When Gary Pearce left school, he could only dream of one day owning one of the most prestigious restaurants in the area.
But that dream has come true for the 37-year-old dad-of-one who now runs 36 On The Quay in Emsworth.
Growing up in Leigh Park, he left school with no qualifications and no real plan for what he wanted to do.
But then he realised his future could be in the kitchen.
‘When I was at school I was your typical teenager. I didn’t want to be at school, I wanted to do something different,’ he says. ‘My grandad was a house cook. I always found cooking interesting. So I decided I wanted to be a chef and I followed that road.
‘When I went to college everybody was quite shocked because I didn’t do well at school. I left school with virtually nothing. The times I should have been learning I was the class clown. I thought it was more important to be doing stupid things. Now I look back and think “should I have done more?”.’
Gary spent two years studying catering at South Downs College and managed to get a part-time job cooking at a restaurant in Emsworth, at the time called Julie’s.
From there he went to some of the world's best restaurants in Denmark, Holland, Germany, Sweden and Belgium.
In the meantime Ramon Farthing and wife Karen had made 36 On The Quay so successful it earned a Michelin star.
Gary went back to work for them and was asked if he would consider taking on the business himself – he gladly accepted.
Now he is hoping to carry on the good work and excellent reputation that the previous owners upheld – although the Michelin star was taken away when Ramon left.
But already, Gary has received an AA rosette award, a prestigious accolade within the catering industry.
As well as being a restaurant, 36 On The Quay also has five en-suite rooms. The 17th century building is located on the quayside with stunning views across Emsworth Harbour.
But what is it that Gary loves so much about being a chef?
‘I just love cooking food,’ he says.
‘I love experimenting with food and different flavours and textures and making sure that people come back and that they are happy.
‘To be a chef you have got to love everything that you do or it’s not going to work. You spend every hour of every day under the sun in the kitchen. If you don’t like what you are doing it’s not a good environment to be in.
‘I love waking up in the morning and knowing I’ve got to go and prepare food. You are always thinking about what you can do to evolve and what you will be doing in 10 years time.
‘The catering industry is one of those things where you never stop learning. It’s a constant battle to be at the same level as everyone else while wanting to be a little bit different.
‘With food, there are so many things you can try. I’ve found that as I’ve got older, your taste buds change and you start to try more things that you wouldn’t have tried before.’
And working in the catering industry hasn’t just given Gary a career – it’s also where he met his wife. Gary met Martyna when they were working in the same restaurant in Cheltenham.
She was working as a waitress while studying law and he was working in the kitchen. One day, Gary plucked up the courage to ask her to go for a drink, and the rest is history.
They have been married for three years and they now have a 19-month-old son, Max. Martyna gave up her career in law to take on 36 On The Quay with her husband and she works front of house.
But what is it like raising a family whilst running a successful business?
‘When you are put in a situation like this and you have a family, it’s a massive challenge’, says Gary. ‘But this has always been a family-run business.
‘As a chef, you only get two to three hours in the afternoon to spend time with your kids.
‘But at the end of the day, we are doing it for him. It’s to make sure that he has a good future.’
Gary can hardly believe the incredible journey he has been on.
‘It’s amazing,’ he says, ‘I think “how did I manage to be where I am now?”
‘It’s just about hard work. When I first started doing this I had to stop seeing friends but I decided that this is what I wanted to do. I moved away from home really early. To be sitting here now is amazing – scary, but amazing.’ Go to 36onthequay.co.uk.
Gary Pearce’s parents, David and Debby, say they are surprised and delighted by their son’s achievements.
‘We are so pleased for Gary and excited with everything he has achieved in life.
‘From being a typical teen to getting on so much in life, he is a lovely man and has always been set in his ways.
‘His achievements are astonishing.
‘Now he finally has his own restaurant we wish him all the best for now and the future.’
His sisters Kirsty and Claire add: ‘We are extremely proud of Gary and we couldn’t be happier for him.
‘Growing up Gary always had a strong head on his shoulders and still has. He is so helpful to others and now it’s his turn to shine.
‘Not only is he our brother but a great friend and role model for our children.’