Eastern Daily Press. April 2022. Words Stacia Briggs. Photos Brittany Woodman.

Sometimes the best ideas emerge from the worst of times – when a cancer diagnosis shook Keith Reeves’s world, it didn’t take him long to create something positive from a negative.

Firstly, keen cook and former EDP food and wine columnist Keith began to document the recipes he’d raised a family on and then he reached for the (Michelin) stars, recruiting top Norfolk chefs to help other men in a similar situation learn to cook. Now, and in conjunction with the newly-opened North Norfolk Macmillan Cancer Support Centre and The Richard Hughes Cookery School in Norwich, a new series of exclusive cookery lessons will begin next month.

“The only catch is that you have to be part of a club you didn’t want to join,” laughed Keith.

It’s said that when life gives you lemons, you should make lemonade: but Keith is the kind of person who, when handed the self-same fruit, would make limoncello and then find a pub to stock it in. Best-known in Norfolk for his hospitality ventures – as a wine merchant, pub owner and an EDP columnist, he has the kind of ‘can-do attitude’ that led to the invention of the phrase. His CV is dizzying, his accomplishments eye-opening. From renowned art college Goldsmiths to Italy via The Slade School of Art, from TV and movie set making to property development, from wine selling to pub owning, Keith’s journey to where he is today was, by his own admission, somewhat circuitous.

Keith, who lives near Aylsham with wife Ksynia, says his varied job history is the result of a restless spirit: “I’m absolutely great at starting things…but not quite so good at sticking with them,” he laughs, “I just can’t resist the excitement of the new!”

Born in London and an only child, Keith went to a boys’ grammar school where technical drawing took the place of home economics. “The idea of men cooking was unheard of,” Keith laughed, “that was the preserve of the girls’ school down the road. The understanding was one day we’d be captains of industry and the girls would make our dinner. “It was hideously chauvinistic. They thought it was more important to train us at a rifle range than teach us to boil an egg.” At home, meals were…perfunctory. Keith’s mother served fuel to keep her hard-working family on the march. Boiled mince and peas, fish fingers, easy food that required little thought or preparation (I know these meals well, it describes my own repertoire). There was a little more lightness on a Sunday, when a Victoria sponge cake would be baked, Keith providing the whisk-work, his only role in a home kitchen until he rented his first flat. “My parents worked hard and there wasn’t much time to cook so meals were fairly utilitarian – we needed to eat, my mother cooked something, we ate it,” he said. “I’m definitely not someone whose love of cooking came from watching my mother cook – that happened quite some way down the line!”

Self-confessed “trouble” at school, Keith hated the regime, the starchiness of it all, the assumptions that pupils were receiving tutorship “for life in the colonies”. “I remember one summer when it was roasting hot and someone asked if we could take our school coats off,” he recalls, “the teacher said ‘it’s good training for when you’re out East’. I had no idea what he meant, but later I realised. “I was forever being sent to see the headmaster and I can still hear the swish of the cane.” After leaving school, Keith won a place at the prestigious Goldsmiths’ College in London: one of the most celebrated art schools in the world, it boasts alumni such as Damien Hirst and Sarah Lucas. “I think in reality, I went because I didn’t think I could do anything else,” said Keith. “But I loved it, not least because I finally had independence. My pre-diploma was in Guildford and it was the first place where I realised I could do precisely what I wanted. I had a social life! There were girls! Even when we’d staged Romeo and Juliet at school, Juliet had always been a Jeremy.  When it came to food, it was very much ‘how many things can be done with a baked potato” or rather a potato that we’d roasted in front of a two-bar fire at our flat. “We’d go off, have some beer and roll back for a half-burnt, half-raw potato which we’d sprinkle with paprika and think we’d reached the height of sophistication.”

After Goldsmiths, Keith won a scholarship from The Slade School of Art to visit Italy and study early Renaissance statuary before returning to write a thesis. “I’d never tasted anything like the food I had in Italy,” said Keith, “that was where the real Renaissance lay, in what I was eating! It was only when the Slade reached out to ask how the studies were going that I remembered why I was there…” Back in the UK, Keith began what became a 15-year career as a sculptor (he has work at The Tate in London and his largest piece of work was bought by The Arts Council of Great Britain) and a creator of multi-media installations. He worked as a scene painter in London theatres, created special effects for television companies and represented the UK at the Paris Biennale (formerly one of the most prestigious art events in the world) in 1979.

After a visit to New York, and having been enchanted by ‘loft living’, Keith found himself involved in another project: converting an old warehouse with views over Canary Wharf in London into artists’ studios and residences. Limehouse Cut was part of the old Spratt’s Works, which had been the largest dog food factory in the world in the early 1900s (it also made ‘human’ biscuits for Polar explorers and four million biscuits a week were made for the British Army). “I somehow found myself as a property developer,” said Keith, “we moved in, too, and it was great – such a wonderful place to live.” More projects were planned, but recession hit the UK and as Keith wondered what to do next, wife Ksynia – who he met at Goldsmiths and who is an internationally-renowned textile conservator – was offered a role at the National Trust’s Textile Conservation Studio close to Blickling Hall. The family, including children Katherine, Charlotte and Matthew, moved to Norfolk and into a rented house on the Blickling Estate, a rambling hall with 11 bedrooms and a saloon which lent itself perfectly, Keith thought, to wine-tasting evenings. “And so,” he laughs, “I walked backwards into another career.”

Having set up Weavers Way Wines, Keith spent more than two decades selling wine for both private and commercial buyers, designing wine lists and stocking cellars for major hotel chains. He gave lectures, organised vineyard visits across the world, held tutored tastings, held courses at David Adlard’s cookery school and began to write about his passion in an EDP column and later gave readers the chance to earn the EDP Wine Certificate.  Keith’s love for food and cooking grew as he fed his family and as his repertoire increased, and everyone benefited from his experimentation, his appetite to learn more increased, just in time for him to start running the local pub. By accident, of course. He and business partner Richard, a former TV Masterchef producer, took over the former’s local when the landlords divorced, having persuaded friends, family and a somewhat reluctant bank manager to fund the endeavour. “We chirpily said to each other that we’d refurbish and reopen the pub within six weeks and were full of excitement, and then we walked through the doors as owners,” laughed Keith. “What had looked cosy and traditional suddenly looked downright filthy. We’d begged, borrowed and stolen £300,000 to buy the pub and we had to open ASAP. “Every corner was mouldy, every machine was broken, there were rats living in the upstairs flat and neither of us knew one end of a beer barrel from another. We were clueless.” Having persuaded chef Andy Parle to join the operation, the pair set about turning the pub into the popular watering hole it remains today.

“You could feel it the moment you stepped in,” said Keith, “the combination of a lovely building in a beautiful place, wonderful staff who cared about what they were doing, incredible food – when you get that right, it’s bound to be a success.” During his tenure at The Walpole Arms, Keith brought back the French Wines Match national trophy in 2005 for pairing wines with chef Richard Corrigan’s cooking at The Restaurant Show in London and was awarded the first Sherry Scholarship in Norfolk, courtesy of The Sherry Institute of Spain.

By 2007, and with a Michelin Bib Gourmand under their belt, Keith (his feet itching for new challenges) and Richard stepped away from the Walpole Arms although the former remained responsible for the wine list for many years.

His latest venture, magazine In Search of Taste, a publication all about food and wine, screeched to a halt when, in a horrible irony, eating became somewhat difficult.“I’d started to find it difficult to swallow so I went to see my GP who diagnosed acid indigestion and sent me away with chalky tablets which of course, did nothing,” he said. “I went for tests which involved a camera and watched on the screen to see what was inside me that was causing so many problems. Of course, I had no idea what I was seeing. “They don’t tell you immediately, they take you, sit you down and talk you through it all. ‘Well, Mr Reeves, it could be this, it could be that, it could be cancer’. I asked what the consultant thought it was in their experience – the answer was ‘cancer’.” Diagnosed with what he was told was an inoperable and incurable oesophageal tumour in late 2018, further scans revealed the disease had also affected lymph nodes on his collarbone. Alone by choice when he heard his diagnosis, by far the hardest thing he has faced was telling Ksynia and his grown up children, ranging in age from 41 to 33. “It’s like being in the middle of a slow-motion merry-go-round and you are at the centre, having caused it all,” said Keith.“Then you watch the family reform, regroup and come back, ready to face everything alongside you.” Magazine plans were swiftly shelved and Keith began a series of “lengthy and uncomfortable” treatments which included radiotherapy and chemotherapy.

“Author Christopher Hitchins described chemotherapy as ‘venom’ and although you’re incredibly grateful for it and for those who administer it, it can wreak havoc on you and one of the side effects I found hardest, was the loss of taste and smell,” said Keith. “It took a red-hot curry for me to taste anything at all. Red wine tasted of rust. Most things tasted of absolutely nothing. “I had no idea what future I had at that point which tends to make you think about what you’ve done and what you might leave behind when you are gone.

“I love to cook. I’ve spent years of my life involved in food and drink and I’ve cooked at home for my wife and then my children for 40 years and it has been a pleasure and a privilege to do so. I’ve always felt that cooking at home is best of all. “I decided that something I could do was collect the recipes that I’ve cooked for my family for decades together in one place.” On his website, keithreeves.co.uk, dozens of recipes are grouped into categories, along with anecdotes they lend themselves to.

He writes that after his cancer diagnosis, his plans were left in disarray: “Around the same time, I had the unwelcome sense of moving from living to dying. Time now appeared distinctly finite, and although I reasoned it always had been, I had never before been so alarmingly forewarned.” The resulting recipe collection, collated from Keith’s favourite books and chefs, is a love letter to his family and friends, a nourishing journey from bread to dessert, main meals to snacks, cakes to sauces. “Food is love and it’s family and, with not much else to do other than be ill and be treated, I set about categorising these treasured recipes which defined our lives together.” The most-loved and most-revisited recipe of them all? Claudia Roden’s tagliatelli con ragu all Bolognese from The Food of Italy (2014): spaghetti Bolognese.

As he documented the recipes that had built his family, another idea formed. Keith has received cancer treatment at the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital and at Cromer and District Hospital where the newly-opened North Norfolk Macmillan Centre is based. “We were talking about the options open to men with cancer in Norfolk and I said that although I thought it was great men were being given the option to do woodworking, it just wasn’t for me. So they asked me what was,” he said. The result is a series of free cookery classes, run by Norfolk’s top chefs, which has been launched to help men who are living with cancer. The North Norfolk Macmillan Centre has joined forces with the Richard Hughes Cookery School in Norwich to provide the new opportunity for men who have received a cancer diagnosis. Participants will learn how to cook new dishes with up to eight participants a month benefitting from the free sessions at the cookery school based at The Assembly House. Sessions will be open to all men who may be living with cancer, undergoing treatment or navigating life after cancer. “The cookery classes will be creative and a social get-together with likeminded people and this is a great opportunity for men to give something back to their families by learning to cook or become better at cooking,” said Keith. “All of the chefs involved jumped at the chance and without hesitation, which is fantastic given how difficult the last two years has been for the restaurant industry.”

Chefs involved in the sessions, which begin on May 11 with Richard Hughes, include Kevin Mangeolles from The Neptune in Hunstanton, Greg Anderson from Holt’s Meadowsweet, Oliver Boon from Benoli in Norwich, Andrew Jones from Farmyard in Norwich and The Dial House in Reepham, Richard Bainbridge from Benedicts and Keith’s former colleague Andy Parle from Andy Parle Event Catering.

“None of the chefs involved hesitated for a second, they all said yes straight away,” said Keith. “I’d had this idea of taking the men to the chefs’ individual kitchens to cook but when I spoke to Richard [Hughes] he suggested doing it all at his cookery school, which means the men have their own work stations and ovens. It makes far more sense. “Having cancer is difficult to deal with mentally and physically, so things like this really can make a difference because they take you away from that clinical setting and into one with other people who really understand what you’re going through. “Men are often not the best at opening up, but when you know you’re knocking at an open door it can make all the difference. There’s no need to explain anything, we KNOW.”

In regard to his own diagnosis, Keith is very much living with cancer. The perception that ‘incurable’ means ‘terminal’ is no longer as prevalent thanks in part, Keith agrees, to the sterling work done by the bowel and breast cancer communities. “I have never felt better protected or cared for than since being diagnosed with cancer,” Keith said, “and the best thing I did for myself was to talk to people. “You hear a lot of nonsense about how you should live your life as if each day is your last, but if we did that, society would collapse! It’s more for me about realising what is and isn’t a waste of time.

“I feel lucky and grateful and I’m looking forward to the future – and more cooking, of course.”

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Stacia Briggs