Food for Thought Interview
A few years ago I was approached to do an interview for a food magazine which never got published.
If you are interested you can see the unedited interview below:
Peter Alton is a Food & Beverage Buyer within the Hospitality Industry. He is a trained Chef and self-confessed foodie who has worked in the industry for over 30 years. He is also a keen runner who has completed over 25 Marathons for Breast Cancer Charities.
Tanya McCloughan asked the questions.
TM. Where did your love of food come from?
PA. I firmly believe my love of food came from my Grandparents who really gave me my passion for trying new things. As a child I was brought up eating home-grown and home-cooked foods. Both my Mum and Nan were good cooks and to this day I still have some of their recipes. My Dad was a Chef so it must be in the genes!
TM. So were you always going to be a Chef?
PA. Not really, at school I was not sure what I wanted to do. Catering College was always an option and as I liked food it seemed the obvious choice.
TM. Did you enjoy College?
PA. Looking back I absolutely loved it. I went to Highbury College in Cosham which was one of the best Catering Colleges in the UK at the time. I was one of the first students in the new catering block so everything was shiny and state of the art. Well state of the art for 1981 at least! It was extremely hard work. There was so much to learn and the pressures were enormous but I managed to last the full 3 years.
TM. You say last but didn’t you finish with a Distinction.
PA. I did but I was lucky. I really enjoyed both the practical and theory elements of the course so that made it easier. I was also learning alongside some very talented people. We helped each other through some tough days.
TM. How was it tough?
PA. Generally the practical side of College was meant to replicate the stress of a modern kitchen. Therefore we were put under enormous pressure to produce dishes on time and to the required standard. The practical exams were intense and extremely complicated so coming through with any sort of pass was a special achievement. Looking back it was character building but at the time it was extremely frightening.
TM. Did you feel equipped to face the industry at the end of your 3 years?
PA. Yes and no. I had learnt a lot and had a good grasp of the basics but I was still only 19 and the industry was big and scary.
TM. Your first jobs were in London?
PA. Yes, I was lucky enough to work as a Chef in the Café Royal, Claridges and Langan's Brasserie with Richard Shepherd which at the time was the best place to eat in London.
TM. How did you find working as a Commis Chef as part of a large brigade.
PA. I was very much at the bottom of the ladder so it was incredibly tough and exhausting. I was working very long hours and not seeing daylight for days at a time. It was not glamorous at all but it taught me a great work ethic. I also got to work alongside some truly great Chefs. I was constantly watching and learning so it was really an extension of my time at college.
TM. So how did you come to move away from a career as a Chef?
PA. Like many Chefs I became disillusioned with the business. I loved the food, loved the people but hated the unsociable hours and the poor pay. I was bright and a quick learner so I gradually moved to the front of house.
TM. Where did your career take you?
PA. I initially worked in the retail side of the business as part of a large supermarket chain. I then moved on and had jobs in charge of restaurants and food operations in the travel sector for the cruise and ferry industry. For the last 18 years I have been working on the Procurement side.
TM. What does your job entail now?
PA. I am a Food & Beverage Buyer in the Cruise Industry. My job involves sourcing and supplying a myriad of food and beverage products for the major Cruise Lines. One day I can be sourcing caviar the next day it will be containers of grapefruit. I am buying products for some of the best quality restaurants in the world so getting the best balance between price and quality can be a real challenge.
TM. Do you miss being a Professional Chef?
PA. Well I am still a Professional Chef. If you mean do I miss working as a Chef in the industry then the answer is yes. However my career has taken me on many paths and I have worked with many wonderful people who I am still in touch with. I enjoy my job as it gives me the best of both worlds; working with food and spending time with my family.
TM. Do you cook at home?
PA. Yes. One of my favourite things is cooking for my wife and son. I see the same passion in his eyes that I had at that age. He has a healthy appetite and a good understanding of food and where it comes from.
TM. Would you like him to follow in your footsteps?
PA. First of all I would like him to be happy. If that involves food then I guess it would give me some satisfaction but as long as he chooses a career path that gives him pleasure I will be happy. Being rich and successful is one thing but money can never truly buy happiness.
TM. As a Chef what food do you eat at home?
PA. My wife is from the Philippines so we eat a mixture of Asian and European. One day we may be eating Cottage Pie the next it may be Adobo. Simple food with good flavour always appeals to me.
TM. What is your favourite meal?
PA. I love Sushi because it is so simple. The subtle flavours really appeal to me. I enjoy all Asian food; Vietnamese Noodles, Cantonese Dim Sum and Congee and Filipino Adobe are my real favourites.
TM. Do you have any guilty pleasures?
PA. Ketchup and Salad Cream but don’t tell my College Lecturers. In Hong Kong my guilty pleasure is their famous Egg Tart and in the Philippines it is Jollibee a franchise fast food chicken chain similar to KFC in the UK. They serve the Aloha Burger a Hawaiian style burger that I simply cannot resist.
TM. Do people assume as a Chef you like fancy food?
PA. Very much so. People are often afraid to cook for me because they assume I will be critical. In truth the simpler the food the more I like it. In fact my favourite ever meal was in Hong Kong at the airport. It was a simply Foo Yung dish which was essentially scrambled eggs with a few spring onions and shrimps. It was almost orange in colour because the eggs were so fresh. It was so simple but absolutely delicious.
TM. Who are your Food Heroes?
PA. Unquestionably Anthony Bourdain and Marco Pierre White. I like people who appreciate simple food. If you don’t get the basics right then you are never going to make a great dish. I also like people with strong opinions on food and people who are not afraid to speak their mind.
TM. These two aside who would your top six dinner guests be?
PA. This is hard but definitely Adam Ant and Stephen King as music and literature have been constant in my life since my childhood. If I had to choose other guests then Eric Cantona, Eddie Izzard, Jonny Wilkinson and John Lydon would be my choices.
TM. You mention Eddie Izzard did he inspire your marathons?
PA. Yes he did. I lost my Mum to Cancer in 2008 and shortly after I watched his Marathon Man documentary. Seeing his achievements as a non-runner inspired me to give it a try.
TM. You actually ran 25 Marathons in 2 years which was and is quite special.
PA. I was pretty lost after my Mum passed away. Running was my way of coping. I raised £8,000 running 25 marathons in just over 2 years for various Breast Cancer Charities. It was tough as I really was a non-runner. At first I couldn’t even run a mile. I am paying the price now as my legs have never fully recovered.
TM. That is impressive. Do you still run?
PA. Not as much as I should? I run for fitness but one day I may run another Marathon. My name is still in the London Marathon Ballot so who knows.
TM. Good luck with that. Thank you so much for your time and for talking to us it is really appreciated. I am sure you will be an inspiration to all our readers.
PA. You are very welcome.