A Keen cook
PUBLISHED: 12:51 21 April 2015 | UPDATED: 12:51 21 April 2015
Linda Duffin talks to Mike Keen, chef and restaurateur in Ipswich . . . and a few more things besides
You can’t help feeling that Mike Keen would benefit from one of those magical Time Turners that allowed Hermione in the Harry Potter films to be in three places at once.
In addition to being the boss and head chef at both the Ipswich gastro pub the Brewery Tap and riverside bar and eatery the Cult Cafe, he is working with US chef and food artist Tom Wolfe on a series of celebrity dinners featuring molecular gastronomy, he’s guesting at Jean-Christophe Novelli’s cooking academy in Hertfordshire, teaching classes at Mersea Island cookery school, and doing workshops and demonstrations at the biggest and most prestigious food festivals in the country, Aldeburgh, Aberystwyth and (to be confirmed) Ludlow. And that’s without the wedding catering.
It is an impressive and rather daunting list – one that Mike gets through by working ludicrously long hours, even by the standards of the restaurant industry. But he loves his job, which has taken him on travels to four continents, cooking everything from British comfort food to sushi good enough to impress visiting Japanese dignitaries.
In six years he has turned the Brewery Tap from a depressed pub at the wrong end of Ipswich docks into a successful business and destination restaurant. It is a similar story with the Cult Cafe, the former UCS students’ union bar, which was leaching university money. Now it is a busy, lively space with a menu that focuses on affordable international street food.
Mike and wife Georgina have turned both venues around through sheer hard work and an imaginative approach to food and drink. They turfed out the giant breweries to concentrate on British, often local, lagers, ales and ciders. And Mike set to work in the kitchen, where he makes a point of sourcing fresh East Anglian produce.
“We make everything from scratch. We make our own ice cream, our own sauces, we smoke a lot of our own food, like locally-sourced pigeon breasts, and fish, and our home-made salamis. We’ve even started making our own cheese,” Mike says. He keeps ducks and hens in the Tap car park (although a fox made a meal of his chickens) and has guinea fowl and turkeys on order, giving him a wide variety of eggs to use in his menus.
And he’s a big fan of what he calls the ‘Heath Robinson’ style of cooking. He has an enormous rotisserie with an attached smoker that he had built for hog roasts. Then he acquired a tandoor oven, which he insulated and installed in a framework. He uses it to make naan bread for his upmarket kebabs.
“It weighs half a ton and it heats up to 500 degrees centigrade. Slap a well rolled-out piece of dough in it and in about 15 seconds it’s cooked and blistered into a really nice bread. We put our home-made mutton kebabs in the naan with our own chilli sauce and garlic sauce. It’s our gourmet take on the kebab and it’s a really cool thing to do at weddings now instead of a hog roast.”
There is one more thing on his to-do list. “Young people coming into catering nowadays lack passion and basic skills, which is quite worrying for the future of British cooking. Theme restaurants and national chains have dumbed the food service down so much that their chefs just have to open a packet and microwave it. I’d love to set up some apprenticeships here at the Tap, maybe linking up with other restaurants, and to work with schools to inspire the kids.
“Jamie Oliver has done a great job banging the drum about what children eat but we need to go further and teach them real kitchen skills. I’d love to instil some passion for cooking because it’s a great job – it’s taken me all over the world and there’s nothing like the buzz on a busy Saturday night when you’ve got a full rack of orders on the go, everyone’s firing on all cylinders, you’re really proud of the food that’s going out and you’ve got customers who are really happy.”
Find out more about Mike Keen and his recipes at http://mikekeen.co