Five minutes with… Chantelle Nicholson

Chantelle Nicholson is chef-patron of Tredwells in London.  While studying for a law degree in her native New Zealand, Chantelle took part-time jobs in commercial kitchens where she developed a love of cooking. After working in law for a year, she competed in the Gordon Ramsay-backed 2004 contest Chef Search and after making the finals, was offered a job at The Savoy in London. In 2006 she joined Marcus Wareing at Petrus as junior sous chef and soon after moved into operations, helping to run Marcus Wareing at The Berkeley and opening The Gilbert Scott before spotting a site for Tredwells. The restaurant opened in 2014 with Chantelle as group operations director and in 2015 she decided to go back into the kitchen where she runs the restaurant as head chef and manager. She will also be launching her first cookbook – Planted – this year.

How did you become chef-patron at Tredwells?

I had worked for Marcus for 13 years when we opened Tredwells in 2014. I opened it as operations administrator for the group, then in May 2015 I went back into the kitchen as his business partner, which is where that title comes from.  I had spent many years out of the kitchen, but decided to go back when the head chef (Andrew Ward) left. I thought I’d do it as a temporary fix, but found that the kitchen was where I felt most comfortable.

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As someone who didn’t formally train as a chef, yet has carved a successful career in the industry, what are your thoughts on training colleges in the UK, do they prepare chefs well-enough do you think?

 I think there’s always a struggle between the theory and the practice that comes with catering colleges. You do find that there’s a focus on theory and the classical side of cookery at college, whereas what you get in a kitchen environment is quite different. That’s why practical, on-the-job experience is usually beneficial.

That juxtaposition between what catering colleges offer and what is needed in the real world is where the main issues lie. But while on-the-job experience is hugely important, so is education, because it also gives you a chance to grow up a bit, especially if you’ve just left school and you’re not sure what you want to do. I think there’s a lot to be said for both. For me, college should be about working towards developing practical skills and therefore I do think catering colleges need to come in line with the industry a little more.

You are a qualified lawyer, has your legal training helped with your career as a chef?

 Any form of education enriches you, whether it’s on the subject you end up studying or not. Even though I spent four-and-a-half years studying something I didn’t actually then pursue as a long-term career, the experience was hugely beneficial in terms of growing up and seeing different things and learning different things. There are transferable skills: Learning how to write properly and having a grasp of grammar has been useful for menu writing especially.

As a successful female chef, what are your thoughts on women working in hospitality? Do we need to encourage more women to enter the industry?

I think we just need to encourage more people to enter the industry, not just women.

I judged the FutureChef competition and we had 80,000 entries from across the UK, which was phenomenal. My question for the judges was ‘where is the drop-out happening?’ because it was obvious that there were lots of people interested and engaged in cookery at such a young age, yet we would only see about a tenth of that taking it onto tertiary education. Of the 10 FutureChef finalists, eight were female, so the interest is there from girls, but I do wonder if it’s the parents who have discouraged them to consider it as a career path. I think there is still a stigma attached to working in hospitality. People still think it’s what you do if you’re not academic and you have to work long hours for crap pay. I think that’s very wrong, but the perception is there.

We need to change that: For me, the most rewarding part of this industry is that you see the results of your work instantly and on a daily basis. Cooking is something that nourishes, satisfies and delights people and be able to do that for a person, I think, is really lucky.

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Do you think there are enough opportunities for women to succeed in the industry?

I don’t know if I’m the odd one, but it was never held against me that I was a woman. I never felt that I was not given the same opportunities or encountered any form of misogyny.  I’ve only ever worked for Marcus (Wareing) in this country and he’s always appreciated what a female can bring to the table and the kitchen. If candidates apply for jobs in our restaurants, it doesn’t matter if they are female or male, it’s not a deciding factor at all, it’s just about their attitude and their approach.

Who or what has been the biggest inspiration to you in your career?

Marcus has been the one who I learnt the majority from and he has allowed me to become what I am now as he’s not just a cook, he’s a business owner and an entrepreneur. Running a restaurant these days is not just about food.

You have a new book out this year – Planted – can you tell us about it?

It’s out mid-April and will be my first cookbook, although I’m co-author on Marcus’s cookbooks, so the actual experience wasn’t foreign to me.

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The reason I wanted to make the book plant-based was because I feel some chefs ignore it and don’t give it the credit that it deserves. I have a friend who is dairy intolerant and I’d go out for dinner with her and all she was offered for dessert was fruit or sorbet and I thought that was rubbish. You want a nice pudding to finish, so that was what started it with me.

When we opened Tredwells I was really conscious that we had options on the menu. Eating out should be a pleasure, not a chore and if there are four of you – one is lactose intolerant, one is vegan, one is vegetarian and one doesn’t eat pork – it shouldn’t be an effort to get food that you all enjoy.

I also like the challenge of creating something from a more limited range of ingredients.

Many chefs still treat meat or fish as the star ingredient, why are you so interested in letting plant-based dishes take centre stage?

radish-saladWhen I was growing up my family didn’t have that belief that if meat wasn’t on the plate it wasn’t a meal. Meat and vegetables were just treated as equals really. Living in New Zealand we had to eat seasonally because we didn’t have the market or the population not to. For me, yes I enjoy meat, but I also enjoy a meal without it and I think as a chef you should treat all great produce well. It’s more creative as well. I’m not anti-meat at all, but to respect the environment we do need to be more conscious about what we’re eating. For some, it means a completely vegan lifestyle, others it means a more flexitarian approach, but I think just being conscious and bringing some thought into it keeps it in proportion.

Have you noticed an uplift in the number of vegan diners coming to Tredwells?

Yes. It became quite clear last November when I did some supper clubs and they sold out really quickly. We had a lot more patronage than I expected and when I chatted to those who had come they said that what was being offered was something they couldn’t get elsewhere. Being about to enjoy the experience of eating out as a vegan was something they got excited about.

What are your plans for Tredwells this year?

I’m constantly innovating and always looking to take it one step further. I want to work with more local producers this year. And going back to this idea of consciousness. I just want the staff to be more conscious about what they do every day.

What are your long-term plans?

I’ve achieved what I wanted to achieve, which is running a restaurant, so my focus now is less about myself and more about promoting the industry and attracting people into it. I also have a bit of a sideline which is promoting nutrition and health, especially with children. I was lucky enough to go to the Global Nutrition Summit in November and they produced the Global Nutrition Report which showed that for the first time obesity is outweighing malnourishment which is very scary. Education has a big part to play, so I want to promote eating seasonally and healthily. That’s something that’s a big focus of mine for the years ahead.

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