Stuart Deeley

Stuart Deeley

Stuart Deeley

Chef Stuart Deeley cooked in some of Birmingham’s best kitchens before making a name for himself as the winner of MasterChef: The Professionals 2019. Today, he celebrates hearty, unpretentious cooking at his restaurant Smoke.

Stuart Deeley can’t pinpoint exactly what first drew him to the kitchen, but knows that by the time he was fourteen he was already set on becoming a chef. Kitchen experiments had begun in earnest a few years prior (fishcakes were an early speciality) and the wave of noughties cooking shows only solidified his plan. ‘I really became attached to this idea of becoming a chef,’ he says. ‘I started watching Gordon Ramsay, Ready Steady Cook, almost any TV cooking programme. I became obsessed with the idea.’ His first step towards making it a reality came via a part-time job at a café around the corner from his high school in Bearwood, on the edge of Birmingham. It was, he says, ‘mind-blowing’, and only confirmed that he’d found his place. ‘Going in and seeing everyone shouting and swearing at each other, for a lot of people they might think ‘why am I doing this’? But for me it was exciting,’ Stuart, or Stu, says. ‘It was a change of pace. It was almost like I needed that regiment in my life.’

When it comes to talent, Stu believes people generally fall into one of two camps – natural aptitude, or a willingness to graft to develop it. As he started studying catering at college, Stu began to feel that he fell into the second group. ‘I wasn’t naturally gifted to begin with,' he says. 'I burned myself, cut myself, burned things, broke everything, but my tutors saw that I was determined. In response to that, they gave me the support that I needed to grow as a person, as a youngster within a kitchen.’ Having been introduced to a chef at the city’s Jamie’s Italian, Stu finished his studies one day and began a nine-month stint there the next, learning his trade in a kitchen which served 700 covers a day. It was a steep learning curve which he reflects on fondly, and which only came to an end when the desire to turn his hand to something more refined won out. 

Stu talks about his next role briefly – it was an incredibly small kitchen with what is fair to describe as a toxic, old-fashioned culture. ‘Coming through certain kitchens, you realise there aren’t many industries like this,’ Stu says, ‘and thankfully it’s changing for the better, but I think I was just on the cusp of that generation where things were allowed to slide.’ He managed a few months before moving to Brockencote Hall Hotel in Kidderminster, where the young chef had his first taste of luxury produce and found a mentor in its then-head chef Adam Brown. ‘He had a heart of gold and if you looked after him he would look after you,’ Stu says. ‘He really mentored me. I took a lot of leadership from Adam, I almost idolised him a bit. He was really brilliant in my early career because he gave that sense of worth that you don’t always get in a restaurant.’

After three years, and with Adam's blessing, Stu moved on to work under Luke Tipping at the one-star Simpsons in Edgbaston, where he deepened his understanding of fine dining. ‘Luke was brilliant, again similar to Adam in that he looked after the team,’ he says. ‘Within a month I was promoted from a commis to chef de partie so I thought he must value me. If you ask anyone, Luke’s a real family man and that carries across to the team.’ Stu had two stints at Simpsons (there was a spell with Adam at Mallory Court Hotel in the middle), where he also met his wife, who managed the restaurant at the time. From there, he joined Alex Claridge’s The Wilderness, a Birmingham jewellery quarter restaurant which bills itself as rock and roll fine dining and puts playful innovation at its centre. Stu reflects on using real ants to garnish dishes, and events which invited customers to pay what they thought the food was worth (one customer, he laughs, left five pounds for two people’s five-course tasting menus) – it’s a kitchen he remembers as among the most fun of his career, and one which certainly ignited his creativity. ‘Alex is a bit of a pioneer in what he does and he’s brilliant,’ Stu smiles. ‘The food improved as we went along and we started to get a bit of a cult following.’

In 2019, Stu bagged a spot on MasterChef: The Professionals. He’s the first to admit his hopes weren’t high, and he struggled in the first skills challenge, when the judges tasked him with a crepe soufflé and caramel sauce (he, instead, served what he calls ‘a giant Cornish pasty with caramel sauce’). But Stu gained confidence as the show continued. ‘As the rounds went on I got progressively better at having my own voice and personality,’ he says. ‘I loved it. The later rounds were the easier ones for me.’ He took the title home, as well as a platform that helped him put plans for his own restaurant in motion – that is until Covid arrived, and they were forced back to the drawing board. Instead, a connection with Hampton Manor owner James Hill nudged him onto his current path; he initially joined the Solihull retreat's restaurant Peel’s (that closed at the end of 2022) as sous chef, going on to become its development chef.

Stu was still ready to have his name above the door, and jumped at the chance to present James with a business plan for the site’s unused, rustic former smoke house, across the walled garden from David Taylor's Grace & Savour. Stu's idea was a hit and the restaurant, Smoke, came into being at the end of 2021. There, Stu serves a menu of unpretentious, hearty dishes which are flecked with big flavours and, of course, smoke. Not everything on the menu is given the live fire treatment; instead, it's used to enhance dishes and ingredients where it feels most natural. In early 2024, Stu added another string to his bow as executive chef at Stu Deeley at Laghi’s in Edgbaston, a neighbourhood restaurant with a menu of seasonal small plates.

For the time being, Stu is busy (he's also a dad to two young children) and content keeping his kitchens thriving, but he doesn’t rule out having more restaurants to his name in future. Where exactly they'll call home is probably more certain. A born and bred Brummie, Stu has previously spoken about the importance of keeping talent in – or bringing it back – to the city. ‘I feel like in Birmingham we get downtrodden a lot,’ he says, 'but we know how to look after each other. It’s a big city but everyone will go out of their way for a stranger, and I love that.’