The chef-turned-consultant and National Chef of the Year 2013 talks to Caroline Baldwin about pivoting during lockdown and his first project in his new role: reopening Ealing restaurant Soane's.
Tell us a little bit about your first consultancy project at Soane's in Ealing in west London.
I was deep in DIY duties on top of my roof and I got a call from Andrew Fishwick [chief executive of the Pepper Collective], who asked me for help reopening Soane's.
We only had two weeks and we were starting from scratch – there wasn't a pinch of salt in the kitchen, hardly any equipment and no staff. So I got a few people in to help me do a deep clean of the kitchen, engaged with local suppliers, and, through the power of Twitter and some friends, I started to get a skeleton crew together.
What does your day-to-day look like when you are working on a project like this?
In opening week I was here from early doors until the last plate went out.
My job is to make sure the kitchen brigade is sustainable and can do its job with minimal direction from me. I'm also working on strategy, costings, training and finessing – I'm working on a memory stick of information that I'll hand over to the chef in charge before I move onto my next project in early 2021.
How do you go about hiring the best kitchen team?
I put out a message about what we wanted to achieve and tried to employ people from the local area, because it's very much a community restaurant. But it's a very small kitchen, so we want to employ a team that gets on. There is no room for egos in there.
I look for attitude as well as aptitude, and well-rounded skills – we want a crew that is happy to cook a piece of sea bass and get that crispy skin as well as a simple salad or a carrot cake in the afternoons.
What makes Soane's so special?
It's all about simplicity – buying the best ingredients we can for the money, but also manipulating them very little, so that they speak for themselves. We have a garden so we can tap into that produce. Right now we have bushels of rosemary, but there will be lots of ingredients we can showcase on the menu in the spring.
You've spoken in the past about having goals – be that training for the Tour de France or winning National Chef of the Year – has 2020 changed your attitude towards goals?
In March I was furloughed and there was no goal and no end date. It wasn't like you had a competition in October to practice for or a race starting in July you were training towards. For someone who is very goal-orientated it's been difficult for me – as it has for many others – and there's still no finish line, but there is hope.
How optimistic are you feeling about 2021?
I don't think it can be much worse than 2020! I'm hopeful we plateau out.
What is the biggest lesson you've learned during the last year?
I've learned that the future is never set, despite your goals and expectations. You have to be nimble and recalibrate often, although you might have a goal you have to change your ways to meet it – there's no straight line to that goal. Tough times don't last, tough people do.
Tough times don't last, tough people do
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