David Wilkinson - 01 Nov 2016

Confessions of a Frustrated Engineer

David Wilkinson - One Great George Street
This may be hard to believe but my road to One Great George Street (OGGS) really began way back in 1979, a few years before I left school, and was heavily influenced by just one individual. That person’s name was Margaret Thatcher.

“Strange,” I hear you say, “I don’t remember Maggie setting up too many catering initiatives in the formative years of her premiership” and you would be right, but in those early years there was very little else left.

Let me explain. My father ran a small engineering company in Tottenham called Commercial Radiators, a business started by my Grandad that employed about 30 people. It was situated not far from The Seven Sisters road in a thriving industrial area surrounded by similar sized business’ collectively employing many hundreds of people. To cut a long story short Mrs. T made, amongst many other things, sweeping ministerial cut backs including the MoD, a department that my dad used to do a lot of business with. The upshot was that within a year of her becoming the PM the company had to close down, and within two years 90% of the surrounding Tottenham companies had gone the same way.

So, back to me in 1981 and everything I was good at was geared towards going down the engineering route. I was good at maths, draftsmanship, physics, carpentry and metalwork, but had never ever cooked anything in my life or even cracked an egg in anger!!

Understandably my dad had become somewhat anti-engineering as a career choice for me and was keen for me to find a job where I’d always have employment. Enter my brother-in-law, a chef 16 years my senior who foolishly suggested that I should try catering. I was horrified by this ridiculous notion but hadn’t come up with anything better myself, so to pacify my dad I wrote one letter to one college and was mortified to be accepted!

It turned out to be the best mistake that ever happened to me. I loved college and enjoyed learning both kitchen and front of house skills equally. I worked in the evenings and at weekends for one of the Lecturers who had his own outside catering business for the grand sum of £2.50 per hour. I was living at home with zero responsibilities, awash with cash and life was just one big party. However, all good things come to an end and the party came to an abrupt finish in September 1984 when I started at the Savoy.

You have to remember that this is 30 years ago and things have dramatically changed in the catering industry since those dark times, but despite everything I experienced there my feelings about the Savoy remain completely ambivalent.  On the one hand it was a brutal place to work with long hours, poor pay and a medieval attitude to staff relations. Every week was a minimum of 60 hours and I was taking home £60 a week for my efforts. Overtime was non-existent and the Halcyon days of £2.50 an hour were like a distant dream. Staff turnover must have been about 200% so no one would learn your name for a month because you were likely to walk out so it wasn’t worth the effort. The kitchen was hot, overcrowded and dirty due to the coal-fired stoves, and if you didn’t understand something that your boss said he would shout it increasingly loudly until you did get it.

On the other hand it made you tough. There was a kind of foxhole mentality that forged friendships in adversity and the ‘us and them’ attitude created a highly effective and spirited team ethic. It was also a hot bed of learning and many of the skills I have today I owe to the Savoy. I remember a point in time, after about seven or eight months, when I stopped being terrified and started to enjoy myself and I knew then that I’d made it.

I left the Savoy in 1986 and moved to the Mayfair Intercontinental alongside two other Savoy chefs. Intercontinental were a very progressive company to work for and they treated all their staff with respect. I continued to learn but this time in an environment more conducive to doing so and two years passed there very quickly and happily.

As much as I was enjoying the Mayfair I had a yearning to travel so in April 1988 I headed off to Australia for a year and genuinely had the time of my life. I worked (not very hard) for six months in a motel in Sydney and spent the rest of the year travelling. I travelled to Aus with my friend Simon with whom I’d worked at the Savoy and the Mayfair, but he never came back to the UK. He’s still there now, living in Queensland with his wife and two grown up daughters. We are still very much in touch and plan to Skype on Saturday coming.

A chance meeting on my return to London saw me return to the Mayfair Intercon. This had never really been my plan but I was broke and needed to find some work quick so I thought I’d do that for 6 months and then look around again.

The Mayfair however was under new and even more enlightened management than they were before. This was the first time that I had ever come across formal training in the kitchen and they were teaching you new-fangled things like interview, motivation and management skills. I loved those opportunities and I couldn’t get enough of it. I got my head down and worked my way up through the ranks finishing with a three year stint as Premier sous chef, the number two in the kitchen.

David Wilkinson - Head Chef, One Great George StreetWhen I felt I could go no further at the Mayfair I left and went to Claridges. I had been at the Mayfair so long that I needed to work somewhere else in a similar position before taking on a Head Chef’s role and what I got at Claridges was certainly a different experience! It was a tough job and the overall work ethic was more closely related to the Savoy than the Mayfair, but I learned a lot and would not have swapped that two year experience for the world. However after two years I was mentally and physically exhausted and more importantly needed to find myself a Head Chef’s job. Then, as if by magic, my dream job opened up in front of me like an oasis in the catering desert and in June of 2000 I arrived here at OGGS and I have never looked back (well, until now).

The rest as they say is history.

2 Comments on Confessions of a Frustrated Engineer

  1. David
    1st November 2016 at 11:34 am (8 months ago)

    Well remembered account of the early eighties – they were pretty scary…

    Reply
    • David Wilkinson
      2nd November 2016 at 4:57 pm (8 months ago)

      Thank you for your kind comment David. It’s thirty years ago and it was scary but with my heavily tinted rose spectacles I certainly look back on that time with a great deal of nostalgia!

      Reply

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