Chamberlain's restaurant in London's Leadenhall market is part of a multi-faceted business that includes a fish wholesaler, a filleting service, a restaurant and a catering operation. Janie Stamford talks to executive head chef Matthew Marshall about his passion for top quality ingredients, and how the strands of the business work together.
Quality produce and excellent supplier relationships are key attributes bandied about in professional kitchens the length and breadth of the UK. Any chef worth their salt knows that in order to use the freshest and best ingredients, reliable suppliers that meet their needs are essential.
No one knows this more than Matthew Marshall, executive head chef at Chamberlain's restaurant in London. His restaurant in Leadenhall, the stunning 19th century covered market in the City of London, forms just one part of an unusual, multi-faceted business that began more than 50 years ago as an Old Billingsgate fish merchant.
Chamberlain & Thelwell, a fish wholesaler started by Les Steadman and today run by his sons Ray and Jeff, is stronger than ever. Jeff looks after the core business of wholesaling while Ray operates a high-end fish-filleting service for London's top hotels, which meets the needs of de-skilled chef brigades and cost-conscious buyers.
The restaurant, which opened in 2001, is run by Marshall, who works alongside operations director and front-of-house maestro Alessio Bascherini. The pair are also responsible for the outside catering business that launched three years later.
While each individual business could function successfully alone, together they are made significantly stronger.With so many chiefs managing relatively few Indians, there must be the risk of a conflict of interest and direction. But Marshall says that all the strands work together, overlapping where necessary.
"We're like a tight-knit family and we're all very passionate about the business," he explains. "It hasn't always been rosy, but we each have our own unique role so we're very understanding and respectful of each other."
One of the great advantages of being both wholesaler and restaurauteur is that quality can be keenly controlled. But although Marshall has a ready supply of quality fish and seafood from the wholesale side of the business, it is essential he receives the same high-end quality from all his suppliers.
"I only use suppliers that I know share my ethics," he says. "They're an extension of the Chamberlain's business and it's absolutely crucial they're the right fit."
Finding the right one is just the first step - it must be followed by a harmonious ongoing relationship. Marshall's close work with his colleagues at Billingsgate allows him to recognise the need for good, open communications with suppliers, from which both parties will benefit.
"If I book a function for a month's time, I call my supplier straight away, whereas many people would ring through the order the night before," explains Marshall. "But the meat we choose to use is hung for 28 days. I need to give my supplier time to make sure the product is not just available, but also of the quality we need and fully traceable."
By making his suppliers' job easier, Marshall says he makes his own job easier because he gets value for money.
VIDEOSERVICE IS KEY The emphasis on service with suppliers feeds through all elements of the business. No matter whether it's serving trade at wholesale, chefs for filleting or customers in the restaurant, the business has an unwavering passion for the product, with first class service running throughout. "At the end of the day we're all based on service," explains Ray Steadman. "If a customer receives poor service, no matter how good the food is, they won't come back. You can probably get away with an average meal and great service, but bad service will ruin a fantastic meal." This ideal holds equally true from his perspective as a supplier. While price will be an issue for a chef, Steadman says it's not the first and foremost consideration. His business's reputation - built on consistency and quality, product availability and professional preparation - is more important than the cost. So too is Steadman's product knowledge. "I don't buy or sell anything based on what I think it will cost. I know the price - I'm a wholesaler. I know I've got the product and I know I've got the quality," he adds. At the restaurant, Marshall champions ownership among his staff. Sous chefs Max Biloré and David Smith each have the opportunity to take responsibility for events and they are always involved when Marshall rewrites the menu. Bascherini's front-of-house team is equally involved. To instil an understanding of how the business operates as a whole, they have all been taken on a dawn tour of Billingsgate. For Marshall, it was an opportunity to explain the company ethos. "These guys are selling our product. It's about making them aware of the bigger picture. Their day starts at 10am but the Chamberlain's day starts much earlier at 3am. "Not everyone is going to be as passionate as me, but it's worth it if just a little bit rubs off," he admits. This enthusiasm for first-class ingredients is clearly reflected in Marshall's cooking. Rather than overcomplicating a beautiful piece of Dover sole with all manner of processes and ingredients, he opts for simplicity, allowing the star of the dish to sing. "We chefs aren't magicians. If I start off with a poor ingredient, I can maybe make it better than the next man," he explains. "But if I start with something fantastic, I can make something fantastic." BANQUETING BUSINESS His confidence in his ingredients is not unwarranted. Chamberlain's restaurant is in some ways a shop front for the banqueting business and plays host to most pre-event tasting sessions with prospective clients. To date, these tastings have resulted in an impressive 100% conversion rate. Less scrupulous event caterers might be tempted to then scrimp on costs for the event itself. Use of a cheaper product would certainly maximise margin potential, but even at the height of the recession Marshall was never tempted, either at the restaurant or banquets. To do so would have damaged a carefully crafted reputation, which in just six years has earned Chamberlain's approved caterer status at a number of historic venues including Kensington Palace, Guildhall, Banqueting House and Hampton Court. Instead, almost immediately after the collapse of global financial services giant Lehman Brothers, the pricing structure was changed. "We dropped the prices on our menus but we didn't change the product," Marshall explains. "A lot of businesses would have skimped on quality to keep the same profitability. But we live on our reputation, so we wouldn't do that. It was a bitter pill to swallow, but it was a survival strategy." THE NEXT LEVEL Despite the damage to the bottom line, this strategy was a luxury many bigger firms with expectant shareholders could ill afford. This year, as the UK economy emerges cautiously from the recession, business is starting to get back on track. Having survived one of the toughest trading climates in modern history, it is time to start growing the business again. Marshall says: "We've grown organically through word of mouth and reputation. We've done what we can up to this point but we're now ready to move to the next level." As well as a concerted effort to market Chamberlain's, the "next level" includes more collaboration with like-minded businesses. Marshall recently worked with Rachel's Organics dairy to produce a yogurt ice-cream for the St David's Day annual banquet at the Guildhall, which was added to the menu for Leadenhall's Best of British Food Week in April. And a quest for the perfect accompaniment to the restaurant's popular fish and chips led Marshall to London's Meantime Brewery and its award-winning wheat beer. On whether the company could have benefited from these growth plans being implemented sooner, Marshall has no regrets. "It's easy to say we should have, would have, could have," he says. "But instead we learn from our mistakes if we need to and move forward, which is what we've always done… not always at a fast pace, but always forward." KEY INGREDIENTS FOR A GOOD SUPPLIER RELATIONSHIP - Work with suppliers that share your business ethos and quality standards - Look for consistency and reliability - Don't order at the last minute. Give your suppliers plenty of notice or you will be unlikely to get the quantity or quality you desire - Maintain regular communication. Give your suppliers both positive feedback and constructive criticism to get the best out of each other - Treat your suppliers as an extension of your business - Know your market. If yours is a high end business, ensure you source a high end product MATTHEW MARSHALL'S TIPS FOR A SUCCESSFUL BANQUET - Make sure you have enough power. The first thing I do is make friends with the electrician and maintenance person and promise to feed them after the dinner. - Always set off for the venue with plenty of time. If you think it will take an hour to get there, allow two to three hours. Don't leave at the last minute, especially in London. - Make sure you have a supplier who can provide the quantity and the quality you need, on time. Be confident they can deliver. - Don't over-complicate the dishes. Three to four top-quality elements on a plate generally work best, and spend time making a fantastic sauce to tie them all together. - You get what you pay for. Make sure you understand the product and why seasonal tastes better, and buy accordingly. MATTHEW MARSHALL'S RECOMMENDED SUPPLIERSChamberlain & Thelwell (fish) Unit Q1-4 Billingsgate Market Trafalgar Way London E14 5ST 020 7987 2506 Cheese at Leadenhall 4-5 Leadenhall Market London EC3V 1LR 020 7929 1697