Moving away from the stove

Bill Brogan has been the Catering and Conference Manager at St Johns College Cambridge for nearly 15 years. In a career which has included top restaurants, hotels, ferries and even the RAF, Bill shares why he was never late again after his first day in Japan.

Bill has helped shape and continue the reputation of Cambridge University by fuelling the great talent that it produces, but this is just one part of Bill’s story.

Bill began his career as a chef aged just 12 working Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights in a Trust House Forte Hotel near his home. However he was summoned to the local MPs office and was told by Dick Taverne to wait until he was 16 to work. Bill explains, “I just wanted to work hard and learn and after the shifts I would get to go to the pub with the other chefs. Dick soon stopped that, and he went on to win a by-election that opened up the possibility of independent centre left British politics and the Social Democratic Party was eventually founded.”

Bill was devastated but knew he wanted to work as a chef and so when he did turn 16, he started working as an apprentice at the local Lincoln Technical College whilst going back to the Trust House Forte hotel. “I learnt proper cooking here. Working with great fresh produce and it was also the beginning of meeting and working with some ‘mad’ chefs including one who would eat raw liver for lunch!”

As Bill developed as a chef, he worked for a RAF Camp which he describes as “like hell on earth” but one that made him appreciate the disciplines of cooking. “It was all down to me and a few other staff. We would cook the breakfast, lunch and dinner and then do all the washing up. There were no excuses if anything was ever late.”

Bill soon left the RAF Camp kitchens and worked in several prestigious locations and with some great chefs. This included chef Michael Deane who Bill praises as “the best chef in Northern Ireland and whose cutting-edge style has seen him hold a Michelin Star for 12 years, the longest ever in Ireland.” Bill worked at places like Lainston House Hotel at Winchester and from there spent time working in Congham Hall Hotel, and Pennyhill Park. This is where Bill spent six months running the Food & Beverage but had an unfortunate first day where the families of the couple at a wedding disliked each other. “It was an interesting and intense day and I really did think what I have I let myself in for.”

Having established himself as a top chef who could run a brigade in the toughest of circumstances Bill was head hunted for the Four Seasons Hotel in London. It was here that he was inspired by Ramon Pajares OBE who was the General Manager at the time. Bill shares other notable inspirational figures during his career, “Pierre Koffmann, one of the great chefs, Graham Wilkinson, Principal at Kendal College and John Mann, ex-Dorchester Hotel. They all in some way taught me the art of cooking at a high level.”

As a big football fan (Lincoln City but also Chelsea FC) Bill went to watch a game with a friend where Colchester United were facing Scunthorpe United. He stopped in at Le Talbooth Restaurant to meet a friend and two weeks later was working for the award-winning restaurant. “I was in my jeans and ready to watch the football but Gerald Milsom, the owner, interviewed me on the spot and asked if I wanted to retain the Michelin Star his previous head chef had won. I got the job, retained the star and had great fun working with French cuisine. I always remember we created a huge cake to celebrate Richard Branson crossing the Atlantic in a powerboat. He didn’t make it the first time, so we had to do it all over again for when he did break the record.”

Bill went on to win AA Rosettes at The George Hotel, Dorchester-on-Thames and whilst he still loved to cook and had a huge passion for food, he didn’t want to still be on the stove at 55 years old. So, he developed a plan to make sure this didn’t happen and started attending night school and completing courses. This included one on how to make sweets from boiled sugar and sugar sculpting. It was this learning that Bill would use during an important job interview with ICI.

Bill had to present to the Board and decided to do a live demo on sugar skills. “I got everyone in the Boardroom to showcase these skills and if it failed, I knew I would have failed the interview. Luckily, they were impressed, and I spent five years travelling all over the UK looking after their private dining. I was the first person to be employed externally in 28 years and wrote the Cookbook which became the recipe bible used throughout the business.”

After this experience Bill worked for P&O through Sutcliffe and then directly for P&O. Whilst based landside, he looked after 12 ships around the Europe, which mainly went to Ireland and France. This was more than anyone else at the time and this may in part have inspired Bill’s desire to travel and work abroad. Shortly after he moved to Japan and fell in love with the country.

“It was a place full of top restaurants and I was there for a project with P&O and Mitsubishi to build three brand new ships. It was difficult, disciplined and you had to work hard, but very exciting. I was five minutes late on my first day and told off to such an extent where I was never late ever again. I taught them how to make sandwiches and they introduced me to whale meat. It was tasteless and blubbery, and I never ate it again. Kids would take it to school in their lunch box.”

“Seeing the students so green when they first come in and then watching them grow into the next PM is what drives me at the college and has kept me there for so long”

Bill has been with Cambridge University for nearly 15 years and has achieved lots within and outside of the famous college. “Time really flies, and I’ve had great fun achieving awards with them, serving the Queen, seeing students come back for dinners and learning how they are working in incredible jobs around the world.”

“Seeing the students so green when they first come in and then watching them grow into the next PM is what drives me at the college and has kept me there for so long. I also become involved with as much as possible. This includes representing the Cambridge Colleges with TUCO, being a Fellow of The Institute of Hospitality and a committee member of Réunion des Gastronomes. I also run food and wine tours around the world, Chair the Food Services Managers Group, and run trips with foodie friends.” Bill shares that recent and upcoming trips include Chapel Down in the UK, China, Sardinia, Andalucía and Hungary, to visit restaurants, vineyards and cultural sites.

Its clear that Bill is just as passionate about food as when he stepped into the kitchens at 12 years old. He has never stopped wanting to learn more about traditional cuisines around the world but has equally always looked to discover the latest innovation in food. It is this that drives him and ensured a long career both working on the stove and around it.