The new chair of the Craft Guild of Chefs has been touring the country talking to members to help formulate a clear new strategy for the chefs’ association. Lisa Jenkins talks to him about his plans
You describe yourself as a chef consultant – what does that mean?
Chef consultancy means not wanting to work silly hours anymore, but it’s not all easy – people promise you lots of things. I have done some work with suppliers, I’ve made referrals, but stepping out of the corporate world is quite scary. I’ve also worked with George McIvor at the Full Range and then there is my Craft Guild of Chefs [CGC] role, which is, of course, voluntary.
I’ve been involved with the CGC for 23 years now, but never in an official role. I took on the chairman role because the Craft Guild has been important to me throughout my career. It has allowed me to develop my skills and my industry profile. I’ve done lots of demonstrations for the CGC and travelled with them. We did lots of events for them while I was with Sheraton Park Lane.
What do you think the future holds for the Craft Guild of Chefs?
I think it’s a brilliant organisation with amazing talent and people, but it does need to be modernised. We need a proper PR, marketing and social media platform, unified under one umbrella.
When CGC members judge at colleges, the chefs don’t get paid – sometimes not even expenses. I’d like an accreditation process where people can come to use our accredited chefs, but our chefs should get paid for that.
We need to look at the value we are giving our business partners and how to attract and retain our members. I’d like to look at the subcommittees within the CGC as well and work more closely with other chef organisations, as we do with the British Culinary Federation. By November at our business lunch I would like to announce a clearly defined strategy.
We have plans to launch a lunch club, maybe six a year, and are in the process of identifying the restaurants.
The CGC sponsors the Catey Chef Award and being involved in the judging this year gave me some insight into the restaurants that chefs want to visit. The judging process is incredible, involving in-depth conversation about the entrants.
What do you think your challenges will be as you get more involved?
I’m very organised and determined, I hate losing, and I want things done. This role has come at a good time for me. I have recently been diagnosed with prostate cancer and it’s given me a focus. Also, while I was taking my steroids at the beginning of the treatment I couldn’t sleep, so I’ve had lots of time to think about my plans. It’s important to get the message out there about how important it is to get tested for this disease and to challenge your doctor if you are not happy with an initial diagnosis. My chemotherapy and radiation treatment started the day after the Craft Guild awards in June.
What specific skills do you bring to the CGC?
My key skills are organisation, developing a family spirit, inspiring and motivating people, and getting the right people to do the right jobs in the right place.
What’s your opinion on the state of the industry right now?
The industry is an amazing cross-section of food, styles, culinary art and international expansion. We’ve never had it so good, especially in London. When I started out, a hotel was the only place you would go to eat. There’s been lots of money invested but the problem is finding the people to manage and work in the kitchens. The turnover of businesses is too high as well – it needs to be stabilised.
The priorities of young chefs are different now, and we need to recruit them based on these new priorities. I also believe we need more regulation in terms of hours in the industry, with chefs working no more than 10 hours a day.
The CGC has a responsibility to do more in schools, and I’d like to see it look at doing some masterclasses in this area. Lee Maycock, our previous chair, had a plan for a CGC academy – and that’s still not ruled out.
What will your legacy be?
I’d like my children to be proud of me as someone who made a good living and lived their life honestly. I received an MBE in 2009 for services to hospitality and developing talent, which was a very proud moment in my life, but I’d tell anyone: “If Bennett can get one – anyone can!”
Finally – who do you admire in the industry? Who has inspired you?
My peer group: Steve Munkley, Paul Gayler, Anton Mosimann, Anton Edelmann, the late John King, John Williams, Chris Galvin and the late Peter Kromberg.
I admire anyone who takes on their own business, people like Chris Galvin, who has created a mini empire but is still the same nice guy, also Anton Edelmann for taking on the Savoy at 22, and Raymond Blanc and Gary Jones at Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons for their professional and inspirational approach to developing a business.
Andrew Bennett’s story
“It all started with domestic science at school – a long time ago!” says Andrew Bennett. “After school, I went on to college to do my 706/1 and 706/2 [City & Guilds catering qualifications] and then I went on to Claridge’s for three and a half years, starting as a commis. Next I worked for Gardner Merchant for two and a half years, before moving back into hotels at the Berkeley in London as a chef de partie on sauce with head chef Clement Schmiddle.
“After this I worked for TV chef Robert Carrier. He was a legend – well ahead of his time. He wrote lots of cookery books and was one of the first chefs to have a descriptive menu and supplements on the menu.
“Then I did a stint at the Portman hotel in London, followed by a role with chef Gunther Schlender at Rue St Jacques in Charlotte Street, where we received a Michelin star. I worked at the City Yacht Club – part of Ring & Brymer – and then opened the Conrad hotel in Chelsea Harbour.
“Sopwell House in St Albans came along next; I was there for three and a half years. It was a gamble due to the status of the hotel at the time and coming out of fine dining. I began with eight chefs and finished with 22.
“Then Park Lane in London, came up and I stayed for 23 years. I was quickly promoted to executive chef as the hotel was sold to ITT Sheraton after two years, which then became part of Starwood. I spent my last two years with them as F&B director, managing 70-80 people, but completely away from the kitchen. I retired at the age of 59.”