EALife food writer Emma Crowhurst explains how a former mentor has overcome alcoholism to warn others in hospitality about the perils of drinking

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I attended catering college in Sussex and completed a two year comprehensive course in hospitality and cooking. When I was awarded ‘Student of the Year’ it confirmed that I have made the right choice of career. All excited and keen to start work I already had a job in a small restaurant in North London. My prize for the award was to further inspire and help me to hold my nerve when things were tough.

I won a dining experience which was to introduce me to one of the first of the modern celebrity chefs. My dinner was at Gravetye Manor, at West Hoathly in Sussex. I met the man who motivated a generation and continues to inspire but for different reasons.

Michael Quinn’s background as the former head chef of the five-star Ritz Hotel in London, the first British chef in its then 74-year history to hold the top job, is enough to make anyone with an interest in things culinary stop and listen.

Yet, it is what happened to Quinn after those heady days at the Ritz that has made his name known among hospitality industry students all over Britain.

In 1980, already with one Michelin star to his name as head chef of Gravetye Manor in Sussex, the 35-year-old Quinn was headhunted by the Ritz to breathe new life into the venerable hotel’s culinary reputation. And so he did - livening up the stuffy menu (including the radical move of writing the menus in English instead of French), creating a new culture in the kitchen, and generating a buzz.

He turned the London Ritz restaurant into one of the city’s top eateries, and his innovative cuisine and menu ideas were much copied in other establishments.

It made him a star, the “Mighty Quinn” as he was often referred to. He cooked for the Queen, was awarded an MBE, made countless television and radio appearances, and had invitations from all over the world to cook and to judge cooking events (including from New Zealand, where, in 1982, he cooked for Prime Minister Robert Muldoon at the Beehive).

This remarkable success made what followed all the more shocking.

By 1990, the Mighty Quinn, the focused, ambitious, hard-working celebrity chef, was no more.

He was just Quinn, a homeless drunk, sleeping rough under bridges or in Salvation Army hostels, mixing with criminals and doing things he never thought he would, to get another fix of his drug, alcohol.

“I had my first drink at 18 and it felt like the missing piece of the puzzle,” he said during a recent visit to Christchurch.

“In the early days, alcohol helped me to handle life, but it’s only a matter of time before the downside happens.

“Once I began to deteriorate, I went downhill very quickly. But my pride and ego kept me from asking for help.”

Quinn’s story is that of many alcoholics - of a gradual descent into dependence, denying all the while that he had a problem, while his marriages, relationships with his children, his work and the life he had built for himself disappeared.

But the high-profile heights from which he fell, and the depths of misery that almost killed him, make the story that much more compelling. That, and the fact that he is now sober, reunited with his sons, and determined to do his best to prevent other chefs falling down the same dark hole.

In 2001, five years after a moment of personal truth when, while being given the last rites, he had embraced sobriety and, with the help of Alcoholics Anonymous, begun the long, hard road to recovery, he established the Ark Foundation, a charity to take an awareness seminar on alcohol and drugs to Britain’s catering colleges.

The first meeting for the foundation was held in the kitchen of London’s Savoy Hotel, where an old friend was head chef. Today, celebrity chef Jamie Oliver is an honorary vice-chairman.

“I saw the Ark as an educational tool to take the message of alcohol and drug awareness into (catering) colleges,” Quinn says. “Our motto is ‘In service of others’. It was not about egos, not about people using the Ark to promote themselves.”

While Quinn believes his own descent into alcoholism would likely have happened no matter his profession, his focus is on the hospitality industry.

He came up through the kitchen ranks at a time when drinking during service was perfectly acceptable, with a daily beer allowance for each chef, or even a barrel of beer in the cool room.

“When it was empty, we just got another.” Times have changed, but he says the nature of the industry could exacerbate a tendency towards problems with alcohol.

“In the hospitality industry, you are surrounded by alcohol all the time,” says Quinn. “There is the social aspect to it - the winding down after a service, working irregular hours, working under high pressure - and the culture of drinking is enormous in the UK, with an explosion of binge drinking and of young women drinking.”

In the Ark’s first year, Quinn told his story to students at 13 colleges. Last year, the foundation, part of Britain’s Hospitality Action group and funded by the hospitality industry, ran seminars at 300 colleges, in front of 20,000 students.

It might be that, through its seminars, the Ark Foundation can just plant a seed,” he says, “so that years later someone who heard me speak will think ‘that short, fat b*****d was right’ and get some help.”

It has become almost a full-time occupation for Quinn, who says he does little cooking these days, although he did spend several years back at the stoves in a low-profile way once he was sober.

“I look back at that time now and it is like looking at a different person. I’m the real Michael Quinn now.”

Good luck to Michael Quinn and I hope his voice is heard at all catering colleges, it is very easy to form bad habits, to be forewarned is forearmed. Many hospitality organisations as well as colleges are asking Michael to speak to their employees and to pass on the message of support and awareness.

You can find out about the Ark Foundation at www.aa-uk.org.uk

For a delicious pudding to enjoy in this summer, try my white chocolate cheesecake

The cheesecake mixture can also be used for a sophisticated tart if you pop it into a baked sweet pastry case, perfect for a party, barbeque or supper party.

You can make it the day before and just decorate last minute with your favourite summer berries.

The filling also works well as an ice cream, wonderful with a dark chocolate brownie, a dusting of icing sugar and some ripe blackberries.

ingredients

For the biscuit crust

12 digestive biscuits/200g/7oz

55g/2oz butter, melted

For the filling

200g/ 7oz white chocolate, broken into pieces (Green and Blacks is the best)

250g/9oz tub marscapone cheese

1 tablespoon cointreau or kirsch

200mls/ just over a 1/3 of a pint crème fraiche (low fat is fine)

1 large punnet of berries such as blackberries

Mint to garnish

method

For the biscuit crust.

Melt the butter in a pan and add the crushed biscuits, mix well and press firmly into a shallow 20cm/8 inch loose bottomed cake tin or flan ring. Chill in the fridge while you make the topping.

For the filling.

Put the chocolate and marscapone in to a large glass bowl over a pan of barely simmering water.

Stir to melt the chocolate and as the last few lumps are melting, remove from the heat and stir until all the lumps are gone, and then add the cointreau or kirsch.

Stir the crème fraiche in to the cooled chocolate mixture.

Pour on to the biscuit base, level off and leave to set in the fridge for about an hour.

Remove the cake tin or flan ring and serve piled with the berries and garnish with mint.

Hot tip

To remove the tin, wear rubber gloves and dip a clean cloth into very hot water, wring out the cloth and place it around the out side of the tin. The tin will warm up and you may slide it off.

You may also make individual cheesecakes, use portion rings or a muffin tin lined with cling film.

Makes 6.

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