Published 19 October 2021
by Henry Southan
CODE met Greg Clarke at his residency at The Pass at South Lodge Hotel in Sussex. After a period of private chef work and a near career-ending injury, the move marks his return to the restaurant kitchen.
I started in pubs around Manchester for a bit of pocket money. My sister was a barmaid in a pub, so I got a job in the kitchen washing the pots. My parents told me that I either needed to start taking kitchen work seriously, or I had to go to university and study, so I was shipped off to work at Gleneagles when I was 17 where I properly trained. I then followed a girlfriend to Edinburgh and handed my CV’s into all the two or three Michelin star places that were there at the time, and ended up at the first one that would have me, Martin Wishart’s. After a while there, I moved to London and worked with Tom Aikens which was an eye-opener. He’s an incredible chef. I’ve always tended to pick the hardest people to work for. I don’t know what that says about me, but I was looking for people that I knew could whip me into shape. After some time at The Ledbury and Midsummer House, I opened Typing Room with Lee Wescott and was head chef there. I was about to open my own place a few years ago and had some investors lined up and whatnot, but it sadly fell through. I’ve most recently been doing private work for high profile clients such as the Beckham’s and Guy Ritchie as I got an injury on my arm which took me out of the game. This residency at The Pass is almost like my return to the fine dining arena after three years.
Copenhagen is the mecca of food. The standard of food over there far surpasses London. But London isn’t too far behind. I think the great thing about London is that the food scene is so diverse. If you want a good Sri Lankan meal, you’ll probably get one of the best Sri Lankan meals outside of Sri Lanka. Copenhagen dining is all quite similar in comparison. I think the UK food scene is really exciting at the moment, I think there’s a lot of people trying to do something original, which is hard when everything feels like it’s already been done.
I think first and foremost it’s got to be the ingredients. The ingredients always inspire me first. I’m not a chef who picks up a cookery book. I don’t get much inspiration by looking at other people’s work. I always try and make stuff my own and put a completely different spin on it.
Midsummer House probably when I was there as the development chef. I was proud because it was my menu, developed with Daniel, that helped the restaurant retain its two Michelin stars, and worked on how we could reach three stars. We got to number six or seven in the Good Food Guide that year. It gave me the confidence, knowing I could cook to a certain level. It was more of a personal achievement really, rather than a big award getting handed out or something like that.
It’s funny because a lot of chefs end up doing private work at the end of their career as a chef, and usually don’t return to the restaurant kitchen as it’s often quite good money. I never really wanted to do private stuff, to be honest, it never fully satisfied me. I need to be creative, and you can’t be truly creative with private clients as they want what they want. I’ve been lucky though; my last private job was with a friend to do a game season on Guy Ritchie’s estate. One of the nights of each shoot would always be a tasting menu and I was given freedom with that, and other days I’d be cooking on an open fire in front of the guests and I enjoyed that. In general, private work can be limiting because on the whole, rich people are quite picky so you don’t get much chance to be creative! I went to Pidgin after some private stuff, purely because I lived in Hackney and knew the great owners. Really frustratingly I injured my arm, and it felt like yet another non-starter. It took me a year of physio to try and heal it. I couldn’t pick up a knife or anything. And then COVID hit! It feels like there have been so many obstacles over the last few years.
The restaurant is essentially in a glass box overlooking the kitchen, so it’s very interactive. It’s funny because I remember going in when it first opened when Matt Dillon had it and thinking “wow what a space to have for your restaurant.” It’s crazy to think that a few years later that it’s mine.
That’s tricky! I do love the melon dessert we do. We do an infused sheep’s yoghurt panna cotta with lavender, Charentais melon and what we call a ‘caramac tuiles.’ In all honesty, what’s been great is that usually tasting menus will have a stand-out favourite, but having spoken to diners, all the courses have been mentioned multiple times as peoples favourites.
Yes, I think it’ll bounce back massively. I think huge changes need to happen though. The way hospitality staff and chefs are treated needs to change big time. In terms of recruitment, I’m quite fortunate that I didn’t struggle too much to find the team for this pop-up. I think because it’s a six-month pop-up, it wasn’t a huge commitment for someone to make and was probably a nice proposition for someone who is perhaps coming back into the kitchen after lockdown. I also made sure the team were doing four days rather than five a week as I just don’t think there’s a need to do five 16-hour days. I did it when I was training but I just don’t see why it’s necessary anymore. I think it’s already been seen since places have reopened, but prices have needed to go up in the UK restaurant scene so badly. You only have to look at how much the price of a carton of cream has gone up in the last ten years, yet the price of a menu at a Michelin star restaurant has not changed for over 15 years. The margins are getting tighter and tighter for the chefs and the owners. When you look at other countries like the US and Scandinavian countries, you pay a lot for food when you eat out, but quite rightly so, there’s been 10 poor souls in that kitchen preparing your lunch since 8 am that morning. It costs a lot to switch the lights on, it costs a lot to get the delivery drivers to come to you. I think guests are happy to as well, especially at fine dining level. I think people have really missed eating out in lockdown and think they’d be more than happy to pay that extra five or ten pounds more per head.
Being creative. I also don’t think there are many jobs where your team become almost like a little family, it’s nice. There also seems to be a lot more support now between chefs looking after each other, even on Instagram, it’s nice to receive messages from other chefs complimenting your dish or presentation and asking how you did it.
I think any chef that told you they didn’t have that ambition would be lying. It’s the dream to have a Sat Bains type set-up somewhere. I’m honestly really loving the experience so far at The Pass, and hope they’ll have me back! Everyone’s been so nice and welcoming. Looking at the future, I do have a potential offer that’s very similar in Copenhagen to do a residency out there, so we’ll see!
I love eating at Parilla. Ben’s a mate, and I used to live near there so went all the time. Black Axe Mangal too. I like eating at not very fussy places. I usually pick a couple of really fancy places I want to eat that year, and the rest will be more casual spots.