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Mealtimes with Michael Caines

The two Michelin-starred chef talks food, family and Fairy liquid!

Posted: 13 October 2011
by Fiona McKim

A young Michael in the kitchen at a friend's house
Michael aged 8 (far left) with his two brothers

As the executive chef at the prestigious Gidleigh Park in Devon, director of Abode Hotels and Michael Caines Restaurants, MBE recipient, television chef, charity patron and father-of-two it would be quite fair to say that two Michelin-starred chef Michael Caines has many, many pots on the boil.
Having won numerous accolades for his achievements in the hospitality industry, Michael will be hosting his first London eatery this year, a pop-up family restaurant in the OXO Tower in which competition winners will have the chance to dine from a menu influenced by Michael's childhood memories. 
In a rare quiet moment, Junior caught up with Michael to chat about family life, food inspiration and why there’s no such thing as a free lunch.

What first inspired you to become a chef?
I really got interested in baking with my mother and I used to help dad with the gardening, planting and cultivating vegetables and fruit. I was the youngest of six children there were three sisters and three brothers, so I grew up with the whole family getting round the table, cooking and afterwards doing the washing up. mealtimes were very much the centre of when the family got together to celebrate.

So everybody helped out?
Yeah, no choice there, you ate what you were given and you did what you were told, that was very much how I remember my childhood. I thought at the time it was just what everybody did and it clearly wasn’t the case; that was what we did and that was how I got into food.

What’s your earliest food memory?
The first memory I’ve got is always baking cakes. From the point of eating food it is probably my love of chocolate pudding and apple crumble. I was very young with a very sweet tooth and I was really keen on things like rhubarb and custard. 

Now you have a family of your own, who does the cooking at home?
It’s Shared, obviously when I’m around I do my bit but my partner, Zoë does a lot of baking with the kids (Joseph, eight and Hope, five) so they do cupcakes, and my recipe for victoria sponge of course! I get my children involved when I cook – my son and I have made ratatouille but, of course we had to do it like the film! Because my children have been involved in the cooking they are much more likely to eat it. I try and relive my childhood with them, and it gets us talking, they associate mealtimes with sitting down, no TV, no games consoles: It’s at the table and everyone is engaged.

How would you feel if they wanted to follow in your culinary footsteps?
Delighted and proud, If I can’t encourage my children into the industry that’s not a positive message for anyone else out there. I think the hospitality industry is exciting and dynamic and I would be honoured if my children chose that career.

Have they had any baking disasters?
Yes! We’ve had a few tears, a few burns, and nips on the finger when Joe gets a little bit too enthusiastic on the knife chopping. But overall the cakes that can’t rise, or the rock cakes that end up like rocks are all part of the learning experience. There have been a few disasters and few broken dishes but a lot of joy as well.

How has being a father affected your career and ambitions?
You can’t compromise being a father, and you can’t always compromise your work but you do try, and one feeds the other. The privileges of your life are often driven by your success in your career but unfortunately they also eat away at your time. I’ve paid prices for my pursuit of my career but at the same time there’s a lot of good that comes from it. The balancing act is not easy, as any parent will tell you, that’s why you need to make the effort and that’s why mealtimes are so important. Time is precious.

Are you a bit of a food snob when it comes to your children’s eating habits?
My kids eat well, where possible we always try and eat foods which are cooked at home, but you can’t protect children from the realities of fast food because then it becomes something that they want more. I encourage the children to try anything at least once. My kids used to get packed lunches which were quite weird, so I’d pack them off with gherkins then they’d come back and say they don’t like it, and it's not that they don’t like it, it’s because their mates said “you're weird”. So we don’t do that any more! For me it’s about simple home-cooked food, and sometimes not having to do the cooking myself, in which case it’s ‘eat what you're given’!.

Do you have any guilty food pleasures?
One of them is takeaways: Indian, Chinese, Thai or other Asian cooking because I don’t do that myself. I like all the good stuff that’s bad for you – fish and chips, the occasional burger, all the stuff that tastes good is inevitably bad for you like clotted cream and lots of butter. I have lots of guilty pleasures, probably too many! I just run it off the next day.

Tell me about the Fairy Platinum “clean your own” pop-up restaurant?
I’m very excited about it, it's happening on November 18-19 at the OXO Tower, the whole idea is to get across two messages: The liquid takes away an overnight soak in ten minutes and the dishwashing tablet which will clean the dishwasher as well as the dishes. So people will be invited to join our Facebook page and take part in a competition to win a place to dine at the pop-up. But of course there’s no such thing as a free dinner so they’ll also have to wash up some of their dishes and do the test to see how Fairy will clean it. 

What’s on the menu?
I’ve chosen dishes which are inspired by my childhood memories of home cooked meals. The main dishes are a lamb dish with a little shepherd’s pie and the vegetable dish is a Jerusalem artichoke risotto with white truffle oil. My two desserts will be apple crumble, with an apple mousse and a green apple sorbet, and a sticky toffee pudding with butterscotch sauce. The idea behind the menu is celebrating some humble food done in a really artistic way. And the whole idea is to illustrate the challenge of using the products because who wants to spend time washing up when you can get it done in half the time?.

Who does the washing up in your house?
Everyone! I get the kids to load up the washing machine, I wouldn’t be lying If I said I grew up with Fairy liquid. The point is it engages everyone when my family comes round, were all in the kitchen – you work together and it gets you talking and chatting. I do my fair share and get the kids involved, that’s just family life.

What is your opinion on children in fine dining restaurants?
In my restaurants we don’t ban children, we encourage them. If a child is well behaved, why wouldn’t you want them in? so we have a policy which says under-fives eat free. But at the same time sometimes people come out to get away from it all so if a child is coming in the evening it could be problematic. We tend to see that inclusion with families during the day, and our restaurant is quite child friendly but also you need to consider people who are trying to get away for a romantic evening. 

What do you think about children’s eating habits in the UK at the moment?
There’s no question that diets in the UK have been bad and a lot of children are obese. A lot of it is education and a lot of it is wealth. We’re eating a lot more junk food than perhaps we should, a lot of kids don’t know that cheese is made from milk and milk comes from a cow – which I find quite astounding. I don’t think you can force people to do things; I’m a believer that children should constantly try things because their taste changes as they get older and their mind opens. I’m not going to preach to people but I would like to influence people and inspire them to try food, I find that kids try more food if you engage them with making it. My son doesn’t like mushrooms and he doesn’t like cheese but there are plenty of things that he does like and my daughter can tell you what goes in my pasta sauce, so she knows she likes garlic, thyme, and basil and she can engage with that. 

You are a patron of the Families For Children adoption charity, which is obviously a subject close to your heart, How do you feel about the recent news that the adoption figures are plunging in the UK?
This is a subject close to my heart and the reason I work with Families For Children is that I myself was adopted at the age of two weeks. Adoption works, I was adopted into a large and loving family where those values I grew up with are still the values I hold onto dearly now, and as a parent I exercise with my own children. There’s clearly a problem, it’s the lowest numbers registered in ten years at the time when there are huge social needs and we need to get our act together really because something’s going wrong. Perhaps with regards to incidents like Baby P the care network is being over cautious with the process of screening parents, and that’s an important process. But at the end of the day the need of a child to be brought up in a loving family environment is more pressing. Having children being pushed around in a foster homes and families is not a solution, it’s more damaging. Adoption does work and our charity does an exceptional job so we need to address the issues and try and improve the lives of those children.

Thank you Michael!

Read Michael's delicious shepherd's pie recipe

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michael caines, fairy liquid, oxo tower, michelin star chef, family cooking, win a meal at oxo tower, gidleigh park, abode hotels

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