• Peter Alton

For the Love of Food

Updated: Sep 3, 2020

So where does my love of food come from? I firmly believe that my passion for all things food related and my willingness to try almost anything stems from my childhood and my family upbringing. My much loved Nan and Grandad must take most of the credit as from a very early age I was introduced to a wide variety of home-grown and home-cooked foods. My Grandad was an avid gardener growing a whole manner of fruit and vegetables in his garden. He showed me the delights of growing runner beans, cabbage and cauliflower along with a whole range of soft fruit ranging from English plums to gooseberries. My Nan like my Grandad was old school so everything in the kitchen was made from scratch using what was grown in the garden. I can still remember watching her cook and learning how to make pastry and cakes from basic ingredients.

Some of my fondest memories as a child are of the big family meals we had at their house at 218, London Road Waterlooville (sadly now demolished). At various times during the school holidays my cousins, uncles and aunties would all come to stay. This would be a big event for me as we would have fantastic traditional roast dinners with all the trimmings and yes if you didn’t eat your vegetables you most definitely wouldn’t get any dessert! To be honest I wasn’t a fussy eater even as a kid. As I recall it was only Brussels sprouts and Stilton cheese that I could have quite happily avoided throughout those formative years. The only real problem I had at these family meals was whether I could finish my meal and get to that last roast potato before my cousin Glen, who despite being younger than me could always match me for appetite.  My much missed Mum carried on the tradition set by her parents and although home-cooking has changed a lot over the years she has always instilled the same values in me to experiment and try everything at least once.

My Mum worked as a waitress in a local café called The Black Cat Café. I can remember going to work with her on one occasion and being allowed to watch what went on in the kitchen. My clearest memory here is one of the veg prep guys giving me a raw carrot to try. I had always eaten carrots from my Grandad’s garden but cannot recall eating them raw so this was a new experience. Even now I can still taste that distinct flavour which was somewhat of an epiphany moment for me. Like eating your first oyster or you first taste of true caviar this was a profound moment for me.

Another early food memory is also somewhat unusual. My Nan and Grandad lived in a big house next to a petrol station. The station had one of the first vending machines I can remember on the forecourt next to where the air and water could be found. This particular vending machine dispensed milk shake. My particular favourite was a raspberry milk shake which became a firm favourite with me so much so that if ever I had any money this would be my first purchase. The petrol station is still there but the machine has long gone but the taste of this milk shake still lingers in my senses. Every so often if I taste very fresh raspberries I get transported back in time to this very happy period in my life.

Food always seems to give me happy memories so it is probably no surprise that I followed my nose 9and stomach) into the industry. I began my adventure by training  as a Chef at Highbury College in Cosham. At the time I started there I was a fresh faced sixteen year old. The catering facility at Highbury was only a year old and at the time regarded as one of the best places to learn the trade in the UK. I studied there for three years from 1981 to 1984 and was as proud as anything to emerge with my Diploma in Professional Cookery. If my family gave me my love of food then the lecturers and college definitely fed my addiction. It was one of the happiest times of my life and I am forever grateful to all my lecturers and fellow students who taught me so much that stood me in good stead for later life. I would heartily recommend to anyone thinking of studying catering to go ahead and do it. Even if you never cook professionally after you leave, the skills you learn there will be with you for life.

I can still remember my first day at college as one of the new influx of PCD (Professional Cookery Diploma) students. We were all resplendent in a blizzard of spotless white jackets and blue checked trousers, wearing our new uniforms with pride for the very first time. Our aprons were trailing down to the floor and our starched hats were pointing proudly to the ceiling, we really must have been quite a sight. Over the years our aprons shortened until eventually they were folded into nothing more than miniskirts that just about covered our crutches; while the starched Mohawk-like hats were replaced by neat uniform disposable paper ones. We had finally come of age and were ready to launch our talents onto an unsuspecting world. Looking back it was hard work and frightening at times but honestly worth every second and an experience I would do all over again if I had the chance. It was the days before politically correctness had reared its head so it was a harsh environment for a young teenager.

Saying that the harshness was nothing to what I found when working in a professional kitchen. For a short while I was able to work as a Commis in The Café Royal, Claridge's, Langans Brasserie and Simpson's in the Strand. Working as a Chef in London was fresh, exciting and frightening. Working as a Commis you were on of the lowest ranked employees only one up from the pot wash. You were treated with disdain and generally verbally and sometimes physically abused. Nowadays this sounds horrific but it was pretty standard at the time in the industry. London tended to amplify this somewhat but wherever you worked in the UK it was pretty much the same. This harsh treatment either broke you or made you stronger.

The restaurant trade has always been pretty transient so to survive you had to be strong. As a Commis you had to prove yourself before you were let anywhere near a stove. Although I was a qualified chef I spent 6 months peeling and turning potatoes, turning mushrooms and preparing the mise en place ready for service. I can remember many occasions when my julienne of carrot or my bruinoise of vegetables was unceremoniously thrown in the bin because it was not perfect. Through sheer persistence I managed to survive and once I gained the trust of the brigade I was able to watch and learn from the more senior Chefs. As time went on I was allowed to do more and more in the kitchen until I was welcomed as one of the team. I still have very fond memories of the loud punk music played prior to service and the sense of belonging I felt as part of the team. Outside of work we played hard and in London this could be very hard but I had a lot of fun and learnt a great deal.

My experience in London was for a relatively short time but it is an experience that has left its mark on me both personally and professionally. To this day I have a strange affinity with London and simply love the old school restaurants there. My career took me back down to the South Coast and away to sea working front of house for a change before ending up as a Food Buyer procuring high end products for the cruise industry. I have never forgotten my roots and although my time in the front line was brief I still regard it as one of the best experiences of my life. I am indebted to my college lecturers who got me the placements and hopefully I have paid my dues to the industry.

At home I still cook every day and still get that same sense of enjoyment I felt at 16. I genuinely love food and will try just about anything if I feel it is something that I might enjoy. I am frequently asked what is the best meal I have ever eaten. I have been lucky enough after nearly 40 years in the industry to have eaten in a lot of top restaurants and to have had the opportunity to try a myriad of dishes across the world. I have tried many unusual dishes and as a Food Buyer had the opportunity to taste many new and innovative ingredients before they reach the trade.

It therefore can come of something of a surprise when I reveal my favourite meal is not only very simple but from a most unusual food outlet. The location was Hong Kong International Airport around 2005 in restaurant which if my memory serves me correct was situated upstairs on Level 8 of the main concourse above the various check in desks. The restaurant itself is very simple, quite large but very unassuming. It was early morning and I was catching a flight back to the UK. I was not particularly hungry so I was just looking for something light before my flight was ready to board.

I opted to go for a simple Prawn Foo Yung. The picture above is exactly what was presented to me. You cannot see it on the picture as the colours are pretty subdued but the scrambled egg was almost orange in colour. To this day it is the freshest egg I have ever eaten. For such a simple dish the flavours were exceptional and taught me that to have a great dish sometimes simplicity is really the best. As long as you use good quality ingredients less really is more. Sometimes the most complex recipes containing multiple ingredients are no better than a single ingredient prepared well.

Life can quite easily be compared to food Choose your friends and your ingredients carefully and you will find that good friends and good ingredients can give you much happiness. As a Chef I can give you no better advice than love your life and love your food.

Prawn Foo Yung - Hong Kong Airport 2005

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