A quiet revolution

01 January 2000
A quiet revolution

Following in the footsteps of Marco Pierre White at the glamorous London restaurant The Canteen is a daunting task for any chef. Head chef Tim Powell, however, has met the challenge head on.

The changes he and fellow directors Claudio Pulze and Michael Caine have been preparing quietly over the winter are now in full swing. Diners will find a new menu, a set-course lunch and a revitalised brigade of chefs.

White's involvement in the restaurant ended this February when Pulze and Caine acquired his shareholding. But the shift in gear has been well under way since Powell's arrival at the restaurant from London's Le Pont de la Tour last summer.

The Canteen now hopes to attract a serious food-loving crowd to its waterfront venue at Chelsea Harbour - a perfect location for summer.

The four-year-old restaurant is moving away from a brasserie-style operation, according to Pulze - who takes responsibility for front of house - to become a serious, kitchen-led restaurant. Maintaining its Michelin star status is of prime importance, he adds.

Powell's new à la carte menu offering 11 main course dishes all at £11.95 and 11 starters at £6.95, was introduced earlier this month. It will change every three months.

The menu has evolved from that introduced by Powell when he first arrived. A set-lunch menu of two courses for £15.50 and three courses for £19.50 was introduced soon after.

Since the beginning of April, the restaurant has been closed all day Sunday and Saturday lunchtimes. The 14-strong brigade now works five or six days a week, instead of shifts, allowing Powell to achieve the consistency and quality of cuisine he is aiming for.

Powell is supported by three sous chefs - David Ali, Simon Wilson and Ray Brown - all former colleagues. Pastry chef Alain Ronez is also a key team member as a large percentage of customers order desserts.

Teamwork is key to Powell and Pulze's quiet revolution, and Powell stresses the value of having a team he can depend on. He went through a baptism of fire in his first two months, when 17 chefs left, most of them bound for the kitchens at Marco Pierre White's the Criterion at Piccadilly Circus.

Looking after staff interests is considered a logical extension of the customer care philosophy that both Pulze and Powell espouse: "We can provide people with a more polished act," says Pulze, who adds that he is glad the days when customers risked the wrath of the kitchen by requesting a well-done steak are over.

Financial rewards

It is a philosophy that also brings financial rewards. Since the two-hour limit on each table was abolished last year, the average spend per head at the restaurant has increased from £38 to £47.

But Powell and Pulze would prefer to increase the number of guests dining than keep on pushing up the spend per head. The recently introduced set-price lunch menu is central to the strategy to tempt new or lapsed diners to Chelsea Harbour. It is also a testing ground for new dishes which could later appear on the à la carte menu.

The 125-seat Canteen has always been a popular night-time venue, serving between 150 to 200 covers a night. So lunchtime, when the average number of covers is 35 to 40, provides a valuable breathing space for Powell and his team to try out suppliers' suggestions and use seasonal products to their best advantage.

Powell reports that 80% of lunchtime diners in the first few weeks opted for the prix fixe menu, which comprises a choice of two starters, two main courses and two desserts, rather than the à la carte.

Typical dishes are the starters velouté of cauliflower with flaked salmon and herb mascarpone or rare roast beef with rocket salad, Parmesan and truffle oil.

Main courses served at lunch have included creations such as braised cod with spring greens and ginger broth, or new season lamb with pommes boulangère and roast garlic. Past desserts are pistachio soufflé and chocolate sauce, and fraisiäre - layers of sponge with fresh strawberries and cream.

Powell describes his cooking as "right across the board." His "magpie" approach combines Mediterranean, Oriental and Asian influences. This is liberating for him as a chef, he says, as well as providing customers with dishes that concentrate on drawing out the flavours of food.

"I use less butter and cream than in traditional cooking. I prefer crème fraîche and use lots of broths, stocks and oils. I don't want to hide the flavour of the food, but lift what's there."

One popular dish on the menu - confit of duck with Asian broth and five spice at £11.95 - is a case in point. "Most people know they like these flavours, and I am trying to cook what people like."

This doesn't mean that anything goes. "I won't let the standards of food slip, but the customer comes first. I want this restaurant to be fun and accessible to everyone," says Powell.

Aiming high

On his ambitions for the next year, Powell is modest. "I want to keep up the work I've done in the past seven to eight months and sustain the standards we have attained."

Recently made a director of the restaurant, Powell is throwing all his energies into The Canteen. Despite the fact that competition in London for quality restaurants has never been tougher, Powell is convinced The Canteen will continue to be a main player and draw diners away from the West End's hot spots. "I hope we can bring back some of the custom that may have gone away. I want everyone to know it is fantastic value for money for the quality of the food."

It is a sentiment that is echoed by Pulze, who has a stake in four other restaurants and has plans for another Italian restaurant on Wardour Street. "We like what we do and take pride in it. But you must not lose a sense of perspective. We are here to please the customer."

The Canteen, Harbour Yard, Chelsea Harbour, London SW10.Tel: 0171-351 7330.

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