We Grill – John Campbell
John Campbell is co-owner of The Woodspeen restaurant and cookery school in Newbury. The restaurant, which opened in October 2014, serves seasonal, locally-sourced food. After years in the industry working for other people, the Michelin-starred chef’s focus is making his customers happy by cooking food that comes straight from the heart: the kind of food that he loves to eat.
Tell us about The Woodspeen…
I’d been thinking about opening my own place for the past 30 years. To be honest, I think it’s the ambition of every chef, so when we found the restored 19th century pub and barn set in the beautiful west Berkshire countryside we knew it was perfect. I wanted to create a community-style restaurant with a cookery school and that was the inspiration behind The Woodspeen. All of our produce is ‘natural’ and everything, from our butter to our bread and even our beer, is made in-house. We make food – good food – as it should be made. Our menus change frequently to suit the seasons but also to keep our customers happy and our chefs on their toes! The cookery school offers courses for amateur cooks of all levels as well as being the base for the BaxterStorey Chef Academy, which trains professional chefs.
How important is training to you?
It’s crucial. I was trained really well with good people around me and I have a passion for development and training. The BaxterStorey Academy was set up by myself and Alastair Storey 13 years ago to train and develop chefs – it’s amazing that we have a base for academicians to enrich their culinary skills. As an industry we need to be sharper about creating a professional talent pipeline – there will be a shortage of good chefs in this country in the next few years if we don’t start training them now.
When did your passion for cooking begin?
I always knew I wanted to be a chef. I used to cook for anyone who would eat my food and when I was 11 years old I made French onion soup after watching it on Blue Peter! Although I knew I never wanted to be anything else, it was my nan’s hospitality that inspired me. She’d make a beautiful roast on a Sunday and she got the best flavour out of whatever she cooked, even the cheapest ingredient. You’d come into a room and my nan would offer you food and drinks – she wanted to make sure you felt welcome and happy and she did that through food. That’s something I always strived to achieve. Cooking is an addiction. When I serve good food and see the customers loving it that keeps me inspired to keep creating.
What’s your career history?
I have been a chef since the age of 15. I achieved my first Michelin star in 1998 during my first year at Lords of the Manor Hotel and Restaurant in Gloucestershire. Five years later, I went to work at The Vineyard at Stockcross, west Berkshire and was awarded two Michelin stars and picked up the Cateys’ award. In 2010, I helped open Coworth Park hotel – part of the Dorchester Collection – as director of food and beverage, earning the fine dining restaurant a Michelin star in the first year of trading. I also won the Andre Cointreau award for my first recipe book Formulas for Flavour and I’ve featured as a mentor on MasterChef.
Which chefs inspire you?
I’m always inspired by the chefs around me and I always have a good team. But significant chefs from my past include Phil Howard from The Square in London who is a good pal of mine. But to be honest, any young chef in the 1980s was inspired by all of those famous chefs in that era such as Raymond Blanc and the Roux brothers. That group of chefs clearly inspired a generation of cooks and I admire them all.
The Square in London is one of my favourite restaurants – classic French, tasty food not messed around with. And Per Se in New York is immaculate perfection in my opinion. The food, hospitality and service is world class.
Hobbies outside the kitchen?
I like football and, being born in Liverpool, I’m a red! Sadly I don’t have time for a season ticket but I do try to go and watch them when they play down south. I also like skiing and country sports such as hunting and fishing.
Was getting a Michelin star a priority for you?
No. You shouldn’t chase a star and chefs who enter the industry for that reason alone lose sight of what is actually important; making customers happy by serving good food. What you should be doing is looking after your customers, your team and producing good quality, tasty food and you’ll get your star.
Tips or advice to a young chef?
Learn to cook and learn to cook properly. Really properly. The most important part is finding a place where you can learn;
somewhere you are comfortable and feel part of the team who will bring you on and where you’ll be taught the craft, not just stuck in a corner preparing boxes of spinach or peeling spuds all day. But ultimately, it’s about enjoying yourself. You could be working 16-hour days so you have to love the industry.