‘Retirement? Not for me’: meet the top chefs who won’t hang up their aprons

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The Guardian

Frances Atkins: ‘An artist needs to paint. I need to cook’

Head chef, Paradise at Daleside, Yorkshire

Frances Atkins has been cooking professionally almost every day for almost 40 years. Yet it remains an essential outlet. “It’s not about feeling useful. I can be very lazy. I need to do my job because that’s within me. I need to create. An artist needs to paint. I need to cook.”

“Age doesn’t come into it,” she says decisively. Atkins won’t specify hers (“what I put on the plate is what matters”), except to confirm she is past retirement age and has no intention of retiring. Instead, the Ilkley-born chef, who held a Michelin star at the Yorke Arms for 16 years, is now cooking six days a week at Paradise, near Harrogate.

Opened last year, this handsome daytime cafe at Daleside Nurseries is a partnership between Atkins and her colleagues of more than 20 years, chef Roger Olive and manager John Tullett. After leaving the Yorke Arms in 2020, the trio wanted to cook in a simpler style, working shorter hours (Paradise’s only dinner service is on Fridays), but staying true to Atkins’s produce-led ethos of “uncomplicated natural flavours; showcasing the ingredient’s full beauty and all its potential expressions”.

The workload is still intense. Paradise might serve 80 at lunch with plates of, for example, cod with dill, coriander, charred cabbage and bergamot, or lime and ginger-seared scallops, artichoke, potato and apple. “I’m the first to admit, I get tired,” says Atkins. “It’s a hard week. I’m doing the same work as twice-my-size, 47-year-old [Olive]. But if you can get your sleep, you can survive. You manage yourself.”

Monday yoga helps with muscular aches and pains but, given Atkins chooses to work, she views exhaustion as a psychological issue. “You can wonder why you’re doing it.” The problem comes “if you haven’t got an answer. For me, that’s never an issue.”

By the age of eight, Atkins loved cooking for her family. In her teens, she was making and selling cottage cheese and baking cheesecakes for a local coffee bar. “If you’re fortunate, from a very early age, to know what you want to do, you don’t regard these things as hard work.”

She still doesn’t. Unlike the cliche of the embittered older chef, Atkins is an enthusiast who relishes the stimulus of a new project. Before buying the Yorke Arms in 1997, she ran four restaurants, and, mid-pandemic, trailed Paradise by cooking in an Airstream caravan.

Crucially, she has also never been “too important to chop an onion”. It is easy to revel in designing dishes, writing menus or positive guest feedback – “the crux of the matter; any good chef’s reward.” But to last in the kitchen, you must be able to happily absorb yourself in basic graft of the “actual production”. “I’ve always said to any chef, ‘You’re never far from the pot-wash. Don’t get any grandiose ideas.’”

To an extent, Atkins is making up for lost time. In the 1960s, her career got off to a precocious start when, while studying hospitality, she moved from waitressing at Ilkley’s glamorous Box Tree restaurant to working shifts in its kitchen. “It’s an era when women weren’t in restaurant kitchens. Women didn’t work. They had babies. They were housewives. It was a very male-dominated environment.”

That nascent career came to an abrupt halt, however, when in her early 20s, then cooking in Scotland, Atkins married the soon-to-be-famous lawyer George Carman. Carman – who, in 1979, made his name defending former Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe against charges of conspiracy to murder – disapproved of Atkins working, so she stopped. The marriage was “a disaster. I felt I’d lost 10 years”.

“In those days, I spent my life trying to be older. I think Jeremy Thorpe called me ‘the child bride’. Maybe now I’m trying to be younger than I am,” laughs Atkins. After divorce from Carman, “I was absolutely determined to get back and cook.”

Atkins’s second husband Bill (“supportive from day one”), retired after the couple sold the Yorke Arms. Occasionally, she has fleeting thoughts about making time to pursue other interests, painting or travel. “But I know the novelty would wear off, so there’s no point.”

The call of the kitchen is too strong. “I feel comfortable in that environment. It’s pleasurable to please people. I’m able to produce elegant food at a reasonable price, working with lovely ingredients.”

“I’m very fortunate to do a job which defines me – it’s all consuming. Brian May is still twanging his guitar. Tony Hadley’s still singing. Why should I stop cooking?”

Shaun Hill: ‘You’re all in it together. I’m burning my fingers the same as they are’

Chef co-owner, The Walnut Tree Inn, Abergavenny, Wales

Shaun Hill photographed for OFM at the Walnut Tree Inn. Photograph: Francesca Jones/The Observer

After 56 years at the stove, Shaun Hill has decided, “I quite like cooking. I wouldn’t fall about with joy over what pleasure I get from it. But it’s what I do. I get satisfaction from it.”

You will not hear the king of understatement getting all gooey about needing to make people happy, a trope he finds “mainly bollocks”. “Most chefs never see the people who eat. What they are motivated by is getting it right.” But, at 75, the co-owner of the Walnut Tree in south Wales, is still sufficiently engaged with that challenge, both the patient hours of prep and the fast-paced problem-solving of service that, surveying his options, he concludes: “It’s better than golf.”

“If you think you’re doing anything reasonably well, you feel better at the end,” says the chef who has held a Michelin star for most of the past 30 years at Gidleigh Park, Merchant House and the Walnut Tree. Cooking “is a vehicle for you to make and do things yourself in a way few jobs are”.

Regularly hailed as one of the 1980s fathers of modern British cooking, Hill very much fell into the profession. In the 1960s, rather than translate Virgil, he would bunk off sixth-form to work in London Zoo’s cafes. Poet Ted Hughes, later a good friend, was on pot-wash. “He got the worst jobs because he was older.”

Aged 19, when his fiancee-now-wife, Anja, became pregnant, Hill found work at the local “fancy restaurant”, the Cherry Tree – but only after the preferred candidate didn’t show – “which is still what happens”.

Despite that inauspicious start, he learned a lot there. “All the stocks and prep were done in the traditional way. It was good experience.” Hill would later move on to American cookery writer Robert Carrier’s eponymous London restaurant (“Quite a big name. You had the likes of Francis Bacon coming to eat.”), and the Gay Hussar. For all he talks of the trade with a tangy lack of sentimentality, slowly but surely Hill was seduced by the restaurant world.

When the opportunity arose to take over the Walnut Tree in 2007, in a partnership with Abergavenny hotelier William Griffiths, Hill was an ex-restaurant chef. Having closed Merchant House, he was assisting in academic research on food in the ancient world; consulting on restaurant projects, notably at Fortnum & Mason; and writing cookbooks – “a wonderful opportunity to pass off opinion as fact”. But the lure of reviving the storied Walnut Tree, a pioneering Italian for four decades under chef-owner Franco Taruschio, was too great.

In December, Hill will have worked “most every” service there for the past 15 years. The assistance of head chef Sandro Strillozzi enables Hill to commute from Worcester. Hill is “last in” at 11am and leaves promptly at 10pm. But, otherwise, he leads from the front. “You’re all in it together. I’m burning my fingers the same as they are. The work remains the same on the section, whether it’s me or a 20-year-old doing it. I can feel I’ve been through a mangle after a busy week.”

Hill creates about 10 new dishes a season, adding the best to a repertoire he is constantly refining, often in response to fresh produce (Walnut Tree menus are written daily). One of his great joys is staying across trends by eating out. “It’s exciting. Sometimes it suits me. Often it doesn’t.” In these ways, his food is still evolving.

But he agrees that “stylistically, I probably have settled into a groove”. He is still pushing fiddly, unloved items such as globe artichoke or sweetbreads in his elegant dishes. “I cook stuff I like to eat, fish and offal.” Dishes such as red mullet with dashi or tandoori lamb with channa masala reflect his career-long love of travel and global flavours.

Does he wish he had more free time to travel now? Yes and no. For years, he has intended to work fewer days, but “it hasn’t worked so far”. Covid-19 and subsequent staff shortages were the latest setback.

Anja is “campaigning hard” for Hill to retire “before one of us gets cancer or legs drop off and we can’t do anything. I can’t blame her. She’s right.” Hill loves spending time with his three children and six grandchildren, “but I’m not ready to watch afternoon telly and my dog’s died, so I don’t have anything to walk”.

Is work a bulwark against ageing? “There is an aspect of that. While I’m strong enough, it keeps you alert.”

It leaves him and Anja living “a very weird existence”. Midweek, Hill gets home at 11pm and, over a G&T, they often talk until 1am. It is a small act of nonconformity that Hill clearly relishes. “There aren’t,” he says, “many other lights on in the street.”

Cyrus Todiwala: ‘I feel I should sleep more. Literally, I sleep maybe four hours’

Chef co-owner, Cafe Spice Namaste, London

Cyrus Todiwala photographed for OFM at Cafe Spice Namaste.
Photograph: Pål Hansen/The Observer

No one enjoyed 2020. But for Cyrus Todiwala it was brutal. The year opened with the news his flagship restaurant, Cafe Spice Namaste, would have to leave its Whitechapel home of 25 years, followed by urgent prostate cancer surgery, days before Covid-19 shuttered hospitality.

Many 65-year-old chefs might have seen that as a natural end point; a cosmic signal to hang up their knives. Not Todiwala: “Fourth day after surgery, I was back in the kitchen. There was no chance Mr Todiwala could give up.”

Financially, he felt he had no choice. “I am scared that I don’t have money to retire on,” says Todiwala, who currently operates three restaurants with his wife of 38 years, Pervin. “We have never been wealthy. We’re OK. We manage,” he says. But like any veteran restaurateur, Todiwala has endured setbacks: failed restaurants, recessions. Each time you get slapped, it takes you back 10 years, he says.

Closing Cafe Spice with “nothing to show for it” was unacceptable, both for the Todiwalas and their staff. Some have worked with Todiwala since he arrived from India in 1991 and, likely “would not be given jobs anywhere else at their age. How can I let people down in their 50s, 60s, who have given us their best years? We just couldn’t.”

Determined to relocate, the Todiwalas borrowed against their family home to sustain the business, while, in winter 2020, a Friends of Cafe Spice Namaste appeal raised £55,000 among regulars to help with relocation costs. “It brought us to tears, still does,” says Todiwala.

In January 2022, a year after closing in central London, Cafe Spice relaunched at Royal Albert Wharf in Docklands. The move has been re-energising, says Todiwala, who is now smoking whole ducks on the terrace and hosting cookery classes in a mezzanine kitchen. The menu has also been redesigned around small and sharing plates, incorporating Cafe Spice classics such as Todiwala’s lamb dhaansaak or Goan prawn curry. Of the new site’s possibilities, he says: “I’m like a child given a new toy. Where I should cut back, I’m adding. I get excited.”

He has always been like this. Busy. Fizzing with ideas. As a hospitality student in Mumbai, Todiwala’s side hustle was baking cakes and making fortified wines for Christian weddings, and that “madness” – constantly trying new things – persists. Pervin, 59, is similar, says Todiwala. “It’s strange,” he muses. They regularly talk about taking it easier, but “she’s in the thick of it and there isn’t a time where her enthusiasm isn’t also bubbling – though she’s exhausted, at times”.

Todiwala is up at 6am, answering emails, and “daily, give or take” is first in at the prep kitchen to begin 10 hours of cooking for catering projects; retail website, Mr Todiwala’s At Home, and his restaurants, which include Mr Todiwala’s Kitchen by Heathrow Airport and the Portuguese-Goan Petiscos, in Essex. Later, he moves on to “four hours of other things”, often dinner service at Cafe Spice. “When it’s busy, Mr Todiwala can become the commis.”

There is, says Todiwala, no secret to how he handles these 14-hour days: “I keep going. I don’t know. These days, I feel I should sleep more. Literally, I sleep maybe four hours. You just get on with it.”

That resolute drive has been central in Todiwala’s career. When he joined Taj Hotels as a trainee, his parents were mocked by those who saw kitchen work as too menial for a man from the high-achieving Parsi-Zoroastrian community. Certain relatives would not invite Todiwala to parties, because they “didn’t want to introduce me as a cook”.

In 2013, the Todiwalas launched Zest Quest Asia, a competition for catering students that continues their lobbying for greater focus on Asian cooking in colleges. “I’m Indian,” says Todiwala. “My team is from Asia. I don’t get a young white man wanting to work in my kitchen. I want a British-born student to say, ‘I want to master that cuisine.’”

Todiwala dismisses retirement: “The boredom would kill me.” But he is not a machine. He would love to cultivate some consultancy work, write more (“I’ve recipes all over”) and “slowly veer to the side. Let the team run the business. Pull back, travel, have fun.”

If that is currently impossible, Todiwala is not bitter. If you dwell on negatives, “life is not worth living. It’s no fun. I never look back. We keep looking forward.”

July 17, 2022 at 03:39PM Tony Naylor

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