'I've spent a lifetime cooking' - Preston chef Peter Stead shares his recipe for success
Anna Colivicchi talks to a Preston-born chef about his career and his life, from his childhood in an orphanage to serving delicious food to VIPs at Wembley.
“I grew up with nothing,” says chef Peter Stead, “I didn’t have a pair of long trousers until I was about 13 years old.”
Following the death of his mother Violet when he was only four years old, Peter was admitted into the Harris Orphanage, on Garstang Road, in Preston, where he lived for five years.
He says: “My dad did his best to look after my siblings and me, but I think that at one point it just became too much for him.”
The 71-year-old adds: “I have very vague recollections of the orphanage; I remember we used to have sweets every Friday and we went to church on Sundays, but I barely remember the school to be honest.
“The food I remember: it was very plain, as you can imagine.”
After five years at the Harris Orphanage, Peter went back to live with his dad and his step-mother, and at the age of 14, he decided that school wasn’t for him, it was cooking and baking he enjoyed the most.
He explains: “My aunt owned a cafe in Morecambe and my grandma used to run two hotels in Preston, so I think there must be a little gene running in the family.
“I always thought I would do something to do with catering, I really enjoyed cooking and baking too.
“But at school, we were not allowed to do any cooking classes - the girls did all the cooking.”
So he went to work in a bakery in Preston worked extremely long shifts, from very early in the morning to late at night, six days per week.
However, already from a young age, Peter knew he wanted to see the world and when he was 17, he signed up to the Merchant Navy and attended a Merchant Navy Catering College in Kent where he gained his qualifications as a professional chef.
He explains: “I spent three years in the Navy, some good, some bad.
"I signed up because I wanted to get away from Preston and see the world, but also because I wanted to learn how to cook - and now I’ve spent a lifetime cooking.
“And I did everything, from high-quality and Michelin Star food to take-away pizzas.”
When asked about his favourite recipe, Peter recalls trying a ‘yellow split pea soup’, while he was training in the Merchant Navy.
He says: “The first time I tried that soup was on a ship and I remember thinking it was just delicious.”
To this day, he still prepares the soup following the recipe he learned in his Navy days.
He adds: “Once, I found a cockroach in my bed and I went to complain to the sergeant.
“He made me clean the whole food hall with water and soap, and then told me, ‘let me know if you find any more cockroaches’.”
After a few intense years in the Navy and one year in Torquay working in a restaurant, Peter returned to his hometown, where he found a job at United Cattle Products, on Friargate, and married June, whom he had known since they were in primary school.
Peter says: “I was 22 and I felt really motivated.
“I got quite a bit to share in terms of experience, and that’s when I found a job at W. R. Tuson College [now Preston’s College] and I was there as a catering lecturer for 29 years.
“I used to take my students all over the place and I really enjoyed it.
“One of the best things about working in education was that I met some wonderful people who became good friends.”
And Peter certainly knew how to keep his students motivated.
He explains: “I decided the world record for buttering bread was 22 slices in nine minutes and I made my students stick to that, to keep them motivated.
“To be good at this job, you need to be fast, it’s a tough industry and it’s a lot of hard work.
“You often work long shifts and end up having no social life - but it is very rewarding in the end.”
He believes that working in a kitchen is a bit like working in a car factory - every small step of the process is extremely important for the final result.
Peter says: “I think it’s one of the few jobs where strangers can really work together and constantly learn from each other.”
Throughout 56 years in the food business, he has been a mentor for thousands of aspiring professional cooks and recognises a culinary talent when he sees one.
He has trained many excellent students who became Michelin Star Chefs and leaders in the industry, such as Michelin Star Chef Michael Wignall and Kay Johnson, who is now a director at the Larder in Preston.
He explains: “To be a good chef you need a lot of stamina and a lot of patience.
“You also need a very good memory - something I think I’ve never had.”
He has also worked with many famous people and culinary masters, like French gastronomic giant Raymond Blanc.
Peter says: “As a lecturer, I used to go out all the time to make contacts and meet other people in the industry.
“So I went down to Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons and trained there for a week with Raymond Blanc.
“I remember thinking he had a presence, when he walked in the kitchen - he picked up my knife to check if it was sharp enough, but it wasn’t intimidating, I felt really confident at that point in my career.”
One of Peter’s favourite memories of his time as a lecturer was when he took his students from Preston College to Wembley Stadium, where they served food to thousands of VIPs - including Brazilian footballer Pelé .
He explains: “It was a very long day for us, but it was a massive experience for my students.”
After a lifetime spent cooking, and 29 years spent teaching what he loves, Peter seems to have found the recipe for success.
Eleven years ago, he took early retirement and set up his own business, P Stead Training, which provides food safety training and catering and food consultancy to businesses in Preston.