It all started while I was having dinner with Jamie Oliver and Heston Blumenthal last year. I suggested they might like to cook a charity dinner at the Sandy Lane resort in Barbados in aid of the local Verdun House substance abuse rehabilitation centre and the UK-based Ark Foundation. There would be no fee for their services, but true to the men they are, they both agreed.
At the Ark, set up by Michael Quinn, now part of industry charity Hospitality Action (see opposite), we support men and women in the catering industry who have alcohol and other drug addictions. Heston and Jamie have both given sterling support to the cause and have become honorary vice-chairmen.
Verdun House is the only centre of its kind in Barbados, and treats everyone from kitchen porters to lawyers. I first found out about it on an earlier visit to the island, and it's fantastic that the best hotel in the world supports such a cause.
Having persuaded Colm Hannon, the general manager at the Sandy Lane, to fund the trip and sponsor the event, Heston and I touched down in Barbados on 28 May. Jamie had a filming commitment but hopes to do a similar trip in 2006. Heston immediately commented on the climate and remarked that he would have to change the balance of the tuile mix because of the humidity. My consideration of the weather had gone as far as working out which factor sun lotion I'd need.
Within minutes of leaving an air-conditioned car, Heston was in the kitchen catching up with the members of his Fat Duck team who had flown out three days previously to do the prep work. Immediately a chefs' meeting took place, Heston with his customary pot of Earl Grey tea by his side. Technical scientific jargon was bandied about. Variations of tuile mixes were discussed. It was obvious that the future of the human race depended on it. The tea went cold.
A menu was decided months in advance, but finely tuned on arrival subject to availability of produce. And what a menu. Heston's famed molecular cuisine at its best, with dishes such as nitrogen-poached green tea and lime mousse; oyster, passion fruit jelly, horseradish cream, lavender; and carrot lolly.
In the kitchen, what became quickly apparent was that, unlike in some kitchens, Heston doesn't rule by fear. Respect is a word thrown around with impunity, but Heston doesn't have to demand it - it's simply there. He doesn't have to shout, probably because everyone is listening anyway. Each person was left to his own station and responsibilities. There was total trust. The kitchen back in Bray is minute, so the brigade tends to work together tightly with military precision. They communicate very well. Respectfully. Fat duck head chef Ashley Watts was searing the scallops and then placing them under the grill - 45 seconds, he said. After about 25 seconds on one batch, Heston went to take them out. Ashley stated simply, "not ready", and Heston left them alone.
Preparation is everything to Heston, and there were debates and discussions over every aspect of the dinner, which was held in the L'Acajou restaurant on two nights, 29 and 30 May. Staff meetings with front of house were detailed, food tasting not just a token gesture.
Many of the Bajan staff had no idea that Heston is held in such high esteem back in the UK, but his charm and charisma soon had them "working for him". For instance, one of the Bajan chefs was cooking the filo parcel with pigeon. One of the parcels had browned too much for Heston's standards and he asked, very gently, if they could do them slightly less. Then he turned to me and said, "I asked them to do 20 more than we needed". It shows his understanding.
All the preparation paid off. Despite the pressure of cooking for 70 people, the most the Fat Duck team has ever catered for, both evenings went spectacularly well and the clients, who had each paid US$300 (£165) for the experience, were blown away. Altogether, the event raised 5,000 for the charities.
It was a privilege to have witnessed Heston at work. The truth is, from a culinary perspective, I was out of my depth, despite the fact that in my heyday as a chef I was probably above average. Alongside the Fat Duck team, however, I was too slow by a mile. Even so, never once did I feel excluded or unwanted, and the brigade took time to answer my banal questions, ask my opinion, and generally allow me into their tribe. I even earned myself a nickname, "Hardcore Old School", as bestowed on me by Ashley. I earned it because I wear a tie and do up the buttons on my chef's jacket, vigorously polish my shoes, and sport a white apron instead of a blue-and-white striped one.
I earned it because I place my palette knife in the string of my apron, and when chopping I intermittently tap the point of the knife twice on the board. I earned it because I speak French mixed in with English, and answer "oui chef" to commands around the kitchen; because I use Gustav Emil Ern knives and worked at the Savoy when it still had a coal-fired stove. I was serious "Hardcore Old School", and proud of it.
While I've worked with many nicknames in the past (for example, Cash 'n' Carry Harry - he used to nick things - Arthur Aspic, Kosher Dave, Phil the Thug), within the Fat Duck brigade Heston was Heston, Ashley was Ashley, Rupert was Rupert and James was James.
hey don't seem to waste time with nicknames for themselves as it doesn't improve the food. And for them it's all about the food, and the search for perfection.
But apart from the food, Heston's management style was the biggest revelation. Chefs in charge of kitchens have, I believe, an obligation to pass on what they have learnt and to support and nurture future talent. This cannot be achieved through a fear-based regime, or bullying, shaming tactics. It might work at one level, but you produce a generation who behave only in the way they were taught, and the shaming continues.
Today my job involves working with human beings and seeing how they behave and respond to situations. In my experience, people who shout at and shame other people are themselves very insecure. Those with self worth and belief don't have to shout and scream.
The people I most admire in this industry - Michel Roux, John Williams, Anton Mosimann - have a quiet, confident way about them. You rarely hear them swearing, shouting or screaming. This isn't a sign of weakness, it's a sign of strength. Those who shout are trying to cover up a frailty.
Heston works the other way. He supports and inspires, nurtures and teaches, not just about cooking, but about life. How many three-star chefs provide a life coach for staff members, give their employees two-and-a-half days off a week, and encourage them to go to the gym?
I left cooking after I became an addict, and over the past five years many people have asked me whether I miss the professional kitchen.
ntil now I've answered, "not particularly". Thinking back to those times, I would feel the fear and anxiety rising. So much of my memory of those days is focused on negative thinking, my deep, dark alcohol- and drug-fuelled depression, and the enormous pressures I felt to simply get out of bed and go to work. Needless to say, pleasurable reminiscences are few. But after spending three days cooking with Heston and his team and the brigade of Marcel Driessen at Sandy Lane, for the first time in many years I was enthused and inspired sufficiently to want to return to the kitchen.
Although my expertise today is focused on understanding emotions and working with people to support them in freeing themselves from the bondage of addiction, I still couldn't tell you exactly what quality Heston has that gets the best out of people. He accepts nothing short of perfection in himself, yet is supremely tolerant of others who "give their all", and will support and coach them in areas where they may be lacking.
As well as being a consultant at the Ark, I'm chief executive at the Sporting Chance Clinic, set up by former Arsenal and England football captain Tony Adams. Through my work, I have met many inspiring people, and even played football with a few of them - being greeted by Sir Alex Ferguson by my first name feeds my ego to the point of obesity. But nothing has matched my experience of cooking with Heston Blumenthal.
Menu for the Charity Dinner
Cooking for charity
Heston Blumenthal has been involved with the Ark Foundation for just over a year as an honorary vice-chairman. From July the Fat Duck will be making a donation to the charity of 25p for every customer. We asked him why he supports the Ark.
"We're cocooned here, but there are lots of young chefs out there tackling the pressures of chefdom in top kitchens who turn to drink or drugs. They work long hours in kitchens that are not always comfortable places to be, but they have no one to turn to. London is worse because when they finish work there are lots of temptations.
"Obviously, there are lots of worthy charities out there for cancer, heart disease or children, but this is closer to home. It's our duty to put something back into the industry. Without the Ark it could potentially become a much bigger problem."
The Ark Foundation
The Ark Foundation, part of industry charity Hospitality Action, was set up to educate students, managers and employees about alcohol and drugs through educational seminars. It helps anyone in the industry to face up to an addiction, be it to alcohol, drugs or other substances, and helps to restore confidence and ultimately make family and friends more aware of addiction, and how they too can give support.
The foundation's philosophy is based on "collaboration, not confrontation". It seeks to "clarify goals and talents, build self-esteem, strengthen relationships and reconnect with inner resources that transform and enlighten. We help to change self-destructive patterns, release emotional blocks and rebuild lives."
Tel: 020 7301 2968
The kitchen survival guide
Peter Kay and Heston are writing a book called The Kitchen Survival Guide, due out next year. The book will include interviews with leading chefs sharing their experience of dealing with the pressures of the kitchen. It will offer advice and promises to be an insight, humorous and educational read.
Part of the book will deal with the problems the Ark faces with alcohol and drug dependency, and will show readers how to spot the signs when drinking turns from social, life-enhancing experience to life-threatening.
The book aims to raise the profile of the Ark's work and raise the money to support catering workers through their therapy and provide residential treatment, which isn't currently available in this country.