in, and the discipline and the care.
Sally: And Virginia Park Lodge, how long have you been there?
Richard: I’ve been at Virginia Park Lodge the last 4 and a half years, I’ve rebuilt large parts of it to all the heritage standards, we’ve planted trees, hedges, so I’m growing it, and composting here. We have a no black bag policy here, we crush our glass, we break down the cardboard. So it’s a unique undertaking as a chef, and I look at everything very personally about how everything is done here.
Sally: Do you consider it home?
Richard: Yeah part of my home. Well, London is my home, this is my escape and my escapism. During the Summertime it’s great to spend some time here. But I’m here at Virginia Park Lodge at the moment, but I only came here last night and I’ll be gone tomorrow at noon.
Sally: Oh gosh, it’s a whistle stop tour then?
Richard: Well you know, I’ve walked around, asking why that cardboard is there, why is that there, why haven’t they sorted that, why is there a piece of rubbish there…so I’m the custodian of this place.
Sally: Well you want to keep it up to your high standards don’t you? Because it’s a reflection on you.
Richard: Absolutely. You know, I’m very proud of this place, I’ve got 12 huts from Sheppard huts from Blackdown, a lovely English company in Somerset. We got them to build me 12 huts for the lodge and brought over, installed, and they are really beautiful, all in a forest area, by the lake. You just can’t believe it, honestly. They are so lovely. Stunning. And that’s what we are trying to get to. Of course we do some weddings at the moment, but over the years that will cease and become more of a reflective kind of estate, where there will be no TV, no electronics of such. You come just to chill by wood fires with nice food, very simple; no choice menus, nice wines..
Sally: So at that stage, when someone has got their Sheppards huts, they will be able to come into the lodge and dine with you?
Richard: Absolutely, and at the end of the day they will be able to retreat back and have a wood burning oven in their hut, listen to the birds. The red squirrels are back here over the last 4 and a half years. I told Daphne Shackleton, who has been a consultant on the estate, and she said “No that’s impossible, they can’t be, they can’t be!” She was having lunch here one Sunday, and I’m not joking, her roast beef fell off her folk as a red squirrel jumped out in front of her on the window. And you know when you plant flowers and the bees come, and the insects..I mean, we don’t spray, the whole estate is chemical free. When I came here, I couldn’t hear birds because there was loads of mink, and everything was feeding on them. And it’s been wonderful to watch. We got the feeders out for the birds, with the seeds in the Summer and nuts in the Winter, it really does help. Everything just needed a helping hand. And you know something? The place is now full of birds, it really is.
Sally: I should image you’ve got dragonflies and all sorts now?
Richard: Yes, it’s incredible! They’re amazing! We’ve really just tried to give back to nature, and tried to encourage things to just be better than they were when we first got here. We can’t do much more than that as custodians. I think you have to work in harmony with nature, and I know I’ve learnt a lot. I was going to take a hedge out once, and Daphne said to me “Richard that hedge has been there for a hundred years”. And of course, 2 years later I looked back and thought ‘What was I thinking?’. So it’s great to have taken advice, great to plant trees, and to see these things come alive is great. So from a pretty run-down operation, I think we’ve smartened it up. I’ve done a hell of a lot here, and I think it’s probably a generational place. I’ll probably get my children to try and do the next part. I have put my heart and soul into it, to get it right. Every window has had hardwood put back in, and all the plastic taken out. I’m really bringing it back to what it was; an old hunting lodge on a lake in a massive forest.
Sally: It sounds absolutely wonderful!
Richard: It is! You should go on out and have a look at it. I just feel it’s quiet here. You can just sit here. In the Autumn time, when the wood is burning… we actually chopped all the wood last year for this Autumn, so we’re working a year ahead, so the house in warm inside in the Winter. It’s not one of these cold, dank, dark places. It’s warm.
Legacy is as important as anything else. At the end of your days you are going to say to yourself ‘what did I achieve?’. And I’ll tell you what, planting trees and just giving a bit back is a bloody good achievement.