Lead Interview: John Jackaman, Infusions Group

When chatting to John Jackaman, it quickly becomes apparent that he is not your typical Managing Director. He is the antithesis of a corporate businessman; approaching things in a different way, embracing quirkiness and individuality.

Published in Suffolk Director Magazine, Winter 2018/19
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Showing strength, agility and versatility

“The one thing that is great about being a chef is that you don’t need to be academically gifted to have a remarkable career, pulling in a six-figure salary.”

Lead Interview: John Jackaman, Infusions Group 1This, added to his exuberant nature, his thirst for learning and knowledge, and his passion for motorbikes, American Football and music (his eclectic taste ranges from heavy rock to Motown) means that when trying to sum him up, he just doesn’t fit the conventional ‘boss’ mould.

“For me it’s never been about the money, but the quality, satisfaction and self-worth around what you do and the contribution you make.

“Why would you go to work and be negative and unhappy? It’s all too easy to blame everyone and everything for what’s going wrong in your life, rather than looking at your own behaviour. I think success is all about the outlook and attitude of the individuals in your team. Changing the culture of your organisation is a simple as changing the mindset of the people who work within it and leading by example is key.”

John’s business is based near Bury St Edmunds. The Infusions Group is the umbrella brand encompassing the three arms of the business: Infusions Ltd, which supplies dry stores to restaurants and hotels in East Anglia, the ecommerce business Infusions4Chefs which supplies ingredients and equipment worldwide, and ICE which includes the café, Cook School and Cook Shop; all of which operate from Lundy Court in Rougham. 

John hasn’t moved far from his roots

“I was born in 1971 in Newmarket and grew up in Bury St Edmunds. My Dad, Michael, was a fireman and my Mum, Barbara, worked at Riverwalk Special Needs School. I went to Horringer Court Middle School which I thought was awesome, before going onto King Edward VI.

“Secondary school was awful and mine was a very different experience to the education of today. I didn’t perform well and was dyslexic.”

“I was put in a special needs group away from the main learning environment
which made me feel of no value and very isolated.”

“I had a very happy home life though. My mother is German, and a great cook. She would prepare and serve up big hearty homemade meals. Money was tight, but she would always make the best out of the basic ingredients we had.

“My Mum would encourage me and my younger brother, Mark, to cook with her. I loved it and what I think is a real shame today is that a lot of parents don’t take the time to teach children how to cook. We place a lot of emphasis on the importance of maths, English and science, but seem to have forgotten that teaching someone how to cook is arming them with a fundamental life skill.

The die was cast however when John was 12 and achieved an ‘A’ Grade in Home Economics, a mandatory subject at his school.

Finding inspiration

“I made a quiche and was really pleased with myself for achieving a top grade. When I got home, I told my Mum that I wanted to be a chef when I left school. From then on I never changed my mind about wanting to do that as a career.”

So, John left school at 16 with a couple of CSEs under his belt and enrolled on a catering course at Suffolk College. He also got a part-time job washing up in the kitchen at the Butterfly (now the Dragonfly) Hotel in Bury St Edmunds.

“Catering college was all about learning technique and ‘nouveau cuisine’ which was emerging at that time and provided an opportunity for change and evolution in the industry and for a type of cooking that was a lot cleaner and sharper.” John continued.

“But I was impatient to get out to work, so after a year, I gave up attending college full-time and started my first job as a chef, preparing vegetables and peeling potatoes at the Butterfly whilst continuing my studies for the next couple of years part-time.”

“I enjoyed it, my training. I was living at home, so didn’t need the money,
I just wanted to learn to be a chef.”

“I had a philosophy which was ‘stay as far down the ladder for as long as possible because there is a lower expectation and you have longer to learn’. Many would say it was a kind of naivety, but I never thought that far enough ahead. For me it was all about wanting to be a chef. I’m not worried about responsibility, but this approach gave me loads of time to learn from others.

“I knew though that I didn’t want to stay anywhere and in any one position for more than two years. So, I would be on the lookout to progress after this time.”

The next step for John came when he was made Commis Chef at the Butterfly which he regards as one step above a kitchen porter, but you wear chef whites.

The gods of cooking

“I looked up to chefs like the Roux Brothers, Paul Bocuse and Anton Mosimann. However, I loved Pierre Koffman, who trained and worked with several of the famous chefs of today; Gordon Ramsey, Marco Pierre White, Marcus Wareing and Tom Kitchin.  With their Michelin starred restaurants, they were the absolute gods of our industry. To find out what these guys were cooking I bought their books, pored over the recipes and then waited to buy the next one when it came along.

“A few years ago, I met Pierre Koffman and I was like a teenage girl meeting Robbie Williams, it was embarrassing, but one of the most awesome moments in my career.”

But why do you like these chefs so much?

“It’s the whole persona and the aura around them. They’re like the Jimi Hendrix of the food world. They’ve taken the same route as us and grown up through the kitchens, sweeping floors and getting their butts kicked. But they’ve developed food and got the recognition and awards. The thing I found particularly amazing is that they took provincial food and turned it into Michelin starred dishes. Anyone can make good food out of high-quality ingredients but turning out great tasting dishes from leftovers and lesser ingredients takes great skill and technical knowledge.

“Cooking starts with the right ingredients, so the relationship between the chef and the supplier is the lifeblood of the kitchen. Also, understanding the products you are working with, getting the right recipe and knowing the seasons for when the ingredients are at their best is pivotal.“

Leaving home

John knew that to really advance in his career he needed to get a job in London as that was where the best restaurants and the best hotels were serving the best food and the best cooking.

“In the late 80s, the Dorchester had undergone refurbishment. The hotel was owned by the Sultan of Brunei and 132 chefs worked under the new executive chef Willi Elsener.” John explained.

“I went for a job at their Michelin starred restaurant, The Terrace and got offered the position of Commis Chef. As accommodation came with the job, I moved down to London.”

Things were not great from the start however, and John only lasted two days before he walked out.

“I was a young lad, 19 years old, on my own and away from home for the first time. The Dorchester was big and scary, my digs were really grotty, and the other chefs were horrible, so I called my Dad and asked him to come and get me.”

Returning home

On returning to Suffolk, John went onto work in chef roles at The Angel Hotel in Bury St Edmunds, the Swan at Lavenham and Tuddenham Mill in Newmarket.  

He also started going out with Lou who was a waitress at the Butterfly. She was a Suffolk girl and grew up in Coney Weston. They’ve now been together for 28 years.

“Then, in 1994 I applied and was given a job that I saw advertised in The Caterer for a chef at the White House Hotel on Herm Island in the Channel Islands. It was small island with six houses, one hotel, no roads, three or four beaches and a farm. Apart from the larder staples, the only ingredients we had easy access to was freshly caught fish and oysters. The rest came in by boat from Guernsey and we’d contact the farm and they would come down to the jetty with a tractor and a trailer. The hotel staff would follow behind and unload the boat and we’d take everything back to the hotel.

“All the staff except for two were seasonal. Lou and I went there together, and we lived there for six months. It was a lovely life and most days, we finished service at 11.30pm, then went to the beach and partied until 4am in the morning. We worked hard and played hard, but it was great, and I met some really cool people from all over the UK.”

However, the pull of working in London had returned and John wanted to give it another go, but this time with Lou at his side.

Lead Interview: John Jackaman, Infusions Group 3

“I was offered the job of Demi Chef de Partie at The Ritz helping to run a section. This was a jaw dropping time for me. I shared a flat with Lou and an Irish chef called Liam, who I had worked with on Herm.”

“This was a whole new experience. the food was fantastic, and it had the ‘wow factor’.
I was really happy and in a very good place.”

It was not to last however, as an altercation with a Sous Chef which saw John putting him into a coat locker led to him leaving The Ritz.

“The working environment in the kitchen in those days was really bad and quite abusive. Bullying behaviour was accepted with everyone thinking it was OK. Lots of the ‘old school’ chefs went through the same thing. This Sous Chef was very aggressive, throwing the broom at me and telling me to sweep the floor. I put up with it for so long and then had enough, so I put him in the locker and walked out.”

A bad move leads to a great move

Returning home, John talked to Liam and asked whether there were any positions where he worked at the Marriott Hotel in Marble Arch.

“There were and I started soon after as Senior Chef de Partie.

“The best thing I ever did career-wise was to go and work at The Marriott. The atmosphere was great, and I worked with an amazing chef called David Lyall. He very quickly spotted me, pulled me over and offered me the Sous Chef position.  

“All the procedures and policies at the Marriott Hotel were on point and it taught me how to run a business and manage people. As it was a smaller operation than The Ritz, I had access to other areas in the hotel and was able to learn management skills.

“Then they started a two-year management degree course. I applied but they wouldn’t let me go on it as I wasn’t academically good enough. I pestered them though and eventually they relented and put me on it.”

The result was that John achieved the highest marks on the course.

By this time – 1996 – Lou was working at the same hotel as John in reservations. However, it could have been tricky as on her first day, she discovered she was pregnant.

“We needn’t have worried though as Marriott were ahead of their time and completely OK about it.”

Although John loved working in London, the time had come for the couple to set up a home
and start raising a family.

Settling down

“We always wanted to have a big family and we knew we had to have a more stable home environment, so we decided to come back to Bury St Edmunds, although I would continue to work in London for a further three years. We bought a new house on the Moreton Hall Estate and moved in on the day of Princess Diana’s funeral in 1997.”

John and Lou now have five children; Ben (1997), Joshua (1999), Ella-Mai (2004), Georgie (2007) and finally Jake (2009).

It was in early 2000 that John returned to work in Suffolk.

“My Dad was a fire prevention officer at this time and had been working with Ravenwood Hall in Rougham. They were opening a new hotel in Long Melford called The Black Lion and the owner, Craig Jarvis, offered me the job as Head Chef.

Starting from scratch

“This project was starting everything from scratch as the amenities were in a horrible state. We spent a week just cleaning the place and getting it to look like a kitchen. But I loved it as I had a lot of freedom around the menu and the choice of dishes.

“Craig had two asks; we achieved an AA Rosette and put good home-cooked food on the menu. In the first year, we achieved the Rosette as well as a full bar and restaurant most nights.”

With this success, Craig asked John to move over to Tuddenham Mill and he worked there as Head Chef for nearly a year.

“But I was 31 years old by now and getting frustrated with the job. I didn’t want to spend the rest of my career behind a hotplate. So, I said to Lou ‘do you fancy starting our own business?’ She said ‘Yes’, and I handed my notice in, rented a warehouse in Bury St. Edmunds and borrowed a van.

“On the first day we walked into the warehouse and wondered ‘What are we going to do?’ I had lots of ideas, including outside catering and selling fruit and veg, but no formal plan, yet within a week we’d decided on supplying specialist dry ingredients to the restaurant trade.”

John and Lou worked on the principle that if they sold good quality products at good prices with great customer service, nothing could go wrong.

“We borrowed a Ford Escort van that didn’t start properly, and we had to leave the engine running as we couldn’t get it restarted if it stopped. Back then we were so proud of the warehouse and the stock which was lined up on the shelves.”

But the first year was a disappointment. Although turnover was £95,000, they had made a loss of £1,000 and they hadn’t paid themselves any wages.

Perseverance and resilience

“We didn’t know what we were doing and ran our business from a laptop. We did everything ourselves with no help and worked all hours. It was bonkers.”

To help, John and Lou approached Barclays for a loan but were refused because they didn’t have a business plan. Undeterred, they re-mortgaged the house.

“We have had to make big decisions on our journey, some worked, some didn’t,
but all provided a learning experience.”

One guy was instrumental to the couple though. He was Karim Rasched and John had worked with him at the Marriott.

“Without doubt, he is the smartest man I have ever met, and he told me that in two years’ time, I’d be turning over a million pounds. He was very influential, offered great advice and he also wrote a cheque for £5,000 to help us.

“There is no doubt, we wouldn’t be where we are today without that help.

Learning business skills

“We were so naive, other directors would laugh at us. We didn’t even realise that if we paid for things on our credit cards, we would get an extra 30 days credit.”

One thing that they did start to do though was take the dry ingredients out to the restaurants and hotels so that the chefs could touch, smell and see the product. In just a month, they doubled their sales and were able to buy a second van and employ someone to drive it.

“It also became apparent that chefs didn’t necessarily need the exotic ingredients we stocked, so we realised that to pay the bills we needed to stock staples like rice and flour and ketchup which were ordered on a weekly basis.”

Since then, there has been no looking back. Infusions Group moved to Lundy Court in Rougham and opened more warehouses. There is now a Cook School and a café operating under the ICE brand, as well as the dry stores business and an ecommerce business.

Finding success

“We now turnover £3.5 million, have seven units and employ 36 people. Our website lists 5,000 products and The Independent has named us as one of the top 50 food websites in the world. Every single Michelin starred restaurant in the UK has bought from our website.

“Also, in the spring, we will open a new extended cafe which will sit 60 people and will be a fun and happening place to be, with great food and cool music.”

In his free time, John loves spending time with the family and he enjoys riding his beloved Harley Davidson. And, between April and August, he plays American Football for Ipswich Cardinals who practice at Northgate Sports Centre.

Essentially though, John regards the people he works with as his family and sees them as pivotal to a successful and resilient business.

“My advice would be to employ people that are cleverer than you and let them tell you what to do. Talk and learn from them, listen to them and make sure they know you are listening.

“People will always work for you if you pay them a wage, but they will want to work for you and continuously go above and beyond if they believe in your journey and want to share it with you.

“Of course, your people will fail from time to time, but wear those failures as a badge of honour, as these are the moments where you will probably learn the most. Allowing people the space to fail is one of the greatest gifts you can give.”

Lead Interview: John Jackaman, Infusions Group 5

Giving is always better than taking

A key part of the Infusions family ethos is about supporting other people and doing their bit for the local community and charitable causes. This has been the case since the company started but became particularly poignant after John’s brush with testicular cancer in 1999.

He explained: “Something wasn’t right down below, so I got it checked out with the doctor. They told me I had a cyst and I was referred to the hospital. They didn’t think it was cancer, but I asked them to cut it out and when they did the biopsy, they found I had two aggressive intertwined tumours. If I had left it any later, it would have spread to my spine.

“I definitely don’t want to be defined by it. But if my story encourages other men to get their nuts checked, then all is well. The physical aspect of cancer is easy, the mental bit is worse as it messes with your head. Eventually I adopted the attitude of getting on with it and living my life. You have to get to the absolute bottom before you start going up.”

“Giving back is not about throwing money at it but giving our time and support to social enterprise projects which engage with and help motivate young people and ex-offenders who are struggling and demotivated.

As a company, Infusions also does its bit for charitable causes. It nominates a charity of the year and focuses all its fundraising efforts on that charity. Fundraising events are organised and gratuities from all the dining experiences and lunch bars are donated. Additionally, other fundraising is supported such as Red Nose Day, Christmas Jumper Day in aid of Save the Children, Movember and the MacMillan Coffee Morning, where money raised goes to the MacMillan Unit at the West Suffolk Hospital.

However, an amusing anecdote comes from an event in 2017 which saw John and Lou run the Royal Parks half marathon in London for Infusions chosen charity that year. ‘The Little Princess Trust’ provides real hair wigs free of charge to children and young people who have lost their hair.  John promised to do the run dressed as a princess if over £1,000 was pledged in sponsorship. As the final amount raised was £2,000, John being such a good sport added make up and accessories to show willing!

Photos of John Jackaman taken by Warren Page

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