For Stuart Mackenzie, the path to becoming executive chef at Sheffield Theatres Group started at the age of 14 - when he broke the news of his intended career path to his parents.
“My dad was in the Army and my mum was a teacher,” smiles Stuart, “so they had slightly different ideas for me.
“So when I told them I was going to be a chef, there reaction was pretty simple. ‘No you’re not’.
“I had to fight to get here. They’re proud of me now, but without that fear of doing something they didn’t approve of, I wouldn’t be here now. I wanted to prove them wrong.”
We meet at Crucible Corner, overlooking Sheffield’s Tudor Square and on the doorstep, unsurprisingly, of the city’s famous Crucible Theatre.
Stuart, formerly of a list of establishments as far ranging as The Beauchief, The Lowry and Chiquito, has redesigned and launched a summer menu which combines classics with his own twist, and attempts to knit together old and young.
“We want it to be somewhere my parents, in their 70s now, would eat,” Stuart says, “but not just them. Grandma, mum and dad and the kids, too. We want to cater for everyone.”
That’s some challenge, but he thinks he’s nailed it.
It’s hard to argue. We visit on a fairly quiet Wednesday night and are seated between a young couple and an older pair, while a group of ten joins us later. There’s a nice touch with inscriptions on each table - from the likes of Groucho Marx, Shakespeare and American celebrity chef Paul Prudhomme - and a nod to the obvious theatre link, with images of famous plays on the walls and a set of stage lights in the corner for good measure.
First impressions were good - Greg, our host, chose the perfect wine from my other half’s vague specifications - and food arrived promptly. Natalie’s sesame and panko crumbed king prawns, with mango and chilli sambal and dressed lamb’s lettuce (£7) were cooked to perfection and the dressing complemented well.
The £12 fish and chips - haddock, Blonde-beer battered and served with “rite good” tartare sauce - got a similar ‘thumbs-up’ rating, with the batter rated particularly highly. My own panko and herb crumbed gammon (also £12) was a delicious twist on an old classic, with smoked leeks, sautéed potatoes, peas and green peppercorn sauce replacing pineapple and fried eggs.
“We don’t believe in using slates... there’s no trays, no barbed-wire porcelain toilets or bowler hats to serve our food on,” Fulwood-born Stuart, 39, adds.
“Food doesn’t have to be wacky and crazy. It’s functional, but it’s also about the enjoyment you get out of it. Food shouldn’t be an elitist thing.”
Fittingly, the work of Stuart and team is appreciated by stars of stage and screen, too. Patrick Stewart and Sir Ian McKellen were in recently for four nights straight after the curtain had closed on No Man’s Land.
Any pressure, performing for real-life Knights of the Realm? “Not really,” Stuart laughs.
“After a while, you realise they’re just people.”
Fair enough. For dessert, we settled on a Chocolate Cup each (£5.50) - marbled double chocolate mousse, hazelnut whipped cream, soft dairy fudge pieces and pecan brittle. That should say it all, really, but I’ll add one more word... divine.
Altogether three courses for two people, with two glasses of wine, two beers and two Cokes, came to £66.40 - a small price to pay to dine with legends like Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde.
But the final word must go to Marx, whose inscription on my table read: “I am not crazy about reality, but it’s still the only place to get a decent meal.”
Now reality has some competition, from Stuart’s Crucible Corner.