What's it like to live with a chef?

James Petrie and Úna Palliser

James “Jocky” Petrie, group executive development chef for the Gordon Ramsay Group, lives with his wife, musician Úna Palliser, near St Albans. They have two daughters: one four-year-old and one a few months old. Petrie has appeared on MasterChef, Heston’s Fantastical Food and Hell’s Kitchen. Úna has worked with Shakira, the Killers, Moby and Gnarls Barkley.

How did you meet?
James: It was a classic blind date.

Úna: You’d recently had your heart broken. I’d come off a world tour with Shakira.

James: A friend told me: “You need to get yourself a good woman, Jocky.” He gave me a few options, including another musician from Cork, actually.

Úna: Oh yeah? I was told you’d contact me. But you got in touch very last minute. You might have tried your other options first. You ignored me for ages. I sent you a Facebook request but you didn’t reply. Then I didn’t have anything to do on the Monday, so I went along when you asked. Afterwards I sent a message to a friend: “I went on a date with a chef. Really fun, totally nuts and definitely not my future husband.”

James: I thought the complete opposite.

Úna: You said, on that first date, that you wanted to marry me. I still think it might just have been a line.

James: It’s a great line. But one of my first questions was: “Do you like eating out, Úna?” And you stumbled over the answer. So, I said: “Are you vegetarian?”

Úna: I loved food when young but it started making me sick to eat anything with garlic and onions in it. I’d got to the point – going around on tour buses – where everything with flavour in it made me scared.

Was it mainly restaurant dates?
Úna: Next time [we met] James came to my house and cooked chicken. He was chopping carrots, all loving and fun and games, and there was literally a moment – your hair was flopping down and the kale flopping over the pan – when I had my first swoon feeling for someone who wasn’t a musician. I thought: “Right, I’ll hold you to the marriage thing.” And I was complaining that you were full of empty promises just when you were about to propose. Suddenly you were on one knee. I said “No, no, no, no”, because I thought I’d ruined it. But I hadn’t.

James: As a chef, having to cook without garlic and onions made me think: “Why do we use them in everything?” It’s fascinating. Suddenly I was clean cooking and my clothes didn’t smell.

Úna: You can taste everything. Amy Schumer once did a stage show about being pregnant in which she said “I married a chef, because I’m a genius” and I was thinking: “That’s me!” Honestly, it changed my life. Totally. And yours too, I think. A bit of a party boy before? Is that fair to say?

James: Was I a party boy? I had a reputation and – yes – I had opportunities to party…

Úna: People who’d known you before you met me said: “Oh, you’ve really calmed Jocky down.” In fact when you came along I didn’t have any structure in my life. Then you were, like: “It’s breakfast, it’s lunchtime, it’s dinner.” I’d never had that as an adult. The whole time I’d lived in London I’d never had dinner at dinnertime.

James: The same thing for me, because I started getting weekends off I was thinking: “What do people do during a weekend?” That’s why I cook for the whole week ahead and freeze it for you.

Úna: People say: “Chefs must hate cooking at home.” But there has to be food-related things every day for you. If we haven’t also been to a market, a restaurant and a random Polish food shop, you think the day’s not been worth it.

James: It’s especially since the kids have come along. I’ve got Éabha involved with cooking. I make a cake every Saturday with her. And I introduced her to sushi recently. She’s four and a half.

Úna: She’s not four and a half. She’s four.

James: Even when I had paternity leave I spent a lot of time reading cookbooks and recreating the recipes exactly. Our house is full of my books. Or rather, it was. I’ve definitely been restricted.

Úna: There’s boxes of cookbooks under our bed, James.

What’s the loveliest meal that Úna’s made you?
James: Didn’t you do a pasta once?

Úna: I do a really good prawn thing with orange zest.

James: That was years ago.

Úna: I usually take something you’ve made – unlabelled in the freezer, like Russian roulette – and make it into a sauce. I do make things for myself and for Éabha. The first time I took you to Cork, my aunties and uncles were saying: “Oooo, he’s been on the telly and he’s got a Michelin star!” But then you walked over to my uncle’s barbecue and burnt all the burgers. First impressions. My uncle thinks that’s the best story ever.

Peter Gordon and Alastair Carruthers

Peter Gordon (left) at home with Alastair Carruthers

Peter Gordon (left) at home with Alastair Carruthers. Photograph: Pål Hansen/The Observer

Peter Gordon is chef owner of Providores in London and the Sugar Club and Bellota in New Zealand. His partner, Alastair Carruthers, is co-chair of the Te Papa Foundation of the Museum of New Zealand and chairman of Allpress Espresso. They live in London Fields, east London.

Do you share the cooking when guests visit?
Peter: Guests come for dinner and they think they’re going to get my restaurant-style food. Sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t. When Nigella Lawson came the first time, something went wrong at one of my restaurants and I was very late home. Al had to cook.

Alastair: I was freaking out – “I don’t know how to handle this.” And I remember when we were in the mosh pit at the Lady Gaga concert and just at the moment Gaga was concussed by a pole, you didn’t see it because someone asked for tips on mayonnaise.

Alastair: We’d first spoken around the time gay rights finally came to New Zealand, in 1986. I was now legal and was visiting the Sugar Club in Wellington every week. You were head chef and I was in love with your sensational food. We talked but you don’t remember me at all. You looked amazing; the hot thing. Once you had blue hair and cooked in a wrestling outfit.

Peter: With an apron.

When did you team up (as a couple)?
Alastair: Eight years ago. Since my crush, we’d both been in relationships, but were now single. Friends, including my flatmate Flick, conspired to invite us to a dinner. Flick then said: “Let’s organise an after-party.” I was nervous because you were a superstar, chose all the food for Air New Zealand and were the godfather of fusion. But I was getting unclear instructions – at first, dinner was for 14, then 18. Then it was you and me and a few friends.

Peter: One had a headache and had to lie down.

Alastair: They sent us out. At a nightclub – where I wanted to take you because the music was great – your jacket got stolen and we came back for another, and that’s when I made you a cup of tea.

Peter: The ninth of April 2011. After we hooked up you said I needed to learn to ski. I was in my late 40s, had never skied and I’d known people who’d died doing it.

Alastair: I remember you asking: “What is the point of skiing?”

Peter: But I often wonder what the point of humans is. In fact, what is the point of anything?

Alastair: To have fun, Peter. Fun. What was the hardest of my interests to adapt to: skiing or Wagner’s Ring Cycle?

Peter: Ring Cycle, definitely.

Alastair: And I’m not much interested in your polenta either. There are times I think: “That’s really not my thing.

Peter: Al loves to swim, three or four times a week. I think about it. I think: “Oh, I must go.” I don’t take anything for granted and everything requires effort. I wanted you to come to every food event I went to because food is what I do for a living and you’re a foodie. But it occurred to me one day that you didn’t need swamping.

New Zealand is 26 hours away on a plane…
Alastair: For five years we had the longest-distance relationship possible, with the exception of one with a guy on Skylab. You had restaurants in Auckland and I lived there, so we’d fly back and forth. But the night after we hooked up I made it clear I wasn’t interested in another long-distance relationship. [He’d been in one with a Seattleite]. You got on a plane, then I received texts from you. I thought: “That’s nice, but he’s somewhere else and I’m here.” Then you sent a link to Beyoncé’s video for Put a Ring on It and said: “Come on, we can do it.”

Do you call Alastair for support when there’s a disturbance in the kitchen?
Alastair: Some of the calls I get from you are about people we’ve met and you’ll need rescuing with a name, or details of how we met them. I remember once when a waiter said Elton John was sitting at a table. Everybody was terribly excited, but it turned out to be Jenny Shipley, the first female prime minister of New Zealand.

Peter: There’s so much clutter in my mind. I can’t go back to sleep at night after being woken. You’ll be on a conference call to New Zealand until maybe 4am, or tapping away on some legal document, and there’s times I’ve shouted: “Fuck, I just can’t cope with this fucking noise!” I realise it’s unreasonable, but I think a lot of my anger is the result of not getting my precious sleep. When cheffing I don’t have tantrums. If someone’s upset me at work I tend to go really quiet. I’ll hold it in and then go “Ohh gawd!” afterwards.

Alastair: The thing that really gets me is how many times your work life gets confused with what we really need to do, which is just have a dinner date. I won’t order a meal I particularly want. We’ll arrange the order so you can try as many dishes as possible. Sometimes they arrive and I’m so tempted to eat, but you’re arranging everything on the table so you can put it on Instagram. It’s like being trained as a labrador – you sit and wait. One thing I do think is wonderful about this man – I’m very proud of him, too – is that he recently held the 20th edition of an event he invented called Who’s Cooking Dinner?. He raised £539,000 on the night, added to the £7m he’s raised for leukaemia and blood cancer. He’s a good, good man. Between us, I think this man is as good as good gets.

Shuko Oda and Nick Hutchinson

Shuko Oda and her husband Nick Hutchinson with their newborn son

Shuko Oda and her husband Nick Hutchinson with their newborn ‘Baby Two’. Photograph: Perou/The Observer

Shuko Oda was born in London but spent much of her childhood in Japan. She is head chef and co-founder of Koya. Her husband Nick Hutchinson, born in York, is a freelance fashion designer. They live in Sydenham Hill, London, with their two children.

Do you share the cooking?
Nick: I don’t make many meals. I try, but I’m not a good cook.

Shuko: I’m quite annoying to cook for, so I try not to go near you in the kitchen, because I’d say: “Why not cut it this way instead?”

Nick: Or: “Your broccoli’s over-done.”

Shuko: We first met when we were both working at Comme Des Garcons. But we didn’t talk.

Nick: Our first conversation was about fried breakfast.

Shuko: Our very first date. We talked about both of us liking traditional English caffs. I’d long thought that, when I retire, I’d love to open an English B&B in the Japanese countryside – making egg, bacon, beans and sausage fry-up breakfasts. We often talk about it, half-jokingly.

Nick: I’m not joking. I’d be your front of house guy, who speaks little Japanese, just English. You’d get up early to make everyone breakfast.

Aren’t you both up at the crack of dawn?
Shuko: We had a really bad night last night with the second baby and you said, “Oh you look good and energetic, Shuko”, and I said, “Maybe, as a chef, I’m used to not sleeping.”

Nick: You can function with a generally good disposition on very little sleep. I’m the opposite.

Shuko: You helped out more with Hiraku, our first child, but now we’ve got another. We didn’t have a name for quite a while and everyone called him Baby Two. So, you’ve been spending time with Baby Two. I would rather you have daytime energy.

Was it easier before the children?
Shuko: Opening the first Koya was really intense for me. And I guess for you too, Nick. You didn’t see me for a couple of months. I was continually doing double shifts, leaving in the early morning, coming back after midnight.

Nick: With Sundays off, but you’d sleep until after 2pm.

Shuko: I suppose we didn’t have a relationship for that period. But it was still just us. Opening the City branch [of Koya], when we had our first baby, was even more stressful. I delayed the opening for five days. Then I got a call saying you’d phoned for an ambulance to take Hiraku to hospital. I was in tears.

Nick: I was dealing with everything on my own, while you disappeared all day and night, pretty much.

Shuko: We had loads of arguments around that time.

Nick: It’s hard enough when things are normal. Throw in a new restaurant and a big illness and it takes me over the edge. Opening a restaurant is a bit like having a baby – stressful, but you sort of forget. Then you find you’re doing it all over again, thinking “Oh God, I’m in exactly the same situation”. I try to be supportive, but I suppose I have a feeling that the world, life, doesn’t stop because a restaurant is being opened.

Do you argue in Japanese and English?
Shuko: We don’t argue in Japanese.

Nick: Mine isn’t good enough. I always know if you’re talking about me. The facial expressions. The shake of the hair. The roll of the eyes.

Shuko: Ha-ha-ha. Just the thought of dealing with me screaming and a baby coming out of me, at home and possibly having to deliver it, is very worrying for you.

Nick: To your credit I don’t think you expect of people anything you wouldn’t do yourself. If there’s a member of your team ill you’ll step in. I sometimes say, “Let someone else do it”, because a lot of your chefs are young single people without commitments.

Shuko: I’ve always thought everybody is 27. And it’s kind of true – most people are around that age. It’s the sort of age when you start to commit to something seriously. We do breakfasts at Koya, but I’d never eat it at home before the kids came along. Now we always eat breakfast together. Well, you’re kind of there. On the sofa maybe.

Nick: A baby in a bouncer near-at-hand.

Shuko: I’m very good at getting dressed and ready to leave fast. We’re quite different in a lot of ways. Maybe. Probably, yes and no? The differences sometimes irritate me. I get angry but afterwards I realise that I’m with you because you’re that way and I need to acknowledge that more and learn from it. You give me another way to look at my impatience, because possibly I need to chill more. Still, after being with someone for over 12 years, one can’t change oneself too much. I think I’d actually hate it to be with someone manic, like both my parents.


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