Following on from attending the Professional Chefs Diploma at Westminster Kingsway College – Sam Jones now combines his love of great cooking, with his second love. The casting of his fishing nets
I was born and raised in Sevenoaks Weald, Kent. It’s a small farming village and a beautiful area that played a very important role in my childhood and passion for the outdoors. I was educated at Bennett Memorial school in Tunbridge Wells where I studied food technology for GCSE and later Home Economics at A level. The school also bought out other passions such as my love of music and playing instruments but that was just for fun, the food tech department helped me immensely in starting my career down the right path.
I have always enjoyed cooking, so it seemed a very natural thing to do. Being in a small village there were only a couple of children my age to socialise with. So I spent a lot of time with my mum who I have always loved cooking with, and I often joke that the apprentice has now become the master. Also my Granny, who sadly passed away a few years ago, was a very good home cook so the love of food, as well as the love of sharing it with friends and family has definitely been passed down. I have always loved cooking for family and enjoying everyone being together so that has always been an inspiration.
Being able to work with incredible seasonal ingredients including those I forage for myself, is very important to me. Being in touch with the seasons and the environment around me, not just with produce but with fish and meat as well.
From the autumn of 2011 to the summer of 2014, I studied the Professional Chefs Diploma at Westminster Kingsway College. My food technology and later my home economics teacher Eileen Camlin said “go there and nowhere else Sam”. When I visited there the first time to look around the campus, I could see why. The whole place had an amazing feeling of both classical excellence and respect but also contemporary development and progress. All the necessary ingredients to be at the pinnacle of culinary learning.
In my first year my work placement was at the John Lewis HQ in London. It was good to see the scale of operation in contract catering but still within a relatively small team. The same year I also organised myself a “stage” at le Manoir aux Quat’s Saisons after Raymond Blanc visited the college and invited me in person. This was an amazing eye opening experience and introduced me to being in the Michelin star kitchen world.
In my second year I didn’t do a work placement, as I was chosen to compete in the International College Culinary Competition in New Zealand. This was my first big competition and doing it on an international scale was very daunting. But I learnt so much from the experience, and it introduced me to the world of competing as a chef which I something I still do now as a member of the Craft Guild Culinary Team; there is no environment quite like a competition. A whole new level of adrenaline with live audiences, judges and being asked questions while cooking. I got the bug for it and enjoyed the intense learning and development I benefitted from out of the whole process.
In my third year I was at Dinner by Heston at the Mandarin Oriental hotel in Hyde Park. This was an incredible place to experience as it was ranked 4th best restaurant in the world at the time and had gained its second Michelin star the day before I joined. This made it quite daunting but I loved learning the science behind what they were doing and the technical precision. I respect that way of cooking immensely but after a while I found it a little robotic, but took so much away from the whole experience. It really bought out the desire in me to understand what’s happening scientifically when carrying out a process. From making bread to emulsions, gels, stocks and sauces. If ever at work anyone needs to know anything a bit geeky I am always the first port of call.
To be able to give one name as the most inspirational lecturer is impossible as so many lecturers and people gave me so much inspiration and knowledge through their different specialist subjects, whether in the kitchen, larder, pastry or front of house. Also the lecturers’ own personalities are often good fond memories.
My first year tutor, Alan Drummond, is very well known in the college for discipline but it worked. You learnt respect, punctuality and self discipline from day 1 which has always remained with me and is crucial for a training chef. I got on very well with him and he is now a good friend who I always enjoy seeing.
Chris Basten, the previous chairman of the Craft Guild and WKC lecturer, has been an immense supporter of my career and a great friend to me for a while now; I helped him compete at the culinary world cup in Luxembourg in 2014. Since then I have done various other events and competitions with him and the Craft Guild team including 2 years at the Parade des Chef at Hotelympia. I enjoy working with Chris hugely and we are often in touch planning our next comp or event.
Lastly Norman Fu was someone who brought out so much culinary passion in me through the competition world. At the end of my second year he asked me to be on his third year competition team which turned out to be one of the most exciting, challenging and often hilarious things I had ever done. I was in the team with 2 very good friends of mine Nathan and Theo. We competed and won the first ever Zest Quest Asia with Cyrus Todiwala and went to India for our prize which was an incredible experience. We also won the “Brakes” Country Range competition. This was one WKC had never won before so winning it was a massive achievement. As part of the team we would often eat out in London learning and seeing what was new in the industry.
Norman Fu has a knowledge of the culinary world on a level which is hard to find, any question or doubt he would know the answer; the very talented Ben Murphy also shares a similar opinion. I owe a lot to Mr Fu and whenever I am in London I try to meet up with him and go out to dinner.
After college in my second and third years I had a summer job which was ideal as it was in my favourite place in Cornwall and I could enjoy some time out. I then wanted some experience in providing good quality food but dealing with bigger numbers. I worked at a place near Falmouth for a year which gave me that. It was both a negative and positive experience as I learnt a lot in dealing with a very busy restaurant and on a section on your own. For several months through the summer I ran the starter and tapas section running from 12pm to the end of the night so a pretty full on section to run on your own. I left just short of a year of being there as I was diagnosed with glandular fever, and couldn’t work for three months. This was a hard time but as I got better I did the parade with Chris Basten and found my job at Kota in Porthleven, so I was able to start afresh and move forward to where I am now.
Kota is a fantastic place to be as it’s a small but very tight team. We achieved our third AA rosette last year which was an amazing achievement. We are consistently and steadily moving forward and I have a lot of respect for my executive chef and boss Jude Kereama both as a chef but also as a friend. My head chef Pete Almond from Brisbane is also great to work with as he is fantastic at creating incredible flavour, and food you just want to eat. Staff dinner is always a real treat.
I have always been inspired by a range of chefs be it for their style of cooking such as Marco Pierre White with his first book White Heat, Rene Redzepi with Time and Place and Auguste Escoffier the le repertoire (the bible), or for their personality and attitude towards food such as Keith Floyd.
Social media is always a honey pot of inspiration and I love seeing chefs making beautiful food but very simply. The emphasis being on the quality and beauty of their ingredients and letting mother nature be the artist.
My love of fishing? I have been fishing with my parents all through my childhood on holidays in Cornwall. Mackerel fishing is extremely addictive as it’s so easy to get hooked on it (sorry, bad joke). I spent a few summers with my best friend Johnny on the isle of Mull free diving for scallops and catching lobster which in such an amazing location is very hard to beat, and eating scallops cooked on the beach moments after coming from the water will always be a special memory.
I started commercial fishing with a friend of mine, Chris, who had taught me a lot of what I know now a year or two before starting at Kota. He is an excellent line caught bass fisherman so learning that was a brilliant skill to have.
My boat Stargazy Pie was previously owned by a very good friend of mine, Simon Bradley, who I started going to sea with the year I started Kota. We both learned a lot and tried many forms of fishing from long lines to pots and short soak gill nets.
The boat was offered to me as Simon was downsizing vessel so he could work from his home harbour of Cadgwith. It was an opportunity and deal I would never get again so I had to go
for it. After doing some work on the boat while it was in Falmouth I got a mooring in Helford, where I fish from now.
Fishing for me is a second income but mostly it is my time out and mental escape from the kitchen. The boat has to work as a business and there have been plenty of times I would rather be in bed than get up at 4am to go to sea, especially after not getting home from work until midnight. But once I leave home I’m very awake and excited and often feel re- energised for work later in the day.
Sustainable fishing has become increasingly complex in the past decade as it’s hard to say what is truly sustainable. New technology is helping but there are often huge flaws that both customers and consumers do not know. Fish farms using more fish from the sea to feed the smaller amount of fish in the farm is a concern. Along with the terrible reports and findings of chemical use and spread of diseases in fish farms such as some of the farms in Norway. This has been reported to make farmed fish, especially salmon, one of the most toxic foods we can eat, along with the environmental consequences.
New technologies in trawl nets have made progress over the years but again there have been problems. Trawls with square meshes to allow small fish to escape were praised when first used but it was soon found if the speed of the vessel went up very slightly the meshes closed up all together.
Sustainability is often an over-used or wrongly used word, and all too often misconceptions are made. Large vessels and trawlers are often negatively viewed due to the equipment they use. This can be true but not always the case. A fine example of a large vessel working in a sustainable fishery is the Ajax based in Newlyn, fishing with gill nets for hake which now has MSC status of being a plentiful fish stock.
Small boats however have always been close to my heart and often fish in very low impact ways. Many vessels in Cornwall, including mine, fish with handlines with no impact to the sea bed and environment, landing very high quality fish. Nets are often viewed negatively but if used well they can be very effective and low impact. Having very short soak times so a lot of the fish you catch come aboard alive is essential. Firstly, so that you don’t catch lots of unwanted species and secondly, also guaranteeing quality. Sadly, many pieces of government legislation being imposed on the industry are causing a great struggle for, if not the death of, small boats within the industry. Yet it is small boats where often the best fish comes from.
Kernow Sashimi, who I land my fish to are very keen on the good practices used by their own vessel the Lady Hamilton and indeed other small vessels, mine included. Short soak times, with certain nets, produce some of the highest quality fish you can buy.
While I am out bass fishing, mackereling or on my way in after doing nets I will be on the phone telling them what I have caught, and very often it is sold by the time I have driven up there to land my catch. This is due to the direct restaurant sales they make by having very good close contact with chefs around the country, with a fair few in London. The fish is then prepared, packed and at the restaurant the following day in time for lunch service.
This also often gives the fishermen a better price for their fish. It is direct contact with restaurants through small companies like these that are the future of small sustainable boats within the industry. I am extremely passionate about this way of fishing and selling my catch to customers directly. I often tweet what I have caught on my way in tagging in restaurants such as the 2 Michelin star Umu and Nathan Outlaw at the Capitol which is also a great way for customers to see where their fish is from. So for me and indeed many other skippers it is no longer about catching as much as you can. But more catching the best quality catch you can and landing it to the best possible market you can.
There are so many fish we catch that go straight to the continent. One of the best examples is spider crab. There is a huge amount of it. It’s delicious, but because it looks scary and is fiddly to prepare for not much meat in return they are often forgotten. Their meat is sweeter than brown crab and a lot cheaper. So more spider crab on the menu would be good to see.
Similarly, a lot of Cuttle fish is caught in UK water but is very hard for the public to get hold of. It has more flavour than squid and can be beautifully tender when cooked well.
The political climate creating great uncertainty is a very current topic within the fishing industry. Many fishermen to begin with supported Brexit with the prospect of UK waters being claimed back. However, there is a big concern even more waters may be lost as part of the divorce settlement deals going on. Leaving the industry in a terrible situation which led to the start of the campaign “no fishing sell out”.
Legislation passed in recent years has made things very hard for small vessels such as closed areas of sea for certain species. Reduced quotas and increased restrictions. It is often said the government does not want small boats as they produce similar amounts of paper work as the big boats but for far less financial return creating an agenda to eventually eliminate the small boat fleets of the UK.
Accordingly, I feel very strongly that it is more important than ever for chefs to support small fish selling businesses, working closely with small day boats landing high quality sustainably caught fish.
It can be very rough out there at sea. The sea around Cornwall is famous for how dramatic it can be in bad storms. Porthleven the town where Kota is, is famous for its big waves and its surf.
As a skipper you know your limits and what both you and your vessel are capable of. A very good friend of mine John Strike who has been a fisherman and fishmonger most of his life, told me a very simple saying “if there’s any doubt, there’s no doubt”. Meaning if you have any doubt about the weather you may face and the conditions at sea, you don’t go.
I often work short soak nets for red mullet that move in the hours of darkness so I go to sea and shoot nets before sunrise. This has its risks but it is always beautiful to see the sun rise then haul the gear.
The sea will always find out what you have done wrong and in many cases a mistake or being reckless can cost you your boat and indeed your life. So I am always looking at tide times and various weather forecasts. Also being in touch with other boats around you is essential as we all keep an eye on each other. It’s an unspoken rule we always help and give a tow to any vessel in need; it’s the way it has always been and always will be.
In our very busy and life consuming industry it is all too easy to have all work and no play. I have been very lucky but also worked hard to achieve a great work life balance allowing me plenty of time out of the kitchen, even if it means a little lack of sleep! But lastly, I have always been inspired by my Dad’s words to “live a life less ordinary”, and I can safely say the life of being a chef and fisherman is anything but ordinary.