Chef – Sam Mahoney

Sam Mahoney, Chef Patron of catering company Field and Fork, has been around excellent food since birth. As the grandson of farmers, and from a family of accomplished cooks, he was always encouraged to nurture his interest in food. By the age of 16 he was sure he wanted to be a chef. Upon leaving school, Sam wrote to every chef in the Michelin Guide with 2 stars or above, asking them for an apprenticeship. He received only one letter back. It was from Michel and Albert Roux, legendary owners of Le Gavroche. They were offering him a post.

Le Gavroche was the first restaurant in Britain to earn three Michelin stars. What was it like for Sam to begin his working life there as a teenager?

“I wasn’t prepared for how hard it would be,” he tells us. “I went in at 3 stars and you can’t go any higher than that. So there wasn’t any working up to it being difficult. It was difficult. And there were times that I went home in tears, just because of the exhaustion, the pressure of work. Yeah, it was hard, but it was a good grounding.”

After Sam’s 3 year apprenticeship he worked for the Rouxs in various international locations, including Amsterdam, which is where he met his wife and business partner Janet, a restaurant manager. Eventually the couple settled permanently in UK and started a family. After this return home Sam took a series of Head Chef jobs, the last one being at the famous Kensington Place restaurant in London.

“I took over from the legendary Rowley Leigh,” says Sam. “It’s always hard taking over someone else’s iconic restaurant, and the company was being bought out at the time and it was just horrid. I was living in London during the week and Janet and the children were down here [in Sussex]. Janet just rang me up one day and said – I’ve bought a restaurant. You’d better give in your notice. Chefs always talk about owning their own restaurants, but for me there was no decision to go solo!”

It was 2008 and The Mahoneys had bought the last year of a lease on a 20 cover restaurant in Baffins Court, Chichester. It cost £50,000. After this outlay, and with little money left, Sam explains that they just had to open the doors and start cooking. The initial weeks were rather shaky:

“We made mistakes when we first opened. I went in there all guns blazing with one style and it just bombed. So we changed it and pulled it back. It might have been what I wanted to do but it wasn’t what the customers wanted. We changed it over night.”

After this the small restaurant quickly grew in popularity, attracting a loyal customer base who appreciated the finesse of Sam’s dishes. Despite the success of the new venture, Sam is adamant that “financially it’s not viable to have 20 cover restaurant; it’s a hobby, not a business.” And the Mahoneys were living on borrowed time. At the eleventh hour, with 2 months left on their lease, Sam and Janet were approached by the nearby Pallant House Gallery who asked Field and Fork to be their in-house caterers. They immediately accepted. So had the small restaurant been created to showcase to Pallant House all along?

“Subconsciously we may have had that strategy in mind. But I’m not a planner. I’ve relied a lot on luck and a lot has come our way. And I work hard. Those two things combined make things happen.”

Pallant House, whose restaurant was 4 times the size of the one at Baffins Court, was ideal for the Mahoneys. They were contracted to provide the catering service and were paid a commission on the food sold, instead of having to fork out for rent, even during the down times. Plus the Gallery’s clientele appreciated both the food Sam was creating and Janet’s front of house expertise. William and Mariella Fleming were two of the many regular customers who hugely admired their approach. When the Mahoneys’ contract with Pallant House ended in October 2013, the Flemings announced that they were converting an old cow shed into a events venue. Would Field and Fork like to become the caterers for the new South End Barns? This was a great opportunity, and it made good financial sense. Sam explains:

“Events are a much easier and better model for a caterer and that’s why so many people go into it. In a restaurant you open your doors and you hope people will come. In a wedding venue you know 150 people are coming, you know what they’re eating, you know exactly what time they’re coming and going. The numbers work. We’ve got 100 weddings booked this year – we don’t have a free Saturday until November. I used to be “all about the food” now I’m “all about the business” as well. Lots of people can cook but you have to make a living.”

Field and Fork are set to continue at South End Barns, but having worked in contracted buildings for so long, the Mahoneys have just bought their own restaurant on Guildhall Street, Chichester. It will open in March 2014. “I’ve been cooking for 26 years and I’ve never been so happy or so sure that this is the right thing to do,” Sam tells us. “It’s very nice to have arrived at this point.” But there are so many popular chain restaurants in Chichester. Is Sam concerned about the competition?

“I have a personal battle with the chains that are in Chichester, I don’t think any more should be allowed by the council. I’m not saying I don’t go to them because I do. My kids love Wagamama but it sends a shiver down my spine because I’ve worked in Japan! It’s a shame that chains are becoming the norm and actually an independent restaurant is the norm. But I think it will flip round again. While the chefs in chains are centrally controlled, Field and Fork has the ability to take, say, freshly caught fish and do something spectacular with it.”

While catering on a large scale may be lucrative, a chef will always have to compromise when cooking for the masses, usually with the way the food is presented. This new venture should allow Sam to create food in the way he most enjoys. How would he describe his style? “I don’t follow trends. I call my style modern eclectic. My background is classical French and I’ve also worked in Japan and studied classical Japanese cuisine. I did dabble with fusion in the middle of my career, but I was playing a bit too much. I don’t believe that fusion works; the ingredients don’t match each other. I’ve got the foundations to do it properly.” Sam is inspired by ingredients, by visiting markets and by his own interest in horticulture. He also has a strong culinary imagination: “I know what food’s going to taste like, and what the texture is, so I can put a dish together in my head.”

Sam started his career at Le Gavroche, training ground of Marco Pierre White, Gordon Ramsay and Marcus Wareing. Field and Fork already features in the Michelin Guide. With the birth of this latest venture we wonder how important he feels it is to pursue a Michelin star himself?

“I would never, ever chase a Michelin star. I never have done, although I have the utmost respect for people that have that much dedication.” Sam continues: “There are many chefs doing excellent food who are not recognised by Michelin as their table isn’t clothed, or they don’t have a sommelier. If I’ve got a busy restaurant then that’s enough for me.”

Sam and Janet are approaching Field and Fork’s latest endeavour with more financial confidence than ever before. “We know how Chichester works,” says Sam. Part of this confidence also seems down to the step-by-step model of entrepreneurship they have adopted over the years.

“We’ve always waited until we could afford to do something. Because of the fragility of the catering industry anyone who invests 100s of 1000s of pounds in something…when I hear people are doing that I’m just – Wow, really good luck and I wish you well, but I can’t see you’re ever going to get that money back.”

Sam is extremely wary of investing vast sums in a restaurant’s fittings, fixtures and equipment. “When we first started, our crockery and cutlery were quirky and mismatched. We didn’t have the money to spend on it in the beginning and we still don’t have millions to spend on it. At the end of the day people will only pay a certain amount of money for a plate of food.”

While Sam recommends caution where it comes to interior design, he is committed to investing in personnel. Field and Fork now employs a core team of 20 long standing staff. “Our social responsibility to our staff in quite strong. We employ on a full time contracted basis which is quite unusual for caterers. Normally it’s just summer staff who get laid off in the winter. This is no good for consistency, which is so important for a restaurant. We take all the staff out a couple of times a year just to say thank you, and to do fun things, and step away from being boss and employee.”

Sam goes on to explain that as Field and Fork is a husband and wife team, the staff “need to buy into everything that comes with that. Janet and I will argue over the hot plate, because it’s life. The staff are involved in a lot of family type scenarios. We’re not discreet about voicing our opinions to each other. If we’ve had an argument at home, probably one or both of us will be in bad moods.” Sam laughs – “We’re not like that all the time!”

Sam and Janet’s children, Florence and Ben, are now 16 and 14 respectively. In such a pressured industry, and with a self-confessed tendency towards workaholism, is it hard for Sam to carve out family time? “I don’t think I have any weirder a work-home life than someone who leaves home at 6.30 in the morning to get the train to London and comes back at 8 o’clock.” And while he may not always have been around at bedtime, he is there to pick the children up from school, or take them to sports matches. What’s more, Florence and Ben regularly pop in and out of the South End Barns to spend time with their parents.

Sam maintains that working as a couple is more stressful for the husband and wife than it is for the children. “If you’re running a business, if you’re doing the work, doing the organisation, there is much less time for a couple to switch off. That’s the biggest test – how the couple operate in the business and interact, rather than whether you can get the Saturday off to take someone to a birthday party.”

Sam has recently been on his first holiday for 5 years, a trip to the Caribbean with Janet and the children. This time away has made him reflect upon his career in the restaurant trade, and how it has affected his lifestyle. “Strangely, the nicest thing about it was being with my family. It could have been in a camper van in Cornwall. That made me step back and think maybe there were times I’ve missed out on. But we provide quite a nice life for them as well. What else can I do? This is how I’ve chosen to make a living. I don’t want to do anything else; I couldn’t do anything else.”

JANDA COMMENT

A notable development for Sam has been accepting some level of compromise in his approach to business. The balance between producing your best work and making a living is often hard to strike, particularly if your wares are the fruits of your own creativity.

Sam’s recipe for success – combining hard work and luck – sounds most enticing. We wonder though how may of us share his knack of being in the right place at the right time. How important is the role of luck in the life of the entrepreneur? Elise & Jon