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MasterChef winner Simon Wood discusses his culinary passions from veal sweetbreads to Pot Noodle on toast

Cheltenham > Food & Drink > General

Author: Thomas Hadfield, Posted: Friday, 1st February 2019, 09:00

Simon Wood Simon Wood

Since winning MasterChef in 2015, Simon Wood has been on a whirlwind of a journey.

The Manchester-born chef has worked with top names in the culinary world and is now aiming for his first Michelin star at his flagship restaurant, WOOD Manchester.

We sat down with Simon over a coffee at his Cheltenham eatery WOODKraft, to talk about his rapid rise and love for all things food.

What made you want to be a chef?

“It’s something that I’d always wanted to do. I set out to be a chef, then had children at a young age and life took me in a different direction – at the age of 23 I had three under 5s! So catering and the hospitality industry, being a chef, I just couldn’t make it work.

“I went down a different path of data science. I’d always cooked – in my head to a professional standard – it’s always been my passion and the constant in my life.”

When did you realise you had a talent for cooking?

“I started cooking when I was about eight. I remember when I was in the Boys Brigade and they did a competition to pick anything you want to be for a day. Obviously, all my mates wanted to be a footballer for Manchester United or an astronaut, stuff like that, but I wanted to be a chef.

“And it was probably easier for the Brigade leaders to make someone a chef rather than an astronaut, so I won the competition. They took me to the Bower Hotel in Manchester and that was my first ever experience in a professional kitchen.”

What made you apply for Masterchef and what followed that experience?

“I did the same as everyone else, I was watching Masterchef saying “why are you doing that, I can do better than that”, and then I put my money where my mouth was! I got accepted on to the programme, got right through to the end and won it. Then life changed from there I guess.

“It was difficult to be honest because your life’s been turned upside down, you can’t walk in the street anymore because people know who you are and are stopping you, and you’re just not used to it.

“At this point I hadn’t quit my day job either so I was away from that and they were asking “what’s happening?” I was living in my agent’s house out of a suitcase, my little girl was five at the time, so I was missing her – being a chef you work weekends and it was so difficult living in London out of a bag. Your life is literally put in a big bag and shook up.”

What was your first job in a kitchen?

“After the show I went to work for Marcus Wareing at The Berkeley, and also did some time at his other restaurants. From there I went to work for Theo Randall at the InterContinental in Mayfair, then I went to Simon Rimmer’s Greens restaurant in Didsbury which is a fully vegetarian restaurant.

“Following that I went on to become the executive chef at Oldham Athletic FC. We did lots of things with the players, their diets, it allowed me to have carte blanche on a menu, matchday menus, hospitality all those kinds of things. At the same time I was enjoying all the rewards of winning Masterchef – I got to write my book, did lots of demos, TV work, recipe writing for magazines. I was still expanding my culinary horizons while working at the football club.

“One thing led to another and I opened up my first restaurant, WOOD Manchester. We’ve received Michelin recommendation, we’ve got a couple of rosettes from the AA guide, we’ve had good reviews and we’re doing alright!”

What’s the best part of the job?

“Doing what you love for a living. Sometimes you lose focus of that, I’ll be honest.

“It’s stressful, you’re not just a chef – you’re a mum, a dad, a bank, a councillor, a trainer, a problem solver, plumber, dishwasher, you vacuum, you paint – you do whatever it takes to get the job done. Any chef will tell you the same, it’s never-ending.”

What’s your favourite dish to cook or eat?

“I love a good rib-eye steak I’ve got to be honest. When you’re cooking to a Michelin level all day every day, sometimes a steak and mashed potato is great, it’s all you want.

“Or failing that, if I’m going to a gig I like a burger, nice and simple, I don’t want my burger messed around with. Lettuce, tomato, red onion, burger, ketchup, mustard, pickle done.”

Any guilty pleasures?

“I have been known to have a chicken and mushroom Pot Noodle on toast when I’m hungover!”

Do you have any culinary Pet Peeves?

“One thing that is a pet peeve really is that anyone can leave you a review, yet they don’t know what the chef has gone through to get there.

“It could be an entirely different circumstance – maybe they’ve had a row in the taxi on the way in, they’ve had a bad day at work – but they can come in and slate you, and it can impact your livelihood. It’s the only industry in the world where you can ruin somebody without knowing anything about it.”

What is the best meal you’ve ever had?

“There’s two instances. I had a veal sweetbread at Sat Bains’ – singularly the best thing I’ve ever eaten in my life. It literally almost moved me to tears, I couldn’t speak, never seen anything like it, it was phenomenal.

“The other was a great meal I had at The Ledbury in Notting Hill. We went and we had four courses, but we probably ended up having ten overall with all the little snacks and treats they bring you out, it was a really good dining experience. They’re both two (Michelin) star, both equally good, but the stand out dish was those veal sweetbreads.”

Any top tips for home cooks?

“Just enjoy it! Prep, don’t give yourself too much to do, try new things, try new ingredients, cook something you’ve never cooked before.”

Are there any chefs or recipe books you take inspiration from?

“Quite a few to be honest. I use ‘Larousse Gastronomique’, I use Sat Bains’ book, I use Escoffier, Daniel Clifford, ‘Le Manoir’ (Raymond Blanc), Gordon Ramsey, Marco Pierre White.

“One of the oldest books I’ve got is Elizabeth David’s ‘Summer Cooking’. I use Adam Handling’s book, ‘Smile Or Get Out Of the Kitchen’ and ‘Roots’ by Tommy Banks.

“You can get inspiration from anywhere in the world if you just sit down and look for it.”

Read our review of WOODKraft here.

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