Tom Kerridge chortles. It’s a lovely sound – hearty and rich – that will be familiar to the many fans of his cookery. The reason for this particular eruption: his newfound status as a sex symbol. Could it be the West Country burr? Maybe it’s the dimples or the increasingly rare sight of a chef who evidently enjoys his food? Surely it’s not the sweat patches?
“It’s bizarre, isn’t it?” he booms. “It’s bonkers! I’m a fat middle-aged bloke with a bald head. I haven’t even got the piercing blue eyes of Paul Hollywood. I take it all with a pinch of salt.”
Keen to move on to less embarrassing matters perhaps, Kerridge proffers his theory about the two million viewers who regularly tuned in to his cookery show Proper Pub Food last September – not bad for a previously little-known TV chef. And the accompanying book knocked Jamie Oliver off the top of the bestseller list.
“Unlike a lot of TV cookery shows that are lifestyle, magazine-y shows, people could relate to mine. And there are a lot more people like me than a super-fit, handsome 25-year-old, aren’t there? I come across like an everyday person because I am one. I’m not pretentious.”
But he’s just an ordinary bloke. He’s great fun – and that’s another secret ingredient. In his hands food is something to be enjoyed rather than preached about. In fact, there’s only one difference to the 6ft 3in man-mountain who bounded onto BBC2 last year: he’s surprisingly svelte. In the past year he’s shed six stone after laying off the beer and taking up swimming. You no longer fear for his arteries when he rhapsodises about pancetta being “streaky bacon on steroids”. Gone, too, are the sweat patches.
The dimples, though, are still present, and his appetite for indulgent fare hasn’t diminished. His new series is stuffed with terrifically calorific dishes like blue cheese cottage pie and a full English breakfast omelette.
His wife Beth, a sculptor, sounds equally down-to-earth and bemused by the female Twitter followers lusting after her husband’s beef. “We both get on with doing what we do. Not once has it been about commercial success as long as we’re doing what we want to and enjoying ourselves, and if we keep enjoying ourselves then that’s all that matters.”
Commercial success came when their pub in Marlow, Buckinghamshire, the Hand and Flowers, became the only gastro-pub to be awarded two Michelin stars. It’s become a favourite destination for foodies from as far afield as Australia and Asia. “I am embarrassed to say it’s an 11- or 12-month wait for a table on a Saturday. The next available midweek lunch is probably three or four weeks away.”
So what’s next on his culinary agenda? Does he plan to build an empire à la Gordon and Jamie? Or take a leaf out of the latter’s book and launch a campaign (as so many celebrity chefs seem to do nowadays, presumably for fear of growing stale)? Kerridge claims not: his place is in the kitchen, dishing up top-class food on a plate-by-plate basis.
Yet there is one matter that sweeps away that signature grin. “The only thing I could see myself trying to change is the pub scene: the way people view pubs and the pubs themselves. The pub industry needs to look at itself and how it operates. It’s no good sitting there going, ‘No one comes to pubs any more.’ You need to look at why and what people’s social habits are.
“Pubs and inns always used to be a place where people would go and eat and then have a drink. It’s only in the past few decades they’ve turned into huge drinking dens. [We need] to make pubs a lot more accessible and food-led because people don’t drink on a lunchtime any more. Even in the evening people are as likely to have a pizza and a bottle of wine with friends as they are to drink five pints. People’s social habits are changing and pubs need to adapt to that.”
Putting his money where his mouth is, he’s planning to open another pub in Marlow in November, a more casual affair – no booking ahead and definitely no tablecloths. “It’s more about having a nice time out with your friends and family rather than bowing down to temples of gastronomy where it’s all hushed. I hate that – where everyone’s whispering across the table just in case someone hears you. That’s not enjoying yourself, is it?”