Herbert Berger gained a Michelin star at three separate restaurants during his career, as well as working as sous chef under Michel Bourdin at the two-Michelin-starred Connaught. When the chef left 1 Lombard Street in 2011, he took a year out, but now he’s back in the City, having formed his own catering company, at the Innholders’ Hall. Emily Manson catches up with him
You left 1 Lombard Street in 2011 after 13 years in partnership with Soren Jessen. What happened?
We had a very successful start and for 12 years were highly successful, but partnerships don’t always work out. I felt it was time to move on as I didn’t see myself working there for another 10 years until retirement. I was chef/partner, but I was a minority shareholder, so even though I ran it day to day there were business, financial and concept decisions which were still out of my control. It became increasingly frustrating, as it was obvious there were two visions for the way forward. So by mutual agreement I left after 12 glorious years.
Tell us about the contract that your newly launched business, Berger Restaurants, has won at Innholders’ Hall in the City of London?
It started at a Réunion des Gastronomes dinner at Mosimann’s a year before I left 1 Lombard Street. Dougal Bulger [clerk to the Worshipful Company of Innnholders] and I were talking about the livery hall and their ideas to outsource catering but it was only a year later, when I saw him again, that he said they were looking seriously for new caterers. Tenders had already been sent out so I had to act quickly, but I put my proposal in and went through the beauty contest. I think I got it because they really wanted a personal caterer, with a personal touch and commitment. A lot of livery halls are serviced by similar foodservice companies so you can go from place to place and get similar food. They wanted to avoid that.
Previously, you’ve worked for people or been in a partnership. Now you’ve set up on your own, how did you start the business?
None of the pre-existing team here transferred, so I found myself with a kitchen and no chefs. The key was to have a great kitchen team and also a strong sales and marketing person. Head chef Tim Richardson, pastry chef Arnaud Viatte, Elena Leva in sales and marketing, plus Davis Campbell, our front-of-house manager, all came over from 1 Lombard Street. Although it was quite a financial commitment (and bringing people in to a start-up at that level is not cheap), it has really paid off. We may have been top-heavy but having the top key team in place has meant we’ve never compromised, the business has grown fantastically and we have delivered top food and service from day one.
After all the Michelin stars and fast pace of restaurant life, what made you move to the Innholders Hall?
When I left 1 Lombard Street, I had a massive life change. The previous year I’d got divorced and then I walked away from the business I’d thought would be my future and retirement. I did a lot of thinking of what was the right move. I nearly took on a small hotel in Derbyshire, I also looked at gastropubs with rooms and I still have a fast-food concept in my head. But in the end I realised I was not ready to leave London. Also, the banks weren’t lending any money. Here I run a totally independent operation but the moving-in cost was very low. It was around £50,000 for nice china, glassware and kitchen equipment but that’s nothing compared to a start-up.
Is a livery hall a safer environment to be in during a recession?
Yes, and that was another consideration – it’s reasonably safe and fitted the bill perfectly. I inherited a certain amount of core livery company business with set dates and almost guaranteed repeat business, so it wasn’t starting totally from scratch. Elena and I also have contacts from 14 years in the City – it’s our old stomping-ground – so it was relatively easy for us to attract new business in.
Is it a model you can repeat or expand on?
I have a commitment here that I don’t branch out too much but there are certainly options for the future.
I believe you’re the first former Michelin-starred chef to take on catering in a livery hall? Does your move mark the renaissance of livery halls and their transition into the 21st century?
We’ve certainly caused a stir and there’s a lot of talk and interest in what we’re doing. Livery halls are known for school food but I believe there’s no reason not to bring the best to these places. It may force other foodservice companies to up their game, and I wouldn’t be surprised if a number of halls moved in a similar direction in time.
Chefs have been targeting hotels for ages and I’m very surprised that no one has thought of this before. Livery halls are a hidden gem and there’s so much potential. It’s perfect to set fine food in this environment. Some are very grand but here it’s more homely and really intimate – it feels like you’re in a private house, not sitting in an institution.
How does the catering in a livery hall differ from that of a restaurant?
I’m using all of my 45 years of cooking experience as the events give me that opportunity. I get to use all the skills, from traditional cooking, seasonal menus, “school dinner” dishes such as pies, stews and braising things. We do lots of the classics but at the same time we also do Michelin-star-type cooking and that’s what makes it really interesting. We can provide whatever the client wants – we’re not stuck with a set menu of six choices, our repertoire is endless. Some want to chat through menus with me, which I love, but others are starting to say, “Herbert, surprise me.” The personal bit is great and liberating, it’s great to get a feel for a client and then delight them.
You’ve long been a champion of your staff. Many head chefs don’t carry such loyalty – how do you develop that?
Maybe it’s my personality but I just think this outrageous behaviour and nastiness is completely wrong and I don’t see the point of it – it’s almost barbaric. It gives the profession a bad reputation at a time when we want and need to make it attractive. There’s always the stigma of long hours and terrible behaviour but it can be a nice and healthy environment to work in. It is getting better now but there was a feeling for a long time that if you behaved badly then you would become famous. To me that’s totally wrong and they’re famous for the wrong thing – you should be famous for making the customers happy.
And how do you keep customers happy?
It’s about the management of what you do, the quality of what you do and the honesty and integrity of how you do it. The team work for me and with me – it’s an exchange of what you offer and what they add in – and the sum of that can add up to something quite special. There’s no magic about it. We are passionate about what we do, we care about creating something good together and that makes for a happy atmosphere. We’re also focused on margins and the business side of it, which keeps us on the ball.
Do you miss the buzz of the restaurant environment?
A little bit. It was a world I really enjoyed – a fabulously exciting world and opportunities to get Michelin stars, etc, but I have done all that and so you move on. In any profession you hit your peak performance, then become a manager and trainer and you get just as much reward out of it, even more in a way. I would love to ski like I was 25, but now I have longer lunches. I was always very hands-on in the kitchen but you can’t always work on the stove like you’re 25, 30 or even 40 – you’re just not as effective, but you can be effective in a different role and enjoy the business side of it. Here I have big and small functions and a lot more customer contact – which I’d lost at 1 Lombard Street – and that suits me perfectly as I now enjoy different things. I do more than just cook and I really enjoy the nuts and bolts of the business side as well. It’s crazy to work so hard and not make money out of it but I’ve seen that happen so many times.
You’ve earned three Michelin stars at three different restaurants, is there one that you’re most proud of?
No, I have to say that I’m proud of winning the star three times for three different establishments: first, at Le Connoisseur in Golders Green, then at the Café Royal and finally at Lombard Street. The fact I’ve done it as an employee is probably what I’m most proud of. But also developing and nurturing lots of youngsters throughout my career has given me huge satisfaction, and recognition from my peers has given me a lot of pride. But perhaps the most important thing is customer feedback, as I love cooking and serving great food and having a great team to do it with.
Who have been your mentors in your career?
The one person who stands out is Michel Bourdain at the Connaught. I’d won my first Michelin star before I went to the Connaught in 1979, but I felt I’d missed out and not done my best so it was essentially my finishing school. I was there for five years, it had two stars at the time, and was a fantastic learning curve. It really affected and impacted my cooking.
No. I always feel, when one door closes or things happen, if you’re driven and positive then something better will always come along. In my case it has always been that way. Black Monday at the Mirabelle was followed by the Café Royal, and the hostile takeover there led to 1 Lombard Street and now leaving there has led to this. It’s vital to always enjoy the next step.
What would be your last supper?
A tough choice, but a perfectly roasted grouse with all the trimmings. I’d nibble off the whole lot with a wonderful bottle of claret to wash it down.
Herbert Berger’s Career in a Nutshell
Born in Austria, Herbert Berger trained at the Grand Hotel Zell and then spent five years in some of Switzerland’s finest hotels before moving to England, where he worked at the Connaught and Claridge’s before becoming head chef at the Mirabelle and executive chef at the Café Royal.
He achieved his first Michelin star at the Connoisseur, followed by a star for the Grill Room at the Café Royal and in 1998 becoming chef/partner at 1 Lombard Street, where he gained his third Michelin star in 2000. In 2012 he formed Berger Restaurants to take on an exclusive contract for the Innholders’ Hall.
Awards include: Mention d’honneur Prix Pierre Taittinger, Maitrisse Escoffier and Cordon Rouge Association Culinaire de France. He’s also a member of the Academy of Culinary Arts and the Réunion des Gastronomes.
What is the Worshipful Company of Innholders?
Founded in 1473, the Worshipful Company of Innholders is one of 108 livery companies in the City of London originally formed by the Crown and the Corporation of London to regulate crafts, trades and services in the Square Mile. The Worshipful Company of Innholders looks after the charitable funds it gets from Innholders’ bequests and awards grants to industry-related schemes and projects. In 1978, to strengthen links with their original sectors, the Worshipful Company and the HCIMA (now the Institute of Hospitality) formed the Master Innholders to promote and encourage excellence in hoteliership. Since 1996 the Master Innholders has run scholarship schemes for management courses at Cranfield University, Cornell University and L’Ecole Hôtelière de Lausanne, funded by the Worshipful Company of Innholders, The Savoy Educational Trust, the Lord Forte Foundation and the Master Innholders Charitable Trust. The St Julian Scholars was created as the alumni for graduates of these scholarships.
Roast pineapple with oriental spices, chilli, coriander and lime syrup, coconut sorbet
(Serves four: pineapple sizes vary, but a small-to-medium one should yield four servings)
1 x peeled and cored pineapple
75g unsalted butter
1 red chilli
40g stem ginger brunoise
Fresh coriander, chopped, to taste
For the coconut sorbet
(makes about 60 scoops)
1kg coconut purée
20g Malibu or rum
To serve (per portion)
Classic raspberry coulis
(about 20ml per portion)
1 dried pineapple ring per portion
Split dried vanilla pod sticks (for garnish)
Prepare the pineapple, taking out the dark bits (spiral cut). Cut into 4cm-thick slices. Cook in a classic syrup (1 litre water and 500g sugar) spiced with fresh ginger, lemon grass, Chinese five spice, Szechuan pepper, vanilla, chilli, coriander seeds and fresh coriander leaves.
Leave to cool and infuse for one day.
For the sorbet, boil the sugar, water and glucose. Pour over the coconut purée, let cool and stir in the Malibu before churning in an ice-cream machine or freezing in Pacojet cannisters.
To caramelise the pineapples, add a little water to the sugar and boil until it dissolves and forms a caramel. Add the butter. When it has melted, add the pineapple rings and “roast” them in the sugar and butter, basting throughout, until they are perfectly glazed.
Take some of the syrup from the pineapple and reduce until thick. Let it cool, then add the juice of two limes, finely chopped red chilli, some finely chopped stem ginger, chopped fresh coriander and lime zest . Let it infuse.
For the dried pineapple rings, thinly slice and dry under a heat light or in an oven at 90°C, until crispy.
Serve with classic raspberry coulis, raspberries, dried pineapple rings and dried vanilla pod sticks for garnish.