Heaven & Hell: Mike Keen

Mike Keen in Hauganes, Iceland

Mike Keen in Hauganes, Iceland - Credit: Contributed

Mike is a chef, writer and adventurer currently realising his childhood dream of driving a digger as he develops a small piece of land in East Anglia. From setting up and running some iconic local pubs, to breeding ravens for the Tower of London and kayaking amongst the icebergs in Greenland, Mike is never one to rest on his laurels. During the pandemic he managed to escape to the arctic where he travelled extensively, researching some incredible foods for his upcoming book Here he speaks with Gina Long

How has Covid-19 affected your life and how are you adapting?

In a rare piece of good luck I sold my stake in the pub I set up, The Boot in Freston, just a few months before Covid hit. The idea was to concentrate on writing a book, cheffing for private events, doing some recipe and menu development as well as teaching cookery. All the paid stuff pretty much fell through but at least I didn’t have the millstone of a pub anymore. I managed to travel through the Faeroes, Iceland and Greenland cooking and writing so looking back I guess I was luckier than most.

Running a restaurant or pub is such hard work at the best of times so doing it during Covid has got to be pretty horrible. Hats off to those that are!

What is your connection to East Anglia?

I was born in Colchester and have lived in several beautiful Suffolk villages in between jaunts living and working abroad. I went to catering college in Colchester, my kids live around Ipswich (except for one in Cyprus) and my partner and her kids are here as well. I’ve run three pubs/restaurants in Suffolk as well, it’s an amazing place.

Mike Keen in Dalvik

Mike Keen in Dalvik - Credit: Contributed

What is your East Anglian Heaven?

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I love that you’re never far from a quiet spot and it can still feel unspoilt in a lot of places. There are so many places to explore and discovering new parts that can trigger a fresh burst of joy is a regular occurrence here.

What is your East Anglian Hell?

There’s nothing I hate. The not-so-great bits, road congestion for instance, are part of everyday life and we have it probably easier than most in the UK. If it was easier to get to and around it would lose an element of what makes it great.

What are your favourite East Anglian restaurants?

Pea Porridge in Bury St Edmunds is ace, I don’t really eat out that much though.  

What’s your favourite East Anglian landmark?

I love Shingle Street and that stretch of the coast, it’s so beautiful and unspoilt but has a dark edge to it

What’s the best thing that happens in East Anglia every year?

The seasons! I think we’re pretty lucky in East Anglia – we allegedly have more sunshine than anywhere else in the UK. I love when you start to feel the next season coming on and we do it well over on this side of the country. The beautiful landscapes and skies make it somehow easier to appreciate.

Mike Keen in Greenland

Mike Keen in Greenland - Credit: Contributed

What your specialist Mastermind subject?

The Greenlandic Norse, 985-1410.

What is always in your fridge?

Something fermented (on purpose), a kombucha scoby or some kind of kimchi usually. I had a great collection of fermented Greenlandic foods in my freezer for a while but a power cut whilst we were away stepped it up a few notches on the fermentation ladder that even I wouldn’t eat.

What’s your simple philosophy of life?

Travel, meet people, have a perspective of where you sit in the unfathomable age of the universe and don’t take yourself too seriously.

What’s your favourite film?

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is always up there, anything silly with laugh out loud moments and not too in your face with the slapstick!

What was your first job?

I did a day at a greengrocers for which I received the princely sum of £5. But my first regular job was as a waiter in a Happy Eater. I took the very first order at the one that was on the A12 at Kelvedon.

Mike Keen kayaking 

Mike kayaking - Credit: Sylvia Katsarska

What is your most treasured possession?

This was a hard one but I reckon it’d have to be my chef knives, the history and background of extraordinarily well-made specialist items just makes them better. You take more care when you know a tool, that knowledge, carried through into your work. Top tip for any cooks – buy a really amazing knife, you’ll treasure it and it’ll pay you back 10-fold.

Who do you admire most?

Any of the classic polar explorers. Heading off into the unknown with a good chance of not coming back is incredibly romantic (although it probably doesn’t feel it at the time). That was such an incredible time, no GPS, communications and reliance on no-one but yourself to get out of sticky situations – the fact that it can’t really ever be recreated accentuates how brave/dangerous/foolhardy they were. The story of Shackleton’s ill-fated expedition is truly awe-inspiring, that doggedness in the face of peril is something we rarely get exposed to.

What is your biggest indulgence?

Travelling – I know it’s not a traditional one like chocolate or Champagne but the ease with which we can go anywhere in the world has taken the edge off what an incredibly lucky thing it is to be able to do. Especially with the awareness of climate change I think it’s especially important to respect it.

What do you like about yourself most?

Being able to laugh at myself, with the amount of mistakes and outright balls-ups you make in life. I think a defining characteristic in someone is how they respond to it. Admit it, laugh about it and tell as many people as you can. Humour is the best.

What’s your worst character trait?

‘Worst’ has such a finality about it! Probably not taking things seriously when I really should be, allegedly this is now called ‘adulting’.

Where is your favourite holiday destination?

Greenland. I’m not really one for laying by a pool for very long – I like a bit of extreme and Greenland has that in spades – landscape, people, weather. Plus it’s still kind of hard to get to so there’s not many people. (also a plus!)

Best day of your life?

Probably getting out amongst icebergs in my kayak for the first time. A truly revelatory experience, one of those rare moments when you experience an actual euphoric wave, a child-like astonishment that slaps a ridiculous grin on your face.

What’s your favourite breakfast?

Eggs Benedict – I worked as a waiter on various cruise ships and it became a tradition that after that cruise’s guests had left, we all used to sit in the dining room and count our tips (no salary back then, tips were the only wage we got) over an eggs Benedict. Great memories!

What’s your favourite tipple?

A cup of tea. I barely drink alcohol and tea carries the happy weight of memories. It never tastes the same abroad which is a good thing as it makes it all the more special when you come home.

What’s your hidden talent?

I can ride a unicycle.

What’s your earliest memory?

Haha, it gets blurry when you get older but a stand-out early memory is when I accidentally zipped myself (‘myself’ myself) up in a pair of black jeans with white lining (it was the 70s). I have no idea how mum fixed that with no lasting damage. And actually I probably don’t want to know.

What would you like played at your funeral?

Kiss chase.

Tell us something people don’t know about you?

I once played security for Sylvester Stallone at a nightclub I worked in in Leicester Square. And also took Boyzone out through a warren of fire exit corridors to avoid hundreds of screaming fans. The diehard fans knew which exit we’d come out of and it ended in a pitched battle down Wardour St in Soho as we bundled them into a waiting SUV

What’s the worst thing anyone has ever said to you?

There’s been plenty but a stand-out was ‘you’ve got ideas above your station’. I ALWAYS want to have ideas above my station.

Tell us why you live here and nowhere else?

I’ve lived in and travelled to a lot of places, ‘the grass is always greener..’ is such an accurate saying but here is truly a wonderful part of the world

What do you want to tell our readers about most?

Do something out of the ordinary, push out of your comfort zone occasionally, talk to someone you don’t know, don’t ever be worried of looking like a complete idiot, everyone else is making it up as they go along as well.

I am always looking for interesting people from Suffolk and Norfolk to feature in my Q&A. Please contact me at gina@hallfarmfornham.com