When Emily Watkins boarded a plane to Italy in 2000, leaving her entire life in the UK behind and armed only with an annotated copy of the Michelin Guide, the only thing she knew for sure was that this was her best chance of making it as a chef. (Words by Daniel Woolfson)
Watkins, who now runs one of the most revered gastropubs in the UK – the Kingham Plough, in Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire – had graduated from university with a degree in business that she didn’t want and worked for three months in an office job she hated. For her, Italy was the only option.
She had always wanted to be a chef, looking back fondly on her time waitressing and pot-washing alongside her mother at a country house hotel in her native Dorset as a young teenager.
“My mum was – disappointed might sound a bit harsh – but she was very keen for me to go to university because she felt like she’d missed out on the opportunity,” she says.
“In her generation, women hadn’t been encouraged to go [to university] and she was desperate for her daughters to do it and actively discouraged me from being a chef.”
Watkins adhered to her mother’s wishes, but maintained a small catering business throughout her studies, all the while dreaming of devoting herself to the restaurant trade. Finally, enough was enough. Europe beckoned.
“I went out there (to Florence) with a Michelin Guide and a few places marked in it. I went round to all the places I’d marked and everybody told me no, because I had no CV to speak of – even though I was offering to work for free,” she says.
Although she hadn’t expected an easy ride, she found many Italian restauranteurs less than willing to welcome an inexperienced, English chef into their kitchens.
“They all thought I was a joke and basically laughed in my face. And the more restaurants that said no, the more I realised how naïve I was. I didn’t speak the language at all and had no proper kitchen experience and there was me thinking I was a good cook because I could do a half decent meal at home.”
But when others may have given up, Watkins persevered. She had a serious point to prove.
“I hadn’t just gone to learn the cuisine,” she says. “But just because everyone had said ‘you won’t be able to do it’ or ‘you won’t like the hours’, I thought if I went to Italy and had no contact really I could throw myself into that world and not feel like I was missing out on anything.”
Eventually, Watkins struck gold and was offered work at Beccofino, a classic Italian fine-dining restaurant that had been ‘top of her list’.
It came with a catch though. Watkins, who had no formal training, would waitress for two days a week on basic wages and work for free in the kitchen the rest of the time.
“I wasn’t exactly the best waitress, considering I had no Italian skills whatsoever,” she laughs.
But after two months, the tides turned when she overheard the head chef and front of house manager having a blinding argument – over which one of them she would be working for that night.
“The kitchen won and I was offered a full-time contract,” she grins. “It felt fantastic. I was so happy just to be in the kitchen and I really threw myself into it. I would work every extra minute that I could just so I could learn more.
“I was the first girl to have ever worked there – let alone the first English person. At this time, I was regularly doing in excess of 100 hours a week – it’s normal out there to work a six-day week.”
It was during these months of learning the ropes and picking up skills that Watkins realised her inability to speak Italian could also be a blessing in disguise.
“It was really useful actually,” she says. “Because when [the head chef] was screaming at me, red in the face I’d know he was angry at me but I could just stand there saying ‘yes chef, sorry chef’ without any idea what he was saying – so I couldn’t find it offensive in the slightest.
“A few years later, when I was preparing to leave Beccofino, he told me how brave I’d been in the early days. I had to tell him ‘I wasn’t brave – I just had no idea what you were talking about!’.”
After working her way across every station in the kitchen, by the time 2002 came around Watkins says she began to feel ready for the next challenge. Confident in her new skills and technique as a professional chef, she set her sights on returning to England – and working at one of the most revered restaurants in the world, Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck, in Bray, Berkshire.
“[Working at the Fat Duck] was my dream job,” she says. “So I just wrote to them.”
To her surprise, she received a resounding yes from the Fat Duck, which held two Michelin stars at the time. However, they wanted her to show up for a trial the next day.
A last-minute flight and a frantic train ride later, she was offered a job just at the time Ashley Palmer-Watts (now executive chef of the Fat Duck Group and Dinner by Heston Blumenthal) was starting as head chef.
While Beccofino’s cooking had required a high standard of cooking, Watkins quickly learned the kitchen team at the Fat Duck was consistently taking things to another level.
“Both kitchens were really hard work,” she says. “But the differences were in how far you would go with each dish. I’d been taught great skills, but they were much more refined at the Fat Duck.”
She was never worried for a second about what the restaurant would require of her, she says.
“I knew what I was letting myself in for and I knew that it was what I wanted to go with. The attitude there was fantastic – it was all about inquisition, not about status or anything like that.
“They question everything, challenge everything and try new things all the time – it’s such an open-minded kitchen. But every service had to be executed absolutely perfectly.”
Somewhat ironically, she adds, not having any formal training was a blessing in disguise when she joined Blumenthal’s kitchen. “I didn’t have the rules to break.”
And quite shortly after she joined, the now-iconic eatery was given a coveted third Michelin star.
The attitude of the Fat Duck has totally shaped the way Watkins cooks now, she says. “I always have to ask ‘why can’t we do this?’.”
For instance: “I was playing around with raspberry macarons a few years ago and all the recipes call for flavouring and food colouring. That’s ridiculous, we’ve got perfectly good raspberry juice – why can’t we just use that and rehydrate powdered egg whites and have that as the base?
“I’m always inclined to think outside of the box a little bit.”
But Watkins began to suffer from a hereditary hip problem during her time at the Fat Duck. Eighteen months into the job, she realised she needed a change in lifestyle.
She worked on and off as a private chef in London, taking time to reflect on where she wanted to take her career next. But the call of restaurant life was too strong for her to resist.
“I found it quite lonely, doing the prep work all by myself and then having a massive service and that’s it.”
One positive bonus of working as a private chef, however, was it allowed her to work on her own cooking style.
She found herself returning to the traditional English cookery of her youth, but applying the meticulous technique and eye for detail she had learned in Italy and Bray.
Most importantly, she dedicated herself to making the most out of ingredients.
“I will take a very traditional, English dish and serve it very differently. We might be doing a millionaires’ shortbread, for instance, but the way we do it is we do this really light shortbread, we do a tempered chocolate sphere and fill it with a salted caramel mousse and we do popcorn ice cream with it.
“It’s got all the elements there of it, but it’s executed very differently to what you’d imagine. It’s quite playful.”
Watkins went on the hunt for her first site, stumbling upon the Kingham Plough and buying the freehold in 2007. The pub barely resembled the cosy, intimate eatery it is now at the time. “It was a wreck,” she laughs.
But Watkins, with the help of a loyal team of chefs and front-of-house staff, has transformed the pub into one of the most widely respected dining establishments in the country.
She has also become somewhat of a celebrity thanks to appearances on a range of TV shows including BBC2’s Great British Menu – once as a contestant and then a second time as a surprise mentor.
Gushing reviews, awards and accolades have all been thrown her pub’s way and it entered the ranks of the Top 50 Gastropubs in 2015 at 15th place before rising to 9th in this year’s list.
She says: “I love this life. You either love it or you hate it, and I love it. I love service twice a day. I love the adrenaline and the camaraderie of the brigade.”