The story of how I came to be a chef is a little bit different. The last 5 years before leaving home my dad lived in a pub. On leaving school I wanted to be a publican working for my father’s friend but at sixteen I decided I had to go and do something until I turned old enough to actually run one, so I enrolled in an advanced hospitality-catering course back home in Barnsley, England to try and get the diploma so that when I turned eighteen I could go for my liquor license.
The course meant I had to start cooking one day a week and, to be honest, I had no idea how to even cook an egg; I hated it. I wanted to be front of house but my tutor, John Stevenson (a trained chef) saw something in me. I was good at marketing but at everything else I was simply shithouse. I was coming to the end of the first year of my diploma and I hadn’t handed anything in, but John’s son Andrew was a sous chef at Warren House on the outskirts of London (it use to be Henry VIII’s infamous love parlour) so he pulled some strings and got me a two week work experience placement.
The idea was that I would do one-week front of house and one week in the kitchen, but they’d swapped it around when I got there (which I later found out John had done on purpose). On my first day in the kitchen the head chef Mike Taylor chopped his finger off twice with the same knife, he went straight to hospital, came back, straight back to hospital, came back, and threw the knife out. This was all on my first day, I’d never seen anything like it. And the first thing they got me working on was the Banoffee Pie.
It was freaky as hell to make; I had to learn how to make the pastry, make an Italian meringue, slice the bananas right, make the caramel sauce right, make the chocolate element within that – a chocolate mousse – and then the cream. I had to make sure it was all layered properly so that each slice was consistent, no matter which part of the pie it came from.
Later that night I was working on another classic 90s dish: a cooked globe artichoke filled with crab mousse topped with gravlax and 2 chives coming out of it served with a salad of frisse. As we were plating I took the chives out of one and threw them onto the ground, replacing them with two finer ones. Mike (the head chef) turns around to me. “WHAT THE F%*# DID YOU DO THAT FOR!?!?” I stammered “it just didn’t look right chef…” I thought Mike was going to kill me, but instead he patted me on the back.
The next morning I was in at 7am for breakfast and Mike took me into the office “So, how ‘bout a job? You want one?” I worked there for two years and learnt every station. I remember for two weeks they had me going to the fishmonger at 3am to help prepare the fish, then coming in for breakfast service, before going home to rest and coming back again for the night service. It was all part of Mike’s training for me. I did the same at the butcher, learning to break down huge carcasses and it’s still ingrained in me now from those times. Not many people had that opportunity. And by the time I left Warren House I could make the Banoffee Pie from scratch.
It’s one of those dishes you remember so vividly from the first bite. You love them on first taste, and you still love them at fifty, sixty or seventy. Warren House was one of the best times of my life and the Banoffee Pie is tied into that nostalgia and sense of time and place. When I think of the Banoffee I think of coming of age, cockiness, my first shitty car, drinking, smoking for the first time, freedom because I’d just left home, fishing on days off with Mike, being paid monthly and living like a king for two weeks and being skint for the other two.
The Pope Joan Banoffee Pie is not traditional; it’s re-imagined, but it retains the essence and the sensations I associate with the dish. It’s a reincarnation.
My version has a chocolate-chip cookie crumbled up as the base inspired by some cookies my partner Sharlee made – it had to be crunchy, but gooey inside, just like a good cookie. A quenelle of fromage blanc mousse, diced banana mixed with strawberry balsamic to cut through the fat and sugar of the meringue. Crème de lucia, French meringue on top and blow-torched.
Vanessa is in the process of kicking me out of the kitchen at night times, and we both felt the Banoffee Pie just needed a little break. Vanessa now has the challenge of trying to replicate that similar feeling. She has a month to come up with something of the same calibre that plays on nostalgia. Something from her childhood memory, something she can reimagine in the context of Pope Joan’s menu which still retains and plays on those nostalgic sensations we all get when we bite into, the first ice cream of the summer, for example.
I think it’s time. The menu is evolving so much and I know Vanessa is going to come up with an absolute pearler replacement. Stay tuned to our Instagram and Facebook feeds to see what she comes up with. But just so you know Nessie the Chicken Kiev is staying forever!