A single mother from a Yorkshire council estate tells Chris Burn how she went from school cook to chef for Marco Pierre White.
It is the type of job that takes over your life “100 per cent”. Gruelling hours, massive pressure and a constant need to deliver to the highest-possible standards – being a chef in a busy restaurant kitchen is not the life for everyone, especially when the exacting Marco Pierre White is your ultimate boss.
But for Vicky Wainwright the adrenaline buzz and sense of satisfaction she gets from working in one of the Michelin star-winning chef’s restaurants can’t be beaten.
The 47-year-old, from Arbourthorne in Sheffield, has been working at Marco’s New York Italian Sheffield ever since it opened almost three years ago. Having risen through the ranks, last summer she was named as Marco’s Chef of the Year after creating a special dish of oxtail lasagne with smoked garlic mash and baked vegetables for the Leeds-born restauranteur.
It is a big change of pace for Vicky, who had been a school cook at All Saints Catholic High School for 13 years before making the switch. As a mum-of-two she had been unable to pursue her dream career until her two boys had grown up, but is now throwing herself fully into life in a professional kitchen.
“This is my calling. I couldn’t have done it years ago because I was a single mother. But my boys think it is amazing what I have achieved. If you are passionate about something, you put your heart and soul into it.”
Vicky’s passion for cooking began in the family home. “My mum always baked and she was a good cook. When you leave home and have your own kids, you don’t want to buy the processed stuff.”
After working in retail and also modelling, Vicky ended up taking a job as a school cook.
“At All Saints I was trying to progress into healthy eating for the kids. These days, kids just want to grab something and go. We used to call it the hot pass and it used to be full of fried food when I started there. But we started putting in fresh fruit salads, boxed salads and they became more popular.
“I had been there 13 years and I just wanted a new challenge. I saw this place advertised in one of the papers. This used to be a police station and they were changing into a hotel and a Marco Pierre White restaurant.
“I thought ‘I’m going to apply’, and originally went for a breakfast chef job, which would have been more to do with the hotel. I have always been a fan of Marco from his Hell’s Kitchen days, he is an icon of mine.
“They took me on as a commis chef and were a bit dubious to start with, they didn’t know how I would deal with the fast-paced environment of working in a restaurant. But six months in they promoted me to demi chef de partie and then chef de partie and then junior sous chef.”
Vicky says it was an amazing experience to be named as Marco’s Chef of the Year after competing against more than 40 others to take the top prize. She says she put in hours of research to make sure she came up with something that would win favour with Pierre White.
“When I designed the dish, I knew Marco was all about local produce. I went back to look at all his old cook books. I came up with the original idea of going to old-school big flavours, low-slow braising, which Marco is a big fan of.
“I kept that in and just gave it a modern twist. I used pancakes, like I had when I was younger. We used to have a stew on a Monday and it would last for three days.”
Vicky says she had no fears about presenting Marco with the dish in a final held in Birmingham.
“I wasn’t nervous, I was excited. I pushed myself to the front. I think he thinks I’m stalking him! When I won, I just couldn’t believe it.”
Her dish took pride of place on the Sheffield restaurant’s menu last October when Marco visited to share his culinary expertise with diners and promote his latest cookbook.
“I was so proud. They were a few of us helping to cook it. They were all asking me, ‘Can I send it, chef?’ as they knew it was my dish.”
Vicky says it is a considerable change from her previous job.
“At school, you do have more time and obviously a closed kitchen. Everything here is pretty fast-paced. We cook everything to order. It can be very stressful but it is brilliant at the same time.”
Long days and nights are common but Vicky says it is all part of the job.
“It is just the love of the industry and Marco. If it was something else I don’t think I would be here.”
She says greatly enjoys the buzz of working in the kitchen – even if swear words have to be kept quiet due to the open plan set-up visible to diners.
“The air can be a bit blue! You have to be a bit thick-skinned and things get said. But the day after you think that was service and you forget about it. We are like a family. I’m like one of the lads – anyone can have as much banter as they want.”
Vicky is also a keen artist, having gone to art school in her younger years, and has drawn a picture of Marco that he has signed for her.
She said while the reflective nature of art is different to the hustle and bustle of working in a kitchen, it also serves as an inspiration for her job, playing a role in how she goes about presenting dishes.
“The job has taken over her life, but she wouldn’t have it any other way. “I will finish work typically at 10.30pm, 10.45pm. You can’t switch off straight away, it is still pumping in your veins. I start posting pictures on the Facebook account, telling people about what offers we have got on. Then it is off to bed and ready to go again the next day.”
Marco’s career in the kitchen
After leaving Allerton High School in Leeds without any qualifications, Marco Pierre White decided to train as a chef. He began his training in the kitchen at the Hotel St George in Harrogate and later at the Box Tree in Ilkley.
Arriving in London as a 16-year-old with “£7.36, a box of books and a bag of clothes”, Marco began his classical training as a commis under Albert Roux and Michel Roux at Le Gavroche.
At 24, he became head chef and joint owner of Harveys with a kitchen staff that included the young Gordon Ramsay. At 33, he became the youngest chef to be awarded three Michelin stars.
As well as Ramsay, Marco’s team included Eric Chavot (The Capital), Heston Blumenthal (The Fat Duck), Bryn Williams (Odette’s), Matt Tebbutt (The Foxhunter), Robert Reid, Thierry Busset, Jason Atherton, James Stocks and in front of house Max (Mark) Palmer, one of the few English Maître d’s of a Michelin 3-star restaurant.
He opened Marco’s – the New York Italian restaurant in Sheffield in 2014.