Heinz Beck, famous for the three-Michelin-starred La Pergola at the Cavaleri hotel, Rome, is one of the most respected chefs in the world. After resisting calls to export his expertise to Tokyo and New York, the lure of London proved too much and led to the recent opening of Apsleys, housed in the Lanesborough hotel. Kerstin Kühn reports.
Heinz Beck isn't a man who likes to be drawn into specifics. Indeed, interviewing him is a bit like interviewing a politician - a man who talks a lot without really saying very much at all. Perhaps it's a language thing. After all, Beck is a German chef who lives in Italy. Perhaps his culinary genius just isn't easily translated into words.
Beck is one of the most respected chefs in the world. He has run the famous threeMichelin-starred La Pergola at the Cavaleri hotel in Rome since it opened 15 years ago - and it's now hailed by many as Italy's top restaurant. So it's no surprise he has had a host of offers to export his expertise to other countries over the years. But it was London's Lanesborough hotel that finally caught his eye.
"I have had a lot of amazing offers in the past seven or eight years to open restaurants around the world in cities including Tokyo and New York," Beck says. "But I much preferred London for my first venture outside of Italy."
Beck thinks that London is THE city for gastronomy - admitting there's a lot of competition, which "encourages improvement".
"It's a very nice challenge and a very nice opportunity to be here," he adds.
He's equally noncommittal when it comes to talking about who he considers to be his main competitors. Who are the chefs who make London the epicentre of gastronomy he speaks about? His answer is very diplomatic. "I have not been to all of the top restaurants in London so I cannot say which ones are the best. I can't make a judgement based on what everyone else is saying, it wouldn't be fair."
What about culinary heroes, does he have any? "Culinary heroes don't exist," he spits. "There are only two types of chefs: good chefs and bad chefs, just like there are only two types of dishes: good ones and bad ones." Surely former mentor Heinz Winkler must be up there among his icons? "Yes, he did influence me a lot. He gave me a lot of inspiration."
When it comes to describing his cooking, Beck is equally vague. "It's a light cuisine of Mediterranean flavours," he explains. Not that this tells you very much apart from the fact that he wants you to know immediately that his cooking is healthy and inspired by flavours from all over the Mediterranean, not just Italy.
While Beck's cooking has been compared to that of superstar chefs Ferran Adrià and Pierre Gagnaire, he's not happy with such comparisons, insisting his main ambition is to provide a culinary experience that goes beyond presentation and taste.
"I use modern techniques but I'm not an extremist and I use techniques to make my plates more healthy without sacrificing flavour," he says, adding that he has dedicated the past five years of his career to understanding exactly how food is related to the human body and its metabolism. Beck has worked on a range of projects with the faculty of medicine at Rome's famous La Sepienza university to gain an insight into how food affects digestion. "It's important for me that the food I serve is easy to digest and good for my diners," he explains. "My menus are well balanced and, even if you eat my seven-course tasting menu, you won't feel full and heavy afterwards, you'll feel good."
So what drives Beck? Where does his inspiration come from? "I find inspiration from all over: flowers, architecture, still life paintings," he says. "I don't ever limit myself to the specificity of the ingredients I am working with and allow myself to open my mind to find inspiration anywhere, anytime."
But what does this actually mean? After further pressing, he adds succinctly that architecture sometimes inspires the way he presents his dishes on the plate.
So we move on to his new restaurant in London called Apsleys - A Heinz Beck Restaurant. Beck took over the Adam Tihany-designed space housed in the Lanesborough's former Conservatory restaurant at the beginning of September. The 120-seat Italian restaurant had been without a head chef since last autumn when Nick Bell left just six months after launching it, following mixed reviews from critics.
Apsleys is overseen by Beck and his "handpicked brigade of chefs", with executive chef Massimiliano Blasone looking after the kitchen day-to-day. Blasone has worked with Beck for more than a decade, and was most recently executive chef at the Michelin-starred Castello Banfi in Tuscany, where Beck was consulting.
While Blasone is a trusted colleague, the menu at Apsleys is 80% made up of Beck's dishes. "This is a Heinz Beck restaurant and everything that goes on the menu is approved by me first," Beck says. To be able to have this input he spends as much time as possible at the Lanesborough and comes over at least twice a month. He says he chose the five-star hotel on Hyde Park Corner because it's top of its class. "The Lanesborough is very beautiful and a leading hotel in London," he enthuses. "It shares my work ethic of providing the best possible service, so I was very happy to open a restaurant here. Only the best is good enough."
The 21-strong kitchen brigade comprises mainly Italian chefs Beck has brought with him. "We tried to keep on as many people as possible," he says diplomatically, though he admits, "I didn't want to sack anybody - but a lot of people came with me from Italy. Italians like London very much - it's not hard to get Italian chefs to move to London."
He says he runs a happy kitchen and has a "nice relationship" with his chefs that extends beyond his own kitchens. "If my colleagues in Italy have a good chef who wants to go to London, they contact me. I have a nice relationship with all of my colleagues - it all depends on how you treat them."
The menu at Apsleys is traditionally Italian, divided into antipasti, soup, pasta, meat and fish main courses and desserts. Starters are priced from £14 upwards while main courses start at £19. The Menu del Giorno at lunch is priced £26 for three courses and the seven-course Menu Degustazione costs £75, £115 paired with wine.
The menu at Apsleys will change six to seven times a year to keep it seasonal, and Beck says he is primarily looking at the local market to source his produce. But it has been a challenge and while he admits he has been very impressed with certain ingredients, including seafood and meat, other produce hasn't lived up to his standards.
"I haven't been able to find nice tomatoes and am bringing them in from Italy," he says. He uses Pachino tomatoes from Sicily, which are known for their sweetness, firmness, glossiness and long shelf life. "It probably sounds silly to bring in tomatoes as to most people they are just small, red, round things but to me the flavour is really important," Beck explains.
Despite all the effort he applies to sourcing his produce and the amount of research that goes into his menus, there is a sense of simplicity to his cooking which Beck insists makes his food approachable. "I have tried very hard to keep my Italian imprint, especially regarding the pasta dishes, which you have to keep simple," he says.
Back in the Eternal City, Beck's restaurant, La Pergola, is favoured by the rich and famous - a magnet for Italian and international celebrities alike including Michele Obama and Sarah Brown, who dined at Beck's restaurant during the G8 Summit held in Rome earlier this year. So impressed were the political WAGS that the US First Lady wrote a letter saying her meal at La Pergola was the best she had ever had, while Brown praised Beck not just on Twitter ("twice") but also sent a letter wishing him luck in London.
While Beck is clearly chuffed about the high- profile plug, he insists all diners are the same. His main ambition for Apsleys, he says, conveniently hedging his bets, is not to gain accolades and Michelin stars but to have happy customers. "My ambition is simple: Good, better, best. I want to satisfy my customers and run a well-working place with happy clients who come back again and again - that's the biggest compliment to a chef."
APSLEYS: A HEINZ BECK RESTAURANT - THE DETAILS
Opened 7 September
Owner The Lanesborough
Executive chef Massimiliano Blasone
Manager Pasquale Cosmai
Designer Adam Tihany
Signature dishes include fish crudo; carbonara fagottelli, parcels of fresh pasta filled with a creamy Carbonara filling; roasted pigeon royale, pearl onions and mustard seed sauce; and Setteveli, chocolate and hazelnut.
Address Hyde Park Corner, London SW1X 7TA
Telephone 020 8968 0202
HEINZ BECK: A POTTED HISTORY
Now 46, Beck has been cooking since he was 17, spending his early years in his native Germany, with a stint in Mallorca at the two-Michelin-starred Tristan. From 1991 to 1993 he worked under Heinz Winkler in Aschau, an Italian-German chef who at 32 became the youngest chef ever to win three Michelin-stars (younger even than our very own Marco Pierre White) and remains Beck's biggest mentor.
Beck has been at La Pergola since it first opened in August 1994 and has won numerous accolades including a 93/100 rating in Italy's prestigious Gambero Rosso guide and Michelin's top score of three stars in 2005.