From pot boy to TV chef and national star, Kenny Atkinson’s story is a classic rags to riches tale. Chris Webber talks to the ordinary geordie lad who grew up on fish fingers and is now lauded as a culinary genius

KENNY ATKINSON only really knows he’s famous when he nips to Morrison’s with the kids to pick up a few basics.

“It’s funny, but awful,” he laughs over coffee in a beautiful room at the five-star Rockcliffe Hall, near Darlington, where he is head chef. “You see people peeking, thinking, ‘what’s in his basket?’ Like it’ll be truffles or fois gras. Of course, it’s always, something ordinary like tomato soup. It’s embarrassing.”

But then Kenny, the geordie kid who has won Michelin stars for the finest of fine-dining and been lauded on national television, but grew up on fish fingers and chips, comes from a very ordinary background.

“I came from a tough area, just up from St James’ Park,” he says. “I have friends from that time who got involved in drugs. I know people in jail.

“My mam and dad divorced and we grew up in a maisonette. My mam looked after us and had jobs like cleaning, Greggs, working in a pub.

Tea was the everyday stuff: eggs, chips, beans and fish fingers. I couldn’t boil water growing up, never mind cook.”

Despite failing at school – “it was all a bit a laugh, not to be taken seriously”

– Kenny found early on he had a large capacity for hard work and not just making a couple of quid minding football fans’ cars on match day. His first job, aged 14, was packing Christmas paper, but he worked whenever he could, on the fruit and veg and pot and pan stalls at Grainger Market or collecting glasses at the local pub.

At 16, leaving school with no decent qualifications, he got his first job in the culinary trade, washing pans in the kitchen of his uncle’s pub. Kenny, the fish fingers geordie kid, simply could not have started in a more lowly position. Or worse qualified.

But it was a start and led to him getting on a basic culinary course and then slogging his way round the kitchens of the Newcastle.

Eventually a sharp chef, Steve Waites, took the hard-grafter Kenny with him to the Midlands to a new job. Now Kenny’s life really started to change for the better, in two ways.

First of all, Kenny met Abigail, the girl who has stood by him for 13 very tough years, become his wife and had two boys, Aaron and Aidan, with him. “Meeting Abigail was the luckiest break of my life,” he says.

The other big deal moment for Kenny was, typically, down to dedication and hard work. With two weeks holiday, he decided to work, for free, for Simon Radley, a Michelin- starred chef at the Chester Grosvenor. At last he was introduced to the kind of fine dining food, the lobsters and truffles, that changed his life forever. “I didn’t know this food existed,” he says. “Simon would say, ‘taste that.’ I’d say, ‘I don’t like it,’ but he’d just say, ‘I don’t give a s***, taste it.’ It changed everything for me. I said to him, ‘I want to be like you.’ He said, ‘get your backside to London, work for no salary if you have to, be a sponge’. And that’s just what I did.”

Kenny found himself working for £11,000 a year at the famous Mandarin Hotel, in London. “It was hard, tough, dog-eat-dog, a military operation,”

he says.

Many nights Kenny actually slept in the kitchen so he could get up and do an extra hour-and-a-half’s work before the fearsome chefs arrived. It was tough, but worth it, and eventually Kenny was offered a big job, head chef at last, this time in Abigail’s home town of Cheltenham.

For the first three months he had no team but produced a high-class, fine dining menu that packed the place with punters. With the hard work came three AA star rosettes.

Encouraged, he worked harder than ever for a Michelin star for three solid years... and failed.

The young head chef, tired after years of slog, was ready to commit more time to family life. “I just thought, ‘that Michelin star is not coming’. We wanted to get married, have kids. I took a job on the Scilly Isles, a nice seasonal restaurant.”

Strangely, it was when he finally calmed down and allowed himself to work a little less hard that his wildest dreams started to come true. He simplified the menu, put fewer foods on the plate, went back to basics.

But word of the fabulous food spread. A Michelin inspector got the call to attend. To make it to Kenny’s restaurant the inspector had to drive from Hertfordshire, take a helicopter from Penzance to St Mary’s island, a boat to the island with the restaurant on it and then trek to the actual venue. The food lover declared his epic journey worth it and awarded Kenny his first Michelin star, one of the proudest moments in his life.

ALMOST as good as the star was the fact the story of the inspector made to work for his meal made national headlines. It was a lucky break that led to Kenny getting a plum job at Seaham Hall, one of the North-East’s most important restaurants, where, once again, he won a Michelin star.

Professionally fulfilled, happily married, it seemed life couldn’t get better. It could. One day he was called over to the phone. It was the BBC.

Would Mr Atkinson like to take part in the huge hit TV show Great British Menu? Someone else had dropped out. Could Mr Atkinson step in.

“Of course I said ‘yes’,” laughs Kenny. “But it was a big risk. All the others had four months to prepare. I had two weeks. But the point of the show was to give a banquet for our soldiers. My brother was serving in Afghanistan and was at the banquet, so they had a bit of a story.”

Kenny’s starter dish, mackerel with gooseberries, won. He served his brother, another fish fingers kid, the meal on television. The camera loved Kenny. Suddenly the region had its own TV chef. Kenny has appeared on Saturday Morning Kitchen five times, Great British Menu again, which he won (again), and many other programmes.

What’s more, he got his latest job, head chef of three restaurants at Rockcliffe Hall.

Finishing our (excellent) coffees, Kenny sums up his life: “I’ve been fortunate.” (I check my notes. Sleeping in kitchens so he can get up early to work even earlier, providing acclaimed fine dining on his own for months on end. Doesn’t sound like luck to me.) So what does the great chef eat at home? “I’ve just had a cheese and tomato sandwich,” says Kenny. And with that, he goes back to preparing some of the finest food in the North.