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From pitch to a passion for perfect food

By Exeter Express and Echo  |  Posted: May 09, 2013

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ALL set for a career as a professional footballer, Alex Gibbs' dreams of a place in Exeter City FC's first team were brought to a grinding halt after an horrendous injury on the pitch.

Bed-bound for three months, with the advice of doctors to "hang up his boots" beginning to sink in, he knew he needed to find a new direction in his life. It was then he turned to his passion for cooking and set his sights on becoming a top chef.

Fast forward a few years and Alex's ambition, drive and talent have been rewarded – becoming the head chef at one of Devon's most exclusive venues, Southernhay House.

"Exeter born and bred, at nine I was selected for Exeter City FC's youth squad. I was fairly smart at school as a kid, but I was mad about sport and fitness," said Alex.

"Football was my life, so my academic grades went downhill at school – with the exception of PE and food technology.

"I thank my mum for the inspiration to get into cooking.

"She signed me up for the Scouts as a kid and that is where I first started to cook, unexpectedly winning all the cooking competitions going.

"I still have a fondness for those simple dishes: bangers and mash, fish and chips, bubble and squeak all appear on my present menus, served with a modern twist."

It was aged 16, when disaster struck for the young footballer.

"I was playing in a match and went into a challenge with the goalkeeper.

"All I remember was my foot connecting somewhere in the guy's armpit and then my knee kind of disengaging.

"I shuffled myself off the pitch on my hands, telling them to go on playing but my knee was the size of the football by then; the game was abandoned.

"It turned out I had broken my lower femur, dislocated my patella and ruptured all the relevant ligaments. I had two operations, was fitted with a nine-pin plate and was bed-bound for three months.

"I was told, in no uncertain terms, to hang up my boots. My mates Dean Moxey and Martin Rice were luckier and have gone on to have successful footballing careers.

"I had plenty of time to think, bed-bound, and then for another 15 months on crutches with hydrotherapy every week. It was my mum who encouraged me to revive my love of cooking and she enrolled me on the Exeter College Apprentice scheme."

With that behind him, Alex got a training contract at The Carved Angel – Exeter residents may remember the restaurant in Cathedral Close.

He then worked under Peter Gordon at The Horn of Plenty, which he describes as "full-on training", working in Michelin-star kitchens, pushing his levels of presentation.

With this experience he took the chef position at Southernhay's neighbouring and well-respected Rendezvous Wine Bar, working there for three years.

Alex, 26, said that while working in these kitchens he began to find his own identity as a chef.

"I was developing my own ideas. I always start with a drawing of the food presentation on the plate; I'm very visual like that.

"I focus on the local suppliers I have grown up with. Devon's farmers and fishing boats are legendary, and I have made some really good friends over the years, who continue to surprise me with the range and quality of their produce. I can get everything I need for the major part of my menus within a 20-mile radius."

It was in 2011 that Alex joined the newly opened Southernhay House as sous chef.

"It was a natural progression into a new area and a great opportunity to work for a local business which is independent but (through its sister hotel, Burgh Island) has the critical mass to support an ambitious operation.

"A hotel kitchen is very different from the stand-alone restaurants that I was used to.

"We run at least three menus including an all-day bar menu and the kitchen is alive from breakfast through to close.

"I was originally working under Chris Archambault and, when he left for Guernsey at the end of last year, the owners promoted me to head chef.

"The brief is to offer 'London style at Exeter prices' and the team is unusual in that I work closely with front of house management on menu development, feed-back and review of actual sales.

"All restaurant and bar staff are fully briefed on the components, style and tastes of every dish, and I insist on hearing all feedback from the guests.

"My passion for my menus is as close to my passion for football as I can get.

"As I tell my girlfriend, being a chef is not a job, it is a lifestyle.

"When you start work for the day you know you will not see daylight – but you will have that buzz at the end of a good service. Luckily, my girlfriend understands."

To find out more about Southernhay House visit www.southernhayhouse.com

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