Jacqui Pickles In Conversation – “I’m going to cook for life!”
Les Dames d’Escoffier London are enjoying a vibrant calendar of events and are welcoming new members who are eager to participate in activities and raise funds for other women in hospitality. President Jacqui Pickles is one of the Chapter’s founding members. In 2015 she took the helm from Valentina Harris, who did such a fine job as the first London President.
Who is this calm and measured lady who manages to instil enthusiasm in such a diverse cross-section of leading women in UK hospitality? She has a successful catering company and has spent almost all her career working in food and wine.
I asked how she first came to hear of Les Dames d’Escoffier. ‘I met Valentina Harris in the early 90s. I was doing some work for an importer of kitchen equipment, and met someone who wanted to set up chef demonstrations. Putting some programmes together for her, I got some really good chefs who would go down to her kitchen shop. Valentina was one of those chefs, and we hit it off. I helped her set up a cookery school in France, and we built up a good relationship. It was she who invited me to become one of the founding members of the London Chapter of Les Dames d’Escoffier.’
What are some of Jacqui’s early memories of food?
‘As a child I do remember it was simple food, Northern food. It was my Grandma who taught me the importance of making something taste good. She really only had three seasonings: salt, pepper and butter. She was a natural cook, and couldn’t make pastry to save her life, but she just knew how things should taste, and how to put them together. My mother was a good cook, but she was much more precise. She had been a nurse, and ran the household as if she was running a ward – we had to scrub down before each meal! She worked as hard at being a mother and housekeeper as she had as a nurse in the 1950s.
I left and headed south
‘My mother went to Cordon Bleu evening classes once a week and so, suddenly, when I was about ten years old, we were being given pork fillets stuffed with prunes and anchovies, and stuffed peppers… We all embraced this, and these were the days before anyone had seen an avocado pear!
‘My father had a small farm and he set up a market business selling eggs and cheese. His first market stall was in Barnsley, which was odd because we lived in Preston. In those days there was no motorway so he had to get up very early, feed his pigs and whatever, then drive over the Pennines, and clear the snow from Market Hill in Barnsley to set up his stall. He built a successful business of about 30 shops in the end, and it kept my grandfather, father, my uncle and my elder brother going for 50 years.’
The Cordon Bleu school
‘I went into the family business. But there were too many ‘chiefs’ there, and one day I told Dad that I was handing in my notice. A week later I left and headed south with no plan. Eventually I found some work at Bourne & Hollingsworth. Then I went to the Cordon Bleu school for a week (which was as much as I could afford), and my interest was piqued.
‘I got a job as a secretary and actually my love of food started in that company. One day my colleague, Mike, asked me to lunch, and took me to the Connaught Grill. In those days it was all silver and waiters in tails – the poshest place I had ever been. The parents of my boyfriend Guy (now my husband) suggested that the next time he invited me to lunch I was to ask to go to Le Gavroche. So we went to Le Gavroche, and I still remember exactly what we had for lunch. We ate so well, and what a performance, a ballet – so fantastic! After that, we always went to Le Gavroche. I remember peeking at the bill, and in 1980 it was £78 for the two of us – quite a lot!
A brilliant teacher
‘Guy and I would take our holidays in the South of France. Coming back we would always stop at a little place called Le Cheval d’Or, which had a great dining room. In1982 I said to Guy, “I really want to learn how to cook!” So I handed in my notice, and left my job in January 1983. I told Mike that I would look for a cookery course, and he took me for a last meal at Le Gavroche. He said, “You never know, you might end up working here.” I laughed, but by May 1984 I was working there!
‘Fate played a big part: I applied to the school at La Petite Cuisine in Richmond and that was such a stroke of luck, because Lyn Hall was a brilliant teacher, and knew every great chef in France. It was a wonderful school and I fell in love with the whole thing. She was such a hard taskmaster, but after just three months with her you could go straight into a professional kitchen. From there I went to France, in May 1983, to the Chateau de Montreuil, near Boulogne.
‘Then Lyn Hall came to visit, and asked me to come back to the school and be the chef’s assistant. I did that, but within a month the chef had left and I was chef! I did love teaching, and building relationships with the students who came through. But I did miss the restaurant.
‘Steven Docherty, the sous-chef at Le Gavroche, was asked to come and give a lecture one evening, and I said to him that I would love to come to the Gavroche kitchen sometime. He said, “Just visit one evening after work, and just peel vegetables or whatever.” So I did that, standing there with a crate of carrots, just watching everything that was going on. So I thought, “I’ve got to get back in!” and one day I asked Albert Roux for a job. He asked, “How serious are you? How long are you going to cook for?” and I replied, “I’m going to cook for life!” so he said, “OK, you can have a job!”
‘I started at Le Gavroche in mid-1984. That was the hardest job of my life! Very tough, and I was the only woman in the kitchen. From Le Gavroche I went into their outside catering business. Then Albert gave me a job of looking after all the chefs in the contract side. When they started to go for the big contracts I was brought into the meetings to help them. I was with them until 1986.
Cooking in a fishing lodge
‘I set up my own company, and my first contract was with John Frieda, the up-market hairdresser, so I called the company Head Chefs Ltd – we provided food for their clients and we did his opening party in his Mayfair salon. The outside catering work began then.
‘I travelled a lot. I saw the world in style – Japan, Canada, The States, and all round Europe, and it was fabulous. The only place I actually cooked was in Iceland: a merchant bank client used to take their guests for a fishing trip and I cooked in a fishing lodge for a week every July, and it was really hard work. We started at 6 in the morning and finished at 2 in the morning, but it never got dark so you didn’t notice how tired you were.’
Jacqui Pickles continues to be involved with catering and hospitality, and organising international events. She is charismatic, quietly spoken and persuasive. She has already encouraged many women to get involved with the increasingly influential Les Dames d’Escoffier London Chapter.
Interview by Chrissie Walker © 2018