Mike Cundall by Marcus Wareing

18th April 2014 at 01:00
The renowned chef looks back on his early days in the kitchen with a no-nonsense mentor who treated him like an adult - and taught him to sharpen knives

To be honest, school is a complete blur to me. But I do remember my very first catering teacher at Southport College, a chap named Mike Cundall. He taught me for two years, from the ages of 16 to 18.

It was odd because he fitted the bill as a teacher, but when he put on his chef whites he looked completely out of place. You know that feeling you get as a kid, when you see a teacher outside school and it looks really weird because they're being so normal? It was the same thing. He looked all wrong in those whites. He might as well have been wearing a dress.

I was never pushed by any teachers and none of them took an interest in me at school. Mike was the first. He was brilliant because he respected you for whatever level of intelligence you had. He worked on everyone as individuals but would bring us all together as a team, both in the classroom and in the kitchen.

He made learning enjoyable, you know? He made cookery fun. He felt that a lot of kids came to college because they simply couldn't be bothered to get a job; I was amazed at how he never let them slow down the ones who really wanted to be there.

Kids used to play around but Mike wouldn't stand for it. "Get out" - that was all it took. "Get out. Go home." We might not see them for a few days and the effect of this - bearing in mind that our college was running an active restaurant, staffed by us - was to galvanise the team, even though we were down a man or two. Or three. We were short-staffed but we felt stronger.

He used to have an amazing smile when he ripped into us, and that is something I can't do. He had this look that said: "You are all adults now and if you don't take this opportunity, it's your own fault." He knew that you could take a horse to water, and his smile told the rest.

I was young. Just turned 16. Nervous. And I had to become an adult. I'll tell you what really helped: Mike treating me like one. He talked to me like I was an adult and up to that point nobody, aside from my father, had done that. Mike taught me common sense. He taught me how to move around a kitchen, how to dress, how to sharpen knives. Simple but incredibly valuable stuff.

How do I say this without sounding big-headed? I was a natural in the kitchen before college, but there I was also a natural at the theory, too. I had the drive and the ability, but Mike identified it. He knew how to incorporate me into the team, rather than leaving me to shine on my own. As a chef, you really need that.

Marcus Wareing was talking to Tom Cullen. For information on his recently reopened London restaurant, Marcus, visit www.marcuswareing.com

What's cooking?

Marcus Wareing

Born 29 June 1970

Education Stanley High School, Southport, Merseyside, England; Southport College

Career Chef patron of London restaurant Marcus, which has two Michelin stars; won the dessert course of the 2006 series of BBC Two's Great British Menu, on which he has also been a judge

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