INTERVIEW / The good food guide to surviving: The Lake District's superstar chef is back in the kitchen, grafting with his loyal team. Luckily for John Tovey, the recipe still works 20 years on

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Indy Lifestyle Online
STRANGE how chefs became superstars in the Eighties. Footballers and pop singers you can understand, doing their stuff in public. Chefs work behind the scenes, pleasing a small audience. Perhaps garage mechanics, plumbers and gardeners will one day have their turn, attracting all those column inches.

Strangest of all was how an untrained chef from the far North, running a small Lakeland hotel with only 13 bedrooms, should have turned himself into a national figure. London or Home Counties cooks have it easier. Restaurant writers, now stars themselves, are too lazy to travel far.

John Tovey began Miller Howe on Windermere in 1971 with a total investment of pounds 53,000. In 1989, his business was worth pounds 2.5m. By that time he was already into books, 10 so far, most of them bestsellers. Plus his TV series. He's now working on his fifth, to be shown on BBC in the spring. It's called Having a Binge on a Diet. Very Nineties.

The recession is making him work four evenings a week at Miller Howe. Last year, he was mostly off elsewhere. The previous evening someone had lit up a cigar during dinner, been asked not to by a waiter, but carried on. Tovey himself had remonstrated, been abused, then taken the man's food away, till the man had been shamed into leaving the dining room. A rare row. More than 99 per cent of his customers are sweetness itself, self-satisfied, fawning over him as he trips round after dinner taking his curtain call. He used to perform in his white clogs, till arthritis got him in the legs.

His approach is theatrical. No choice of programme - five courses, without alternatives till the puddings, price pounds 30 - and the curtain goes up for everyone at the same time, 8.30. Lights dim, fountains play on the naked cupids outside, the dark lake beyond, everyone hushed, then oohs for the first act. The main course my evening was 'Poussin stuffed with prune apple and bacon served on home-made rhubarb chutney with rich old-fashioned gravy.' Plus seven ingeniously done vegetables.

His fans love his imaginative creations, for I heard them say so. He prefers simpler food, such as salad and pasta, but then he is on a diet. Back home, work finished, in his bungalow, where he lives alone, he polished off his second bottle of wine. Normally, he limits himself to a bottle and a half a day. 'Bloody hell, you need wine even more when you're on a diet. What else is there in life, if you can't drink wine?'

He was born 59 years ago in Barrow-in-Furness, not known for its wine or gourmet food. An only child, working class family, his father working mostly abroad. His childhood was terrible. Only now does he speak about it. 'I was sexually abused by my mother from the age of nine to 15. She forced me to do horrible things to her. She was 16 stone and physically repulsive. I supposed she missed my father. He was sometimes abroad for up to two years. When he did come home, he battered me. He once threw me across the room. No, not for what was happening with my mother. For giving cheek. I left home the second I could, when I was 16 in 1949, forging my father's name on a passport, and I got away as far as I could.'

He went to Rhodesia as a junior cadet officer in the Colonial Service, which meant he was a clerk, rising to secretary to a regional governor. He spent nine years in Africa, then returned to Barrow, where he became manager of the local theatre, Her Majesty's. He had fallen in love with the theatre's director, a relationship that lasted 11 years.

'I knew I was gay from about the age of nine, when I was taken by another boy, who was about 14. I loved it. I don't think my relationship with my mother had anything to do with it. We never discussed me being gay. But I didn't really come to know myself until I joined the theatre. I felt in the wilderness till then. Sex was something which was not discussed in those days. Halcyon days, that theatre.'

The theatre ran short of money and he got a job as the secretary to the owner of a group of Lakeland hotels, working his way up to hotel manager. He resigned when the owner suggested he cut costs by reducing the tea bags per pot. While managing another hotel, he opened a restaurant inside it and in a year got into the Good Food Guide. 'I thought if I can do it for someone else, I can do it on my own, but first I'll have to learn about cooking, so I went to work at Sharrow Bay. What a mistake, the biggest blot on my whole life.'

Sharrow Bay Country House Hotel on Ullswater was, and still is, the leading country house hotel in Lakeland, if not England, if not the universe. Opened in 1948, still run by Francis Coulson and Brian Sack, it created a new form of gracious hotel life. Nothing so vulgar as a bar, reception desk, hotel notices or price lists. One was served by people who never wrote down orders, as if in a private house, surrounded by lovely things. The food was also pretty good.

'We just didn't get on working together. I only lasted six weeks, but it took us 13 years to be friends again.'

It was alleged he had nicked some of their recipes when he opened Miller Howe. A lot of bad mouthing went on, but all that is over now they are equally grand old men, establishment figures yet still at the top of their luxury tree.

There were struggles in the early years as he built up Miller Howe, sleeping in a cellar, being short of money. He had borrowed pounds 26,500 for his half of the initial investment - the other half coming from a sleeping partner, a businessman from the South, who took no further interest in the business. (He has recently died, leaving Tovey with the problem of buying back the 50 per cent from the deceased's estate, but at what valuation - when the hotel was at its most valuable or now?)

Margaret Costa gave him his first national plug, writing about him in the Sunday Times Magazine in 1974, and from then on the London foodies legged it to Lakeland, followed by the Americans. He has always had a strong American following. Sitting in the leather Chesterfields in his lounge, it can feel like the Harvard Club. During the Eighties, his average occupancy, from the opening of his season in March till they closed at the end of December, was 96 per cent. Hard to believe it now, with 300 English hotels already closed this year and hundreds more lying almost empty.

On their current year so far, business is 18 per cent down, but September proved excellent so he is hopeful the year might not end too badly. None of the 19 permanent staff has been sacked, but at this time of the year - autumn is their busiest time - they would normally have taken on an extra four.

'In a way, the recession is the best thing that's happened to us. I rather floated away last year, living most of the week at the farm I've bought in the Rossendale Valley. Now I'm back as part of the team and it's like it was 20 years ago, mucking in together, wanting to win the war, like London in the blitz.'

He denies that the success of Miller Howe - and the three other hotels and restaurants he has spawned in Lakeland - are due to his personal energy and flair for promotion. Nor is it due to rushing round the world demonstrating British cooking. Not even to the food. 'It's mainly due to one thing - my staff. I made a point of caring for them. The average time they have been with me is 13 years. I should think the national average for hotel work is about 13 weeks, if not 13 minutes.'

He sees them as his children, having none himself, helping to set them up in their own businesses when the time comes. He put pounds 40,000 into Uplands Hotel near Cartmel when his secretary and her husband opened it, and pounds 80,000 into the Bay Horse at Ulverston, run by his former head chef. Both places are now in all the Good Guides. 'I've taken not a penny from them, but I have a gentleman's understanding that when I retire they'll give me 10 per cent on my investment - which I'll take in food and wine, so I can spend my last days in comfort. When I die, they will inherit my share of their business, for nothing.'

Once the recession is over, with Miller Howe back to 96 per cent occupancy, he plans to take partial retirement. 'I'm going to take my pension when I'm 63. I've started giving master courses on cookery at my farm, one day a week, just to give me something to do in my retirement.'

What will then happen to Miller Howe? 'I've thought long about this. I'd like my staff to take it over, letting them have shares in it. They don't know about it yet, but I've been speaking to the bank, working out ways they can be loaned the money. I have a brilliant staff, and a good manager, and they will keep it going in the same way. I'll come back, perhaps once a week, to see how they're doing.'

It annoys him when certain guests criticise him for having changed nothing in 21 years. He says he does brings in new dishes and his use of cream and rich products has decreased with the times. 'But once a month someone says 'this is our fourth visit, and it's just the same, you still haven't got an a la carte menu'. It's the been there, done it, got the T-shirt mentality. They want constant change. I know then I've lost them.'

Perhaps to a new country house hotel the likes of which, even now, open most months in Lakeland. 'You see the whole page advert in the local paper, welcome to the New Country House Hotel, opening next week. You then turn three pages to the classified, and you see that the New Country House Hotel is currently advertising - for a head chef, under chefs, waitresses, the lot. It makes me smile. They think all they have to do is shove up a notice at the end of their drive saying Country House Hotel. They're usually backed by a builder who is about to go bankrupt but hopes to save something by investing in a property. They are no more hoteliers than I'm Butch Cassidy.'

His real hatred in the catering line is Marco Pierre White. 'An ignorant bastard.' But he does like Gary Rhodes and particularly Simon Hopkinson of Bibendum, who he says is London's finest cook. Other hatreds, and he has oh so many, include the Cumbria Tourist Board, the Lake District Planning Board, the Church of England and the Government. 'I've loved church services ever since I was a senior choirboy, but many vicars today are just wallies, most of them, lazy gits. I want them all to go back to 1662 with incense, bowing and kissing rings. As for the Government, they need shot. All these stupid EC regulations. Do you know, we've been told we can't use tea towels in the kitchen as they're not hygienic? We must use air drying machines or paper towels. How can you dry anything with paper towels? Stupid. And what about all the trees being cut down? They should say stuff it, Mr Delors. Up yours.'

He has not had a domestic partner for the last five years, after the end of an affair that lasted 15 years. 'And he's now trying get money out of me, or out of the business. More problems, but I intend to fight it.'

He says he doesn't feel lonely living alone. He has his friends, his staff and Ossie, an Old English sheepdog he rescued, which had been chained, beaten and had 53 stitches. 'If you really want someone to love you, get a dog. You can't equal an animal for giving you back love. I might meet someone, you never know, but at my age you get suspicious. What are they after, what do they really want? But I'm very happy. I've got my circle of friends and my wonderful staff. They are the children I haven't got and the loving family I never had.'

(Photograph omitted)

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