From the decor to the dining, we have chronicled the independent food and drink sector in Liverpool for over two years now.
Only recently it occurred to us that there is a whole other world behind the doors where our plates come out of. We’re going to meet up with the chefs behind your favourite restaurants to find out what it’s like to be a chef in Liverpool. We want to find out their favourite dish they’ve ever made, their favourite place to eat and we’ll try nudge a secret recipe or two out of them. Highs and lows, trials and tribulations, we’ll be documenting the journeys these chefs have undergone. Welcome to Chef’s Tales, the stories that have never left the kitchen… until now.
Aged 15, Dave Critchley walked into his local pub and asked for a job. They turned to the ever-growing sink of dirty plates and cutlery, passed him a towel and said “clean them”. Over 15 years later he is the only Liverpool born chef holding two AA rosettes in the city, and has been the head chef at some of the best restaurants in Liverpool. We all love a good underdog story, especially when they’re homegrown, so here is the story of Dave Critchley, the Childwall born head chef at The London Carriage Works and Hope Street Hotel flying the flag for local talent.
Have you always wanted to be a chef?
I was actually studying Art and doing an illustration and graphics degree in North Wales, but driving back each weekend to work in the local pub. I fell in love with the kitchen, the banter and with food generally. I decided to leave my degree to work in a small hotel with a friend, there were just two of us but I knew this was what I was meant to do from that first service. I worked there for a year, learning everything I could and then moved to a local restaurant called Neighbourhood in the leafy suburbs. I was there for a year and a half, I got all my qualifications, took absolutely everything in and went on from there. It is strange actually as my Mum and Dad lived in that property before it became a bistro and it turned out I was cooking in it however many years later.
Where did you first head chef?
52 Lark Lane was the first place I was a head chef of. It was a bar/ bistro and I think it is BIER now. I was only 23 at the time which is mad looking back. It was a massive experience for me, and also a lot of pressure. Lark Lane was very Mediterranean inspired at the time, I wanted to bring more of a British feel back on to menus. I must admit I thought I knew it all, I had my own kitchen, my own menus and people were loving my dishes, but it nearly killed me if I’m honest. I remember the first Valentine’s Day I worked there, I had two chefs walk out. We had to get a bin man and a chef from the local Chinese to help us. A bin man, a chef and a Chinese guy sounds like the beginning of a bad joke but that night almost crushed me. I had had just one day off in 4 months up until then, and that was on Christmas Day. I realised that I had a lot further to go.
Where did your career go from there?
I decided I had to take a step back and a great opportunity happened to fall into my lap. I needed to take this step back, have my days off, concentrate on learning again and really hone my skills. I was offered a junior sous chef role at the impressive Alma de Cuba. I stayed there and worked my way back up the ladder again learning from everything and everyone around me. After a few years a new restaurant called The Noble House was built on Brunswick Street and by this time I was chomping at the bit to get back into a head chef role. And when it was offered to me I bit their hands off! It was an American themed but not ribs, burgers and chicken wings etc. It was chowders, loads of fresh fish, oysters and real quality steaks. I still maintain that was some of the best food I’ve cooked to this day. I worked for these guys for 7 years, opening up several new restaurants and running all of them alongside my Exec chef, until I needed a new challenge and some accolades.
I met Paul Askew, who was at The London Carriage Works (current owner of The Art School), and I asked him if there was an opportunity at The London Carriage Works, I got an interview for the Head Chef role he was vacating and after several stages of interviews I was given the job. I’ve been here approaching a year and a half now and just a few months ago I got my rosettes.
What was it like getting your rosettes?
Rosettes are awarded for culinary excellence. It was amazing to achieve these personal accolades and I was very proud to have got them. A lot of hard work has gone in over the years and its nice to see it rewarded. Me and my team have worked and focused especially hard using local seasonal ingredients to stamp British back onto our menus and it has paid off.
What is the funniest complaint you’ve ever had?
I’ve never had any (joking). There’s been some odd ones over the years but one recently; a woman told me her fish had a strange feel inside her mouth. Seriously. The fish had been caught on the boat in the night and brought to land by about 5am, got to us by the afternoon, I cooked it perfectly and it was on her plate at 6pm and I had to bin it because she said it felt old and funny in her mouth. I don’t think I’ll ever get over that. A sheep farmer who came to eat once also denied the breed of sheep we use for our lamb dishes existed. That was quite an odd situation, discussing breeds of sheep on a busy Saturday night.
What is it like to chef in Liverpool?
I love it. It is fantastic to cook for locals, tourists and celebrities alike. Scousers know what they want, it is kind of what is endearing about is, we’re our own people and we won’t get told what to like. I put guinea fowl on the menu and changed it back to chicken within a few weeks as people weren’t sure of it, some thought it sounded too much like guinea pig! It would be fantastic for Liverpool to get a Michelin Star but you need a big clientele to want to eat there for it to ever make money, whoever manages it will have to be a very talented chef.
Any advice for future chefs?
It is one of the hardest jobs going. I don’t think many realise. I don’t really sleep anymore, it is like a vampire job where you’re walking up a never ending escalator. I’m either prepping, cooking, plating up, cleaning down, planning, doing paperwork, or buzzing off the adrenaline after service so much that I’m sitting up wide awake in bed devising new recipes. We have 89 rooms in Hope Street Hotel, we could do 180 breakfasts, 50 lunches, 50 afternoon teas, a four course meal for 70 people at a wedding, canapé function, 150 buffet and do 120 evening covers in The London Carriage Works all in one day and I’m in charge of every bit of detail from start to finish. That is why I don’t switch off. As hard as it is, it is the best job in the world. There’s nothing like the buzz of a Saturday night. When you and everybody else is in the zone it’s special. As head chef it is my job to make sure everybody is in that zone. Whether you’re a head chef, line chef, sous chef or whatever, you’ve got to have the passion, it is the only thing that’ll get you through it but trust me, one day, it’ll be worth it. It is a small city and you can make a name for yourself pretty quickly.
What is the future looking like for you?
Well, I’ve got a baby due in a few days so I’m stepping back off the front line for a few weeks. I never thought I’d see the day when having a baby would feel like a break. Although I’m told it wont be! A lot of chefs I’ve trained up have left Liverpool and I can see them slowly coming back the city now. I think the future of Liverpool’s restaurant scene is exciting, with loads of new places opening, and I’m looking forward to being a part of it. I’m also a part of a group called Project Scouse which aims to celebrate local produce and everything scouse. Global Scouse Day is also coming up on the 28th February which I help run and seeing it grow every year is fantastic for the city.
What is so special about the story of a boy turning into a man and a dish cleaner turning into a head chef? It is because the underdog won. The reason we are propelling the underdog to win is because we identify with that battle where the world tells us; they shouldn’t win. There’s something quite special about that defiance and seeing someone’s passion take them through every obstacle thrown at them. If you haven’t tried Dave’s food, please get down to London Carriage Works and try it. If you’d like to make it yourself, here’s a secret recipe to his homemade scouse with Global Scouse Day approaching on the 28th of February. Find it here.