From celebrity clientele in London to the shores of Paphos NAN MACKENZIE meets a man who became dedicated to the kitchen once a career as a rockstar fell through
At the most basic level a chef is responsible for the physical reproduction of a highly perishable product many times a day, of which he has taken into account the taste, texture, and visual appeal. As people have become obsessed with good food, chefs have become huge celebrities, they are the new rock stars with all the trappings of fan clubs, Twitter accounts and ‘grub groupies’. Professional cooking, it seems, has turned into a veritable gladiator sport with chefs making it a virtue to be seen as a red faced, toque wearing, will breaking drill sergeant courtesy of TV programmes such as Hell’s Kitchen.
Rob Shipman is executive chef at both the Almyra and Annabelle hotels but does his life behind the stove resemble that of a crazed tattooed rocker wielding a saucepan in a kitchen cauldron of heat, sweat, tears and testosterone?
Rob is a boyish-looking 40 something who boasts an eclectic taste in chef wear and, as I take in the bright red pepper printed pants he proudly informs me he has another six pairs of equally loud trousers – one for every day of the week. His dress sense may be questionable but his cooking certainly is not. Shipman has the gift of seduction delivered on a plate with even something as simple as his lobster sauce enough to get one excitable.
London-born Shipman was encouraged to cook by his mother. His father, a specialist paediatric gastroenterologist, cared for children with chronic stomach problems so the Shipman household was never party to eating junk food.
“My father solidly encouraged healthy eating, he also enjoyed being a bit of a market gardener in his spare time so we grew a lot of our own organic fruit and vegetables. As a child I quickly absorbed the old adage that from a health point of view you are indeed what you eat and I have always tried to keep true to that”.
So was his ambition always to be a cook?
“No, I moved with my family to Canada when I was very young and my ambition then was to be a rock star, as a teenager I was drummer for heavy metal rock bands and as far as I was concerned that was going to be the life for me, taking music and our stage act to the very edge. Mind you, it did come with a certain amount of danger – I was a drummer who used to perform with flaming drumsticks and on more than one occasion I set fire to my hair. Once under the influence of strong drink, I thought it would be a good idea to have a go at breathing fire during a gig in London which got me hospitalised”.
The gigs kept coming but the money didn’t so Shipman, aged 23 and back in London, took a job to supplement his musical ambitions in one of London’s high end fishmongers – The Poissonerie De L’Avenue.
“The shop was linked to a French restaurant next door in Sloane Avenue where an Italian chef called Fernando reigned supreme in the kitchen – every single day for almost two years I would walk round after I finished work and ask chef if I could help in the kitchen and learn how to cook and every time he told me to ‘f..k off’ but I wore him down eventually and he began to teach me how to make stock, sauces and fish soup. I had caught the bug so after a couple of years I went to work as commis chef at the Plimsole Line where I was taken under the wing of Jacques Eza previously the executive Chef at the Savoy Hotel – he was the man who really taught me how to cook.”
In 1993 at the height of the Gastro pub craze Shipman became demi chef de partie at the Fire Station in Waterloo working with head chef Dan Evans a protégé of chef Alistair Little, a man not averse to displays of eccentricity.
“Dan was marginally crazy but immensely talented so the kitchen ran on stress, staff were never sure what was going on as Chef would decide almost at the last minute before opening what the diners would be eating that night so I had a good training there in speed cooking and being innovative with whatever one had to hand in the larder”.
During this period Shipman took on three additional kitchen jobs. “It’s really the only way a young chef can learn his craft and it’s also how you can learn to push oneself both physically and mentally. I worked about 100 hours a week for a whole year just learning every aspect of the different kitchens. I then worked at Granita in 1995 as sous chef cooking for Tony Blair just before he became Prime Minister – he lived close by and he and his wife used the restaurant on a regular basis. But it was a job at Kanzan in Thayer street London in 1996 that really kick started my love affair with Japanese cooking, under the keen eye of Chef Chosan, a master in the art of sushi. He took me under his wing and led me into the world of this unique cuisine and once again I was hooked”.
Nobu had just opened in Old Park Lane and it was here in 1997 Shipman found himself developing the now famous omakase (chef’s choice) menus and a few months after its opening the restaurant was awarded a Michelin star. This was and still is a regular venue for the rich and famous so who had Shipman catered for during those heady Michelin star days?
“Gordon Ramsay I’ve cooked for a few times, once when I worked at the Hempel Hotel I served him Puffer fish (Fugu) which is a huge delicacy but you have to really know what you are doing in preparing this fish as one wrong cut means almost certain death for a customer as the fish contains enough of the deadly poison Tentrodotoxin to kill 30 adults – it’s up to 1,200 times more poisonous than cyanide plus there is no known antidote. So, when I took the dish out to him I explained what it was and how I had prepared it with Sake, he just looked at the dish, then slowly looked up at me and asked ‘What F….g drugs are you smoking’? He survived the dish and when at Nobu he would regularly come and order my new style sashimi cooked with hot oil. Naomi Campbell would dine at Nobu and eat what I can only describe as a swallow’s portion of food from a tiny plate. Julia Roberts was a regular fan of sushi and in particular the Black Cod, Leonardo De Caprio ate only my new style sashimi, the group Iron Maiden came and ate their way through my omakasi menu enjoying it so much they promised to send back stage passes for their next concert.
“We also created a sushi extravaganza for the VIP party given by The Rolling Stones after their Wembley Concert so that was great fun although one does have to watch out for the confidentiality clauses when it comes to talking about any juicy goings on other than the food on offer, but life in London was certainly never dull”.
And his worst moment?
“We were preparing the fifth anniversary dinner for 30 top UK journalists and I put some Shitake mushrooms in a pot, only later did I spot the (non edible) silicone crystal pack that had also fallen into the pan, and if I had served the mushrooms then 30 top journalists would then have had some very negative reactions, so that’s the stuff of chef nightmares.
“I also had a chef in Hokkaido who in a moment of panic mistook the red button on the wall thinking it was for the A/C it was actually the Tomahawk fire button and when pressed instantly delivered a tsunami of white foam to cascade from the ceiling. Every scrap of food was ruined as were the electrics and most of the kitchen equipment – that was not a good day in a Japanese kitchen”.
In May 2004 the Almyra Hotel head hunted Shipman away from his role as Head Chef at Ubon by Nobu in Canary Warf to bring to Paphos a unique Japanese Mediterranean fusion and for two years Shipman garnered a veritable legion of fans. In 2007 a once in a lifetime opportunity presented itself in the form of an offer from the Japan’s Hilton hotels and off Shipman flew to his second home, he was now a proficient Japanese speaker, married to Japanese born Mika and with his young son was able to enjoy being with his family and at the same time he honed his skills in kitchen management and polished the all essential traits that makes for a good administrator of staff.
With young chefs now being given the impression that chefing is another way to becoming a celebrity, what advice would Shipman give to those wishing to enter a professional kitchen?
“First you have to do the hard graft that allows you to have the valid title of chef, when in training offer to work for free in kitchens of potential mentors and watch, look and listen. Never ever make excuses if chef says your work is crap, just say ‘Yes Chef’ and go improve on the dish. It’s also so easy to be sucked into a total underworld of cooking, so that you become a sort of culinary nighthawk existing on nibbles and booze and no sleep – that’s when the burn outs occur so a sense of balance has to always be there if you want to get to a level where you are treated with any level of seriousness”.
Rob Shipman is not a man who treats cooking as a blood sport, he is of that breed who knows not only his craft but manages to come across as both passionate yet resilient, he is also incredibly driven, attributes which clearly mark out a super chef.