Updated: Jan 27, 2022
Head Chef, Simon Merrick, has a lifelong interest in the catering industry from starting at age 14 cutting up chips in a chip shop, to working as a chef in Michelin starred restaurants and everything in between. Simon is a member of the Chef Partnership and strongly believes that creating a positive and fun kitchen culture breeds success. We sat down with Simon to get to know about his journey in the industry, we also speak about his kitchen philosophy and his key milestones that got him to where he is today.
1: Hello Simon, let’s get to know you a bit - Why did you get into chefing?
I have always been creative, but I was not necessarily destined for a career in the kitchen.
What made me choose the role of a chef was a part time job I had at age of 16. I worked in a local hotel collecting glasses in the bar, and the kitchen was always a place full of fun, banter, laughter along with a feeling of camaraderie. It looked like a great work environment. I decided that was the sort of place I wanted to work in.
On a personal level I love people and talking to people. In my experience these attributes can be rare in chefs! Chefs can be a little less than sociable and are happy operating in ‘the back office’ i.e. the kitchen. I like to be out there with my team or with my customers hearing what they think and learning from their views and opinions. To realise my aspiration to become a chef I went to college to study catering via a city and guild Qualification and then an NVQ and the rest is history!
2: How do you stay mentally strong in the fast-paced environment of the kitchen?
I think you need to decide what type of chef you want to be. I have worked for Michelin starred chefs in their kitchens, and to be honest I did not enjoy the experience. To me it seemed to be built around the cult of the individual, with a lot of arrogance, jealousy and competition. I did not enjoy the ‘feel’ of that type of highly competitive kitchen.
Then one day a chef friend of mine took me to St John’s Restaurant in London which showcased ‘nose to tail’ eating. The food was simple, colourful British food and I loved the whole vibe around what they were doing. I decided that food did not need all the bells and whistles, and that this type of cooking was for me. Don’t get me wrong. I love fine dining, but as a chef I want to cook straightforward honest wholesome food showcasing the best local ingredients.
To stay mentally strong, you need a team you can trust, and you need to thrive on pressure, as this is a part of the everyday life of the kitchen. For me personally, the higher the pressure the more I am pushed to perform. Before you enter a career in the kitchen a proper assessment or understanding of how you deal with stress is key in my opinion.
3: How have you made successful kitchens & Teams?
It is part of my job to help to create that environment. I prioritise Team, camaraderie and keeping people switched on by involving them in creating and experimenting with new ideas. I also believe in really knowing my team and in having ‘playtime’ together to build strong and supportive team behaviour. I always promote the achievements of my chefs, showcasing their unique skills and abilities Eg: on social media. I try to give my team confidence as chefs can suffer from self-doubt.
I often work alongside my chefs to improve confidence, cooking together as a team i.e. learning by doing. It is a form of mentoring and I love to see my team grow in skills and confidence.
4: What can restaurateurs do to combat fatigue, people leaving and general staffing issues?
I think the key is to respect your chefs. Arrange working patterns that give people time to recover and, as far as possible, take account of people's personal circumstances.
Learn about your chefs, what is going on in their world? How can you help them cope with any challenges they face? Get to know them as people. In my opinion it is only when you understand the person that you can get the best performance from your chefs.
Encourage diversity, a truly mixed kitchen gives the best performance, and if people do leave, make sure you keep the door open for them to return. Returners can be your very best advocates, and leavers can also enhance your reputation as an employer in the market – if you handle exits well. So – don’t ‘burn your bridges!’
5: What do you find exciting in your day job? ( or what do you look forward to)
Service is to me, very exciting, get that right and you have a head start on reputation. I love to cook BUT I accept that an important part of my role is to lead the team and I take this role very seriously.
I have mentor called David Steel who is someone I have worked with and admire in the industry. I base a lot of what I do on what I have learned from him. In my opinion this type of ‘learning from others’ through mentoring is critical for the industry. David Steel is a great chef and is now chef director (Experienced Chef with over 35 years working in the catering industry. Currently Director of Food Houston and Hawkes) He manages to be everyone’s friend and to share his knowledge. He has been the biggest influence on both how I work and how I cook.
6: How do you teach younger chefs the ins and outs?
I believe in working alongside my team, teaching and leading by example and mentoring where needed.
I also believe that although college is important for recognition, in my view learning to be a chef is all about the practical experience people get when they work in a kitchen, by that I don’t mean just the cooking part, but the role of team work, how to handle stress, how to work under pressure and what to do if you feel you have stress or heath issues that need to be resolved.
The kitchen should feel like your family, of course like most families, it is not always perfect, but creating the environment to be open and honest and to share hopes and worries is a very important part of the success of any brigade.
7: Top tips for people considering a role in the industry?
You must be passionate about what you do
Creativity is important
Be a good team worker, team member and team leader
Be open to learn
Don’t be afraid to both learn from and make mistakes
Find a mentor -someone you can learn from who you respect not only for their cooking skills but for how they behave in the kitchen
8: What can the industry do to improve the quality of life for a Chef right now?
We need to pay more attention to the wellbeing of members of our brigades rather than cooking accolades. If we treat our people right the recognition will come.
9: What did you wish you had known 15 years ago?
How to manage and work with people. I have made a few mistakes here and there and I wish I had been better prepared for the teamwork and leadership role in the kitchen.
Don’t believe everything people tell you but DO believe in yourself and have the courage to explore what you can do and how you want to do things and most of all - HAVE CONFIDENCE IN YOURSELF.
10: Do you cook at home?
Yes - every day!
Thank you Simon