Chef Phil Vickery is a man who knows his own mind: “I want to be fit and healthy and still doing stuff [in future] but doing it at my pace, and in the way I want to do it,” he says when I ask what he thinks he’ll be doing 20 years from now.
It might seem strange to ask this of a man who has already done so much: he earnt a Michelin star for four consecutive years in the 1990s, won numerous Egon Ronay and AA awards, and wrote 14 books. But I’m trying to find out whether being in his fifties (he is 53) means reassessing life in any way.
You get the feeling that Vickery has quietly but firmly stuck to his guns throughout his career, and isn’t swayed by either food fads or life trends.
While like many of us he wants to make his mark, he’s not a limelight-seeking celebrity chef; he just wants to make simple but great-tasting food.
“I don’t go to someone’s restaurant because it’s meant to be the new good thing or best thing. I’m not inspired by that. I’m inspired by people who do things properly.”
He’s a big Rick Stein fan, having celebrated his 50th at Stein’s The Seafood Restaurant in Padstow with a bunch of friends. He also likes pastry chef Eric Lanlard and Yotam Ottolenghi, who he was inspired by on a houmous-making trip to Tel Aviv.
He’s less of a fan of deconstructed gastronomy. “I’m not into molecular cooking. That doesn’t float my boat. It’s very clever and you have to admire the people doing it but my food is very simple. I don’t play around with stuff too much.”
Vickery’s recipes are the kind of comfort food you can make relatively easily and will please dinner party guests and your family alike.
He’s on the phone to High50 from his Buckinghamshire home (where he’s a part-time farmer) discussing his new TV series Phil Vickery Down Under.
It is currently on ITV’s This Morning, showing him exploring Australian food: having a barbecue on a boat in the Sydney harbour, cooking farm produce in the Blue Mountains and feasting on Great Barrier Reef shellfish.
He says the Australians are lucky to have great natural produce, including oysters and kangaroo, and the country is the biggest exporter of Wagyu beef in the world. While a stereotypical view of an Aussie male might be a loud-talking, Ute-driving meat-eater, that’s not the case, Vickery says.
“I interviewed one chef and he said: ‘The thing is, they don’t like lots of fat, or butter, and they don’t eat lots of cream.’ It’s a lighter, easier style of cooking there. They won’t pay huge amounts of money for it either.”
Vickery is also a big fan of gluten-free cooking, having published three books on it. He’s now looking at producing catering packs, so fish and chip shops will be able to offer gluten-free batter, for example, as well as a range of pies and pasties in Cornwall.
“[Gluten free] is something that interests me and I’m doing over a period of time, I’m not rushing it. There are no E-numbers. We use natural, raw products.”
He uses the words ‘light’ and ‘fresh’ a lot when talking about the styles of food he enjoys. He stays in shape by being aware of what he eats, not having fizzy drinks, walking the dog for 40 minutes every day, and playing in a local seven-a-side veterans’ football team. But he says he is human, being partial to the occasional ‘bit of junk’.
Being a serious runner when he was younger – once completing a marathon in under three hours – has helped him keep in shape, as well as continuing to play football.
“I haven’t changed, I still think I can play football like a 22-year-old, and my son thinks I’d be sent off every week if I played then like I play now. But I won’t give up.”
It’s time for Vickery to go and feed his pigs before dark, so I ask him whether he misses the 14-hour days he worked in kitchens in his youth. “I still work very hard 15 years later. If I sit down come 4pm I think I’m wasting my time, so I pack my day full of things…
“We’re here on this planet for such a short amount of time, I want to pack in as much as I can. I think that keeps you healthy, and your mind fit and alert and ready to do stuff.”
A few strands of dill, parsley and coriander
Half a lemon, in wedges
A 3kg bream or similar fish such as bass or John Dory
2 tbsp olive oil
Small glass white wine
1 Japanese pear (or Granny Smith apple) chopped, with skin on
1 ripe nectarine, chopped, skin on
1 ripe mango, chopped
2 tsp Nam Pla (fish sauce)
2 tbsp olive oil
4 tbsp dry roasted peanuts
Juice of half a lemon
2 tbsp fresh coriander, chopped
1 small pomegranate