From the age of seven, Chris Harrod dreamed of owning and cooking in his own restaurant. The award-winning chef and star of BBC’s Great British Menu talks to NICHOLAS THOMAS about his career.

I GREW up in Worcestershire, which is where I lived until I went to London to be a chef.

Being a chef was something I always wanted to do, from the age of seven.

I saw Raymond Blanc on telly talking about food with passion and so much enthusiasm, and I thought: “Hang on a minute, I like that.”

That really made me want to be a chef and I was determined to go and work for him at Le Manoir.

I was doing a lot of cooking at home at that stage. I remember things like my mum and dad having dinner parties, and I would always do a lot of the cooking for it.

There was even one stage where I entered the MasterChef competition when I was still at school.

It wasn’t the junior one, it was the proper competition. Lloyd Grossman was still presenting it at the time.

I got through, but I remember filming coincided with my GCSEs so I had to pull out.

One of the other big influences was going on holidays to France, Spain or Germany.

Every summer we’d just get in the car and drive – we wouldn’t have anything planned, and we’d just turn up at these auberges, which were very similar to what a restaurant with rooms is now.

There’d be these restaurants with verandas, with the locals outside drinking, and they’d have the dinner menu.

That stuck in my head, that was what I wanted to do – get a little place. My determination was always to have my own restaurant.

I think I always had quite a good palate. I could put flavours together but the technical side took a lot of work.

I started working at a local pub, doing the washing up, then I was helping out in the kitchen. That was my first job.

Then I moved to a country house hotel and became a chef while I was going to the Birmingham College of Food to do my training.

All that time, from when I finished school, I was writing letters to Raymond Blanc and Le Manoir saying “Please can I come and work for you?” and “Would you consider having me as an apprentice?” and I kept getting all these letters back saying “no”.

At the time it was always advised for young chefs to go to London and work in a five-star hotel, so that’s what I did.

I wanted something different, and that’s when I heard about Paul Gayler at the Lanesborough, who specialised in vegetarian cuisine. So I wrote to him, and that was my first big job.

It was completely crazy, a young innocent chef in a big five star place in London.

But I was always determined to get to the top and have my own restaurant, and to get there that’s what you have to do.

I went for a dinner at Le Manoir and asked Raymond Blanc if I could come and work for him. He gave me a week’s trial, and after the week he said: “OK, you can start on Monday”.

I was at Le Manoir for four and a half years.

That was where I found myself completely out of my depth. I was using ingredients I’d never heard of, but it all started to make sense, and I thought to myself “this is why I want to be a chef”.

Using the very best ingredients around, and one of the main things was about flavour – it was there I really got to learn my palate and how to get maximum amount of flavour out of each ingredient.

You learn respect and how you pair things together.

From there, I went to work with Alan Murchison who’d run the cookery school at Le Manoir. He’d just left to set up his own restaurant, so I went there and worked as a sous chef. I think we developed a Michelin star in the first seven months, so it was a really good time.

At that point I was starting to read the restaurant guides, and I’d read about the dishes we’d put on the menu, and that was the point where I thought it was time to do it for myself, and I started looking for my first head chef job.

That took me to a new hotel opening in Hertfordshire, which was very similar to Celtic Manor.

When we first opened we were doing maybe ten covers a night, and when I finished there we were fully-booked almost every night.

That gave me the confidence to get my own place. But what I didn’t realise then was that it would take me seven years.

I was originally looking in Buckinghamshire, and found a restaurant but it caught fire a week before I was due to buy it.

Then the recession hit, and the banks didn’t want to know, so then I needed to knock on lots of doors to see if I could get help from backers.

I was about to give up on the idea – I’d put my career on hold, so any reputation I’d built had gone away.

I tried getting another head chef job and I had people telling me at interviews I was too old and I’d been out of the game for too long.

Then a friend happened to tell me about the Crown at the Whitebrook, as it was known, and my initial thought was with the location it couldn’t possibly work.

But then I looked at the history of the place, and the producers and ingredients in the area, and realised it ticked all the boxes.

When I opened I knew I wanted to use British produce only, but over the last few years what we’ve found now is everything is pretty much on the doorstep.

The only thing we get from further afield is fish.

80-90 per cent of the menu, in the height of the summer, comes from within 12 miles of the restaurant. We’ve put the area on the plate.

We grew into that. When we first opened I was doing modern French cooking, and for the first few months it just didn’t seem to work.

And then Henry Ashby, the forager, knocked on the door and asked if we’d like to buy some salad, and that’s how it all started.

He brought in all these things I’d never even heard of. I knew about foraging but at the time it was very fashionable so I tried to stay away from it, but it just worked.

What we offer now is something very cohesive, from the moment you walk through the door until the moment you leave.

I think that’s something really special, and it’s great to show the very best of the produce available in Monmouthshire.

The Great British Menu is most definitely a rollercoaster, with some highs and some very low lows.

I’ve watched the show every year it’s been on, and there have been some really big chefs on the programme – Sat Bains, Marcus Wareing, Tom Kerridge.

In my mind I thought it would be lovely to do it. It’s a great platform to build my reputation and show the audience what we’re doing.

What I didn’t realise was the time constraints. The way I cook in the kitchen, we can take three days to cook something, and then you’re told on the show that you’ve got one hour.

That really took me out of my comfort zone, and the pressure was on.

Now my goal is to establish the Whitebrook as one of the best restaurants in the country – always trying new things, and always developing the menu.