Antony Worrall Thompson

AWT 2006 - credit Nick Ayliffe

“I’m a positive thinker – a glass half-full not a glass half-empty person…”

Serious about food

Henley-based chef Antony Worrall Thompson is putting his recent troubles behind him and wants us to start a food revolution. Interview by Sandra Fraser, image Nick Ayliffe.

There are some celebrity chefs you wouldn’t mind being stranded on a desert island with and some you would swim through shark-infested waters to stay away from. Not, I should say, because of some have hunky good looks or better table manners, but because you know the chef world is divided into those who would sit down under the nearest palm tree and moan about the loss of their Japanese knives and those who would be dreaming up a thousand recipes with coconuts. Some chefs would be out in the shallows, with a home-made harpoon, catching fish, gutting them and getting on with the task of survival, while others would be swearing at a fire that wasn’t hot enough and flouncing around in their blue-chequered trousers.

Antony Worrall Thompson strikes me as a get-on-with-it type. The chips have been down in the last month or so and when I interview him, he’s still sore about the enforced closure of some of his restaurants and businesses as a result of the recession and a failure to get increased backing from his bankers. The latest financial crisis has been caused by the general downturn in eating out – there’s always a lull after Christmas – but the business overall was profitable and turning over £5 million a year.

Antony has bought, with his own savings rather than business money, two of the restaurants and a shop back from the administrators, and is preparing to roll up his sleeves and return to the task of doing what he does best – offering great food, locally sourced, in a relaxed atmosphere to people who know and care about such things.

Antony may have enhanced his reputation by staring into a camera lens, appearing on our television screens in magazine-style cookery shows, but there’s no denying he’s a chef and foodie, first and foremost and still loves cooking for other people. He’s also passionate about food production. Though he admits checking ingredients’ provenance, reducing their carbon footprint, taking care over animal welfare and buying local, seasonal produce may not always make a difference on the plate he’s certain it makes a difference to the farmers. He would like to see the nation more self-sufficient rather than importing so much of our food and is keen to see a food revolution in the UK.

“We’re in great danger if we don’t watch it,” he says. He dubs the Common Agricultural Policy a mistake and urges farmers to ignore European edicts and get on with doing what’s right for them – making a French-style stand.

“We’ve got different climates and different soils,” he says of the notion that a one-size-fits-all policy should work across so many nations.

Keen to get people more connected with the food on their plates, he’d like us to grow more of our own produce – even if it’s just beans and tomatoes – so we can experience that just-picked, just-cooked taste.

Henley-on-Thames-based Antony was born to two actors in Stratford-Upon-Avon and educated at King’s School, Canterbury. He went on to study hotel and catering management at Westminster College before working in Essex. His grandmother refused to write to him because she could not bring herself to put “Essex” on an envelope. After learning more skills in France and returning to the UK, Antony moved to London and his culinary and media career began, He opened restaurants and gourmet pubs in London and more recently, along the Thames, which proved to be hugely popular – and profitable even at the time they were facing closure.

A prolific producer of cookbooks, with more in the publishing pipeline, he has been “celebrity” chef for decades, with appearances on Ready Steady Cook and countless other television food shows.

Though for years he lived on the River Thames, in an Arts and Crafts home created out of several cottages knocked together, he and his wife Jay and their children, needing more space, took a pragmatic approach to the threat of flooding and decided to move rather than extend their home.

“We’ve moved inland a bit,” he says, adding that, for the time being at least, he still has his boats.

“I’ve got a 1953 slipper launch and one that used to be a water skiing boat, with a cabin in it – that would do for us – one boat is more than enough.”

Though he has lived and worked in the area for years, Antony has never taken part in any of the regattas that punctuate the summer in Henley. We have a little discussion about the Traditional Boat Rally – this year on July 18 and 19, though the chance of this busy man finding two days in a row to spend messing about with boats is unlikely.

So what does the future hold for Antony and his enterprises?

“I’m a positive thinker – a glass half-full not a glass half-empty person. Without set-backs you can’t appreciate the good times – I’ll bounce back,” he says.

Ah Antony – always looking for a thousand ways to make coconuts interesting…

*Following this interview I ate on a river launch with Antony Worrall Thompson in the galley. The food was seasonal, local and beautifully presented – and it tasted delightful. There’s no doubting he’s a chef first and foremost and all those business enterprises are secondary to his real talent and first love.

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