Nice to Meat...Graham Johns (Head Chef, The Old Storehouse)
By Sam Wass, Medium Well
With almost forty years experience in the kitchen and more than twenty as a head chef, it would be an understatement to say Graeme Johns has seen more than most cooking fads come and go. Fiercely passionate about developing young chefs, Graham is responsible for the career progression of a number of the North East’s most celebrated young cooking talents, and we’re delighted he took time to speak to us.
You’re head chef at the Storehouse, which is based on a caravan park, is that quite a novel thing?
I don’t know to be honest. We are based on a luxury holiday home park, and we provide a 5* service, because that is what are guests, visitors and residents want. We source high quality local ingredients, and we change the menu to suit supply which I guess is pretty unusual for a pub on a holiday park, but then again, we are much more than just a pub.
How did you get started cooking?
My parents ran a pub when I was younger, which was actually a pilot pub for the brewery serving food. That sounds ridiculous now, but in the late 1970s it was a big deal, as pubs were places you went to drink, not eat. I helped out around the place cleaning dishes, and preparing Sunday lunches, but I realised if I wanted to be a chef, I needed to learn from chefs.
I blagged my way into a job at a 5* Hotel in the French restaurant of local hotel by pretending I could speak french. The Head Chef and all the senior staff were french, whereas I’d never even been to France, and was learning as I went along from a phrase book in my apron. With hindsight the only thing that stopped me getting the sack was that I was really good at turning veg, so they let me stay on.
How has the industry changed over the years?
It’s unrecognisable from when I started - totally different. When I was starting out all chefs were classically trained, and knew how to make everything from scratch. Then the Foodservice companies changed everything, and nowadays you can get pretty much anything pre-prepared. As such the role of a head chef is almost one of a kitchen manager in a lot of places. There are no ‘old style’ apprenticeships where you learn how to cook, and because of that power and titles come too quickly if you ask me. Young cooks with minimal experience are given the title of Head Chef, but if they’re reheating pre-prepared food, with no staff to manage, no menu to develop and no food to make - that’s not really cheffing is it?
You are well known in North East culinary circles for developing young chefs, is that still a passion?
Absolutely, and luckily the Storehouse believe in it as well which is great. It makes my life easier if I know I have good staff in the kitchen evolving and learning. I don’t want them staying on more than a couple of years with me as they generally get bored beyond that which is no good for them or me.
I loved my time at Gateshead College, and I am really proud of the things we achieved and the careers we were responsible for launching, in a relatively short space of time. Unfortunately, bureaucracy is what it is, and when governments change and budgets needed cutting, teaching cooking properly in an age of pre-heating is an easy thing to get rid of - as sad as that is.
What is the best advice you could give to home cooks?
Consistency is the key to cooking, as no matter how good you think you are, or how big your reputation is, one bad service can ruin everything. Learn the basics, find out what you are good at, and then work on becoming gradually better at that.
I had a brief stint in the navy when I was younger, and I was taught three things that I think work in the kitchen; self-discipline, motivation and cleanliness, if you have those the chances are you’ll be able to become a half-decent cook.
What is your signature dish?
When I held the Michelin Blue Bib our Assiette of Lamb was the dish I was most proud of, so I’ll say that, but being honest I don’t really have one anymore.
What is your favourite cut of meat?
Because I am classically trained, I like slow-braising cuts, so I’d go with something like Beef Featherblade, or Lamb Shoulder. Steaks are too easy as they are the best cuts, but it’s what to do with leftovers that gives a chef a challenge.
Finally, what do you see in the future for food and menu development?
Oddly enough, there is a resurgence of dishes from the 1970s which were around when I first started working. Things like prawn cocktail and avocado salads, although I think the biggest retro-comeback will be cooking fish and meat in front of people. Eating good food in the house is easier than ever now, so when people eat out they want something special and theatrical, and things like Dover Sole cooked on a hot-plate at your table gives the customer that.
Thankfully young chefs now are more versed on world food and unfamiliar ingredients than when I was starting out. The first time I used an Avocado I didn’t even peel it, and even 30 years later I can still remember using chilli for the first time, as no one told me I shouldn’t rub my eyes!
Graham Johns, is Head Chef at the Old Storehouse at Amble on the Northumberland coast. It serves seasonal British food Tuesday-Sunday from 11am to 9pm.www.theoldstorehouseamble.co.uk