Sam Graham interview: I used to serve food to England players as a chef – now I play with them

Sam Graham in action for Northampton
Doubts that followed Sam Graham have gone on the strength of his displays for Northampton - Getty Images/David Rogers

When he was working as a chef at Pennyhill Park during the 2015 World Cup, Northampton back-rower Sam Graham used to sneak out on his breaks to see if he could catch a glimpse of England’s training sessions.

“There’s a big car park right next to the main training field and I would try to park as close as I could to the gate so I could see the corner of the pitch,” Graham tells Telegraph Sport. “Within five minutes, a security guard had come over and asked me what I was doing. They thought I was a spy.”

At this point, Graham was a full-time chef, the dream he once held of being a professional player seeming as distant as those England stars he was peeking at through the gate. On Friday night, the man who has been cooking up a storm in the Northampton back row this season will come up against some of those players he used to help prepare food for, such as Owen Farrell and the Vunipola brothers.

For a long portion of his career, Graham has struggled with the notion that he might be a fraud. He was not selected for any representative teams until he was 18, went into the catering trade after a brief trial with Bath’s academy and barely played at his first professional club. “It is almost a feature of my career thinking I am an impostor here, I am only here because I have won a competition,” the 26-year-old says.

Inspired by his stepbrother Chris Goodman, the former Bath back-rower whom he calls his idol, Graham came through the ranks at Chippenham Rugby Football Club. Despite attending “endless trials”, he never seemed to attract much attention until he was invited to train with Bath’s academy. After two weeks, he was not asked to return. “At that point, I thought that’s probably the end for me,” Graham says. “Time to concentrate on a career and because my other passion was food it was off to catering college for me.”

He started off as a pot-washer at Bath institution Browns before joining the Exclusive hotel group, which owns Pennyhill Park, on an apprentice scheme. Graham rose to become a chef de partie, running a section at the Michelin-starred Manor House in Oxford. It was a proud achievement but doubts nagged at him.

Sam Graham rose to become a chef de partie
Graham rose to become a chef de partie

“While I loved it and worked really hard to get there, I stood over my desk on so many occasions thinking this is not the life I want to live,” Graham says. “Being a chef is great. It was a passion of mine. I still love cooking. But it is not a social lifestyle. Who you work with becomes your family. You get up in the dark and come home in the dark. You do 90-hour weeks. That’s just the way it is.

Sam Graham at Pennyhill Park
Graham (right) enjoyed being a chef, but doubts nagged at him

“I just thought that’s a long 50-60 years and if I don’t do something else now with no strings attached then I might end up feeling trapped. I wanted to avoid that. I can always come back to it if I miss it but I am going to give myself one last roll of the dice.”

That roll of the dice involved using Goodman’s contacts to head to New Zealand in 2017 where he turned out for Massey while working as a labourer on a building site. “Health and safety is not really a thing out there,” Graham says. “On my first day on the building site I was given a nail gun and told to build a wall.” He was, however, “living the dream”, playing alongside future All Black winger Mark Telea.

Sam Graham playing in the same team as Mark Telea
Graham (right, wearing white) played in the same Massey team as Mark Telea (centre)

He fully intended to return to New Zealand until Goodman pulled another string to get him a walk-on role for the Bristol Bears A side. A contract followed but over two-and-a-half years with Bristol, Graham made just 10 appearances. By his own admission, he was not ready to make the step up but had become disenchanted before dropping down a division to join Doncaster in 2021. “That was the making of me,” Graham says. “That gave me the opportunity to enjoy rugby again. Regardless of who you are, if  you are not playing every week, it gets pretty miserable. I turned up at Donny and instantly felt valued.”

By his second campaign, he was captaining the club and led Doncaster to within three points of possible promotion behind Ealing. While he would eventually get a second chance to have a crack at Premiership rugby by signing for Northampton in 2022, it leaves a sour taste in Graham’s mouth that the top tier is effectively ring-fenced.

“What’s the point of a second tier in England where you can’t get promoted?” he says. “That’s why the Championship is dying because who is going to invest in that? The RFU don’t fund it properly and if there’s no reward at the end of it then you are pumping money into a bottomless pit. It could be and what it should be is an opportunity for an underdog team like Exeter to come up and become champions. You don’t know what can happen.”

In his first pre-season at Northampton, former England captain Dylan Hartley dropped by training to say hello to a few friends and recognised Graham from his days at Pennyhill. “He came into the kitchen and asked to borrow a knife for some social thing,” Graham says. “I am amazed that he remembered that.”

The doubts that have followed Graham throughout his career have slowly dissipated on the strength of his performances for Northampton, where he has consistently started in the club’s biggest games thanks to his ferocious defensive work-rate. “The back row here is absolutely stacked so to rub shoulders with them makes me pretty proud,” Graham says. “I think those doubts are in everyone. I think that is probably something I have realised the longer I have been here, but I am very proud of the journey that I have been on. Being a chef, you realise how lucky and privileged you are to be in this position.

“The nice thing is having been through some of those pressures [as a chef] where you are in a team and you have to pull together to get a result. That helps in big moments. You think, ‘Relax, I have been here before’. At the same time, they are different pressures. You don’t have 17,000 people staring at you as you are chopping carrots.”