What he initially thought was going to be a backward-step has set James Workman up in a life-long career. Here, the Drywite Young Fish Frier third-place finalist talks about his role at Millers in Haxby, York, and his new found appreciation for fish and chips
I’ve always been interested in food, even at the age of about 10 I was helping my mum and dad with the cooking at home. After I left school, I got a job in my local pub just washing pots and from there I realised I wanted to go into catering full time - but not as a pot washer! I did an apprenticeship through my workplace and then an opportunity came up to work in a gastropub.
For me, this was my ideal job as I was ready for more of a technical challenge and I wanted to improve my knowledge. I did really well there and even won Best Apprentice Chef in Hull and East Yorkshire. But then, three years ago, I was made redundant and needed a job so I took on a position at Millers as a bit of a stop gap. To me, it seemed a million miles away from what I had been doing previously - the food I had been serving was on a par with double AA rosette restaurants. It was a very high standard we were cooking at.
I admit, I thought fish and chips was going to be easy. As in many pubs, it was a big seller and it was something I had served up plenty of times. But when I got into it, especially working with David Miller who himself has a cheffing background, I thought what have I got myself into?
Even though I’m cooking the same thing, the processes are so different in a fish and chip shop compared with a pub. The batter, for example, we were taught to pretty much get some beer, water and flour and job done. Working with David I started to understand that batter needs to be looked after, stored at the right temperature and used within a certain time if it’s going to be right.
My mind was blown and I quickly stopped seeing the position as a temporary measure and actually began to realise fish and chips was just as technical as the other foods I was creating; maybe not in terms of the number of components that made up the dish, but certainly how much time and care went into every single part of it, from the fish and potatoes to the batter and the fat. Going back to the batter, it’s like chemistry. You need to get that formula right every time, even when you’re under pressure on a Friday night pushing it out, because that batter can change very quickly and you have to be on top of it. Working in fish and chips isn’t the same as the gastropub, but it’s at the same standard and level, that’s for sure.
Since I’ve been at Millers, David’s started introducing pop-up nights where we collaborate with other shops and local businesses. We’ve just held one with Longsands Fish Kitchen in Tynemouth and before that we did one with Star Inn the City in York. These have been fantastic opportunities for me as I’ve been able to help out and learn from their chefs, and that’s what I love more than anything.
Getting into fish and chips and being taught by David has been a great career move for me but it’s also given me the opportunity to make some really good friends, particularly in Lauren Kellaway and Alex Walker, and they are friendships that I know will last. I find that extremely important because, if we can create a strong link now, we can push forward together and make the industry even stronger in the future.
I’m so grateful to David for giving me the opportunity because, at 24, I feel like I’ve found the career for me. I know I want to do this for the rest of my life. There’s so much I want to do, pursue and learn and I know that will take time, but I’m willing to do that. And knowing that I'm doing what I love to the best of my ability makes life a lot better.