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Minute on the clock: Steve Wilson, Balans

21 August 2020 by

The executive head chef at Balans Soho Society tells Jennie Milsom how he has streamlined the food offering across the group's five restaurant sites and how the group's recent restructure saved the business and jobs.

How did you get started in the restaurant business?

I started my career as a prep chef at Fifth Floor [Harvey Nichols] with Henry Harris. After three months, I was promoted to commis chef in the main kitchen, working on the sauce section. I have also worked with Richard Turner at Careys Manor hotel in Brockenhurst, at the Oxo Tower, and set up the kitchen in a restaurant in Majorca, which I ran for three summer seasons. I've been with Balans for around 10 years in total. I've been around for years!

Tell us more about the history of Balans.

David Taylor first opened Balans as a coffee shop on Old Compton Street. As the company grew, they took over another site down the road [which is now the restaurant] and the little shop front expanded backwards and downwards over the years as business grew. Taylor saw the venues as an opportunity to welcome the gay community and we've had loads of famous people in here over the years.

How has the mood been since you reopened at the end of July?

There's a positivity and cautious optimism as the diners are coming out. We've kept the team lean so we're all working hard. The menus have been simplified to an all-day menu, which is what Balans is known for – there are still plenty of options for dinner, but a single menu makes kitchen operations more streamlined. We're doing specials of the day on top of that, too.

What will the recent restructure at the group mean for you and your team?

There was uncertainty, but that's been the case right through the hospitality industry without exception. David was adamant he wanted to try and save as many jobs as possible and be able to reopen the restaurants. He has been working with some of the Balans team for more than 25 years, which gives you an idea of the genuine camaraderie among the team, so we're all glad to be back.

What does a normal week look like for you?

As executive head chef, I write the menus for all the sites. I'm also constantly training and checking everyone in the kitchen to make sure they're tasting and seasoning and that the presentation is perfect.

Yesterday I was in the Stratford kitchen and today I've been downstairs [in Soho] helping the pastry chefs – we make everything fresh and as much as possible in-house, including all the bakery production.

What kind of chef and boss are you?

I would hope I'm tough but fair. About 90% of the staff here have worked with me before in another kitchen at some point, so the mutual respect is there. We are one big, happy family.

I want speed and efficiency, for chefs to be tasting the flavours, for sections to be clean and to have beautiful plates of food served with a smile. Happy chefs equal happy food and the customers feel that.

How are chef roles going to have to change in the ‘new normal'?

I think a lot of it has already changed and people have changed. Look at Sat Baines doing a four-day week. The days of 12- to 14-hour shifts have come to an end – you can't run people into the ground like that any more.

The days of 12- to 14-hour shifts have come to an end – you can't run people into the ground like that any more

What other changes in the industry have you seen since lockdown?

A lot of our suppliers have been stung and are more cautious, needing cash up front. Many are still running on furlough. One of ours has gone from 120 vans to 30 and they're only delivering five days a week, Monday to Fridays. We haven't been caught out yet – if someone's short on something, we can get it over from another kitchen. It just makes things a bit more complicated.

Who are you most proud to have cooked for in your career?

Jean Christophe-Novelli. I did a white bean and rosemary mousse with roasted prawn and seabass – classic dishes. I finished with a tarte fine, which was invented by Marco Pierre White. This would have been about 15 years ago. I stood at the bar afterwards having a pint and he came over and signed his book for me and offered me a job! I didn't take it...

It must be exciting being in the heart of Soho with all the alfresco dining this summer.

We have two sites here – the restaurant, which is open for dinner only, and the café/bar, which is open all day. Our operations manager has been involved in the meetings [about the Soho pedestrianisation] and we now have tables outside. It's been really productive and the community has really come out and pulled together. I think it's brilliant, especially for the summer.

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