No Holding Back as the Celebrity Chef Tells all…
I have always been a fan of Antony Worrall Thompson. Not least because here is a man who is as great a character as he is a culinary talent. So when I heard he’d be starring at the Gibraltar International Literary Festival last weekend, naturally I just had to be there. I suppose many of us assumed that the interview we were about to witness (carried out by Donald Sloan – head of the Oxford School of Hospitality Management at Oxford Brookes University and chair of Oxford Gastronomica and titled: Back on the Stove: A Celebration of Cooking) was going to be a back to business kind of affair. But nothing could have been further from the truth and what followed was one of the most fascinating, heart-wrenching, humorous and eye-opening talks I think I have ever attended.
Antony transports us back to his early years.
Which doesn’t exactly make for the happiest of childhoods. His attempt to inject some comedy into the proceedings is utterly infectious though. For who could imagine coming into this world courtesy of The Royal Shakespeare Theatre? Antony’s mother’s waters actually broke mid-scene as she played Juliet opposite his father’s Romeo! Luckily, the one and only Richard Burton was understudy… and went on to become Antony’s Godfather.
But that’s where the glitz and glamour stopped – the “terribly scary” Fanny Craddock waltzing around the family home aside – (his mother later directed her show). Because aged 3, the barely out of nappies Antony was sent off to boarding school where he recounts stories of utterly cruel treatment. One such incident being a stint in the “cole hole” as penance for his sleepwalking antics which had taken him to the hippo penny slot machine at Brighton pier where he was eventually picked up by the police and brought back to the ‘safety’ of the school. He recalls how he was walloped as soon as the police left, and fed only bread and dripping in the dark (which oddly, he now rather likes). Eventually he escaped from the gruesome punishment, and soon after ran away with a tramp and his dog for 3 days.
“I was a rebel then and I’m a rebel now,” he says with a distant twinkle in his eyes.
The Resilient Rebel
Indeed in a childhood peppered with rebellion (including kicking the head boy… followed by the headmaster, and the theft of the headmaster’s cane), Antony agrees that his experiences have made him somewhat resilient. A latchkey kid, the young Antony was all too often left to his own foodie devices, resulting in some interesting concoctions.
“I started with Butterscotch Angel Delight”, he smiles.
And from there he moved swiftly on to Duck a L’Orange in his own inimitable 8 year old style which entailed the dousing of a still feathered duck with Kia Ora in a canoe on the Thames.
Aged 16 he was involved in an accident which crushed the orbits in his eye and cracked his jaw.
“For five years I couldn’t look at a girl,” he tells us.
The 12 week operation to ‘patch him up’ was pioneering at the time and resulted in a halo on his head to correct his jaw. One can hardly imagine the implications during the teenage years, a time when self-confidence is key and appearance everything.
A few years later when he started out in the kitchen, it was to be in Essex, a county whose mere existence was wholly disapproved of by his upper-class Grandmother, and she even begged him to quit. But he stubbornly refused. Clearly, one of the benefits of having to adopt an independent streak at a tender age…
From sadness to success
AWT shares stories about his penchant for French fine dining – and his culinary quest to up his game which took him all over France where he learned from some of the biggest names in the industry. This heavily influenced his style. As did the late – and irreverent – Keith Floyd.
“Then there was Delia, bless her… no she’s still alive…”, he cheekily adds.
Ultimately, Antony’s mother was his ‘biggest critic’.
“She never praised me,” he explains. “She said really wonderful things to other people but never me…”
We could assume the backstory was an attempt to tug at our heart strings…
Naturally. The cynics among us, the Daily Mails of this world (or as AWT lovingly – and perhaps a little too kindly – refers to them, The Daily Menace) absolutely would have. Oh, they’d have had a field day. However, I would like to think that most of us in that room were a) there because we were genuinely interested to hear what Antony had to impart to us about his love of food and b) emotionally intelligent enough to know that nobody just goes out to shoplift. And so, actually, for him and for us, I think the backstory was necessary. Now we better understand his actions. For haven’t we all been there and done that ourselves? No, not in precisely the same way, nor perhaps precisely the same action. But no doubt our skeletons could reveal something in a similarly interesting fashion.
Just put yourself in this man’s shoes for a moment.
I want you to recall a time when you did something foolish, a little too risque. I know that you too have crossed the line of rebellion at some point in your life. We all have. And no, these incidents are not merely restricted to childhood either. So now, tell me how you would feel if exactly 793 articles were penned and published by the mainstream media about your moment of madness?
“Life’s fun and cheeky and you do things you regret. But it doesn’t matter,” says AWT on reflection.
However, the reality at the time was that for a string of petty shoplifting offences, whose total amounted to £70.68, only the sinking of an Italian ferry could (temporarily) break up the media’s disdain for the celebrity chef.
“I’m not a paedo. I don’t abuse my wife. In the spirit of life it’s quite small.‘
At The Glass House we completely agree. Everybody deserves a second chance. Just because somebody is in the public eye and they have a momentary slip up, it does not give a certain newspaper carte blanche to jet off to Australia to interview said person’s ex-wife. Period! And this, in the great scheme of things, has painted nothing but an utterly shambolic picture of the state that is the UK’s media. Far from highlighting the mishaps of a famous culinary face, it has (let’s hope in a positive way) made us realise that journalism needs to change its ways. For had this been Joe Bloggs down the road, we’d all be none the wiser. Which makes such blase reportage even more ridiculous… The aftermath hasn’t been the prettiest picture for the chef or his family.
“It was silly but not deadly,” Antony concludes.
So why the autobiography?
Simply put, AWT still doesn’t know exactly why he found himself shoplifting. It certainly wasn’t a money thing. He owned, and still does own, two successful restaurants. Neither could he sympathise with himself. He knew he that bottling it up wasn’t the answer, not unless we wanted to go through life hating everyone. “You’ve got to move on. Learn and move on.” And that’s why he’s decided to write a book about it. Having visited the top clinics in Arizona and Switzerland where, after wiring his brain to a machine, they affirmed: “You’re normal. I want you to work for us,” AWT is genuinely none the wiser. His list of possible theories range from the thrill of risk taking (something which has clearly been ingrained in his psyche since childhood) to a fear of getting older (at the time he’d just hit 60).
“I should have robbed a bank, not Tesco,” he quips.
Many surrounding him at the time agreed he could have at least done over Waitrose…
I think as an audience we felt privileged.
It couldn’t have been easy for AWT to rake up his past, to go into real detail about some of the most harrowing experiences of his life. But I know we all came away feeling uplifted, enlightened, ready to march up to the BBC demanding he appear back on our screens again. Not that he particularly even wants that.
Chatting about this in reference to his good pal, Rick Stein, he explains:
“We’re of an age where we look at the others and think ‘you don’t know what you’re doing …!'”
We’re pretty sure he’s referring to the plonking of scallops into a cold pan. Possibly also the man who filled his boots on Saturday Kitchen:
“I trained James Martin. What does he know?”
He could also be alluding to the men of Masterchef, whom he describes thus:
“One who knows something and one who doesn’t… But you can’t be bitter.”
And why should he? Success, after all isn’t merely defined by an appearance in a makeshift kitchen on a TV screen. Ultimately, AWT is a tall order for any of the ‘new-age’ chefs to follow; he’s had 32 cookbooks published – many with a diabetic slant, he’s fronted numerous successful cookery programmes, he pioneered fine dining for women in the 80s courtesy of his international restaurant menage a trois (it was Princess Diana’s favourite), he was the catalyst behind British Airways’ overhaul of Club Class menus which catered solely for male tastebuds in the late 70s and early 80s. Heck, he’s the only person to have won the game show The Weakest Link twice… through tactics, admittedly. Then who could forget his inspired group rebellion over the lack of sausages on I’m a Celebrity get me out of Here?
His current restaurants, The Greyhound and Kew Grill, are thriving.
Not to mention the private dinner parties. One such being for Ryan Air boss Michael O’Leary who Antony flummoxed about the proposed payment of £1 to use the toilet thing:
“Michael O’Leary, I’ll pay your £1… but I’ll sit on the loo the whole flight.”
“Good point”, O’Leary retorted
AWT hints jokingly (well, we assume) at politics:
‘Me and Boris would’ve ruled the world. The blonde bombshells!‘
Now there’s a thought…