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The Caterer

Aussie rules: Interview with two-Michelin starred chef Brett Graham

10 February 2010 by
Aussie rules: Interview with two-Michelin starred chef Brett Graham

Aussie chef Brett Graham was the big winner in this year's Michelin guide, rising to two-star level at the Ledbury and winning a star for the Harwood Arms. He speaks to Kerstin Kühn about his journey to success

Brett Graham has come a long way. And we're not just talking distance. The Australian-born chef's Notting Hill restaurant, the Ledbury, has just joined the elite group of London's seven two-Michelin-starred establishments, and if that's not enough, his other venture, the Harwood Arms in Fulham, has become the capital's first Michelin-starred pub. Not bad for a 30-year-old who has only been cooking in the capital for 10 years.

"I was so surprised at the news," says a stunned Graham. "I got a phone call from [Michelin editor] Derek Bulmer and he told me we were the only new two-star restaurant in the country. Then he said that the pub had also won a star and that's when I nearly fell off my chair."

Graham has an easy, natural Antipodean manner and doesn't take himself too seriously. Indeed, despite being tipped as a rising two-star last year, the conversion of the accolade came as a genuine shock to him.

"It was amazing that we got to rising two-stars and I thought that this was our limit and that we'd sit there for a few years," he says. "I never in a million years expected this."

So rising to three stars isn't an ambition just yet? "No; I can't even think about that," Graham says.

Having grown up in Newcastle, New South Wales, and spent much of his childhood on his grandfather's farm, one might assume Graham's gastronomic training started at an early age. On the contrary.

"My family never had any food culture," he explains. "There was no sense of seasonality or fresh, delicious produce. I had no idea how to even cook a piece of meat other than on the barbecue."

It all started when Graham did a week's work experience at a local fish restaurant called Scratchleys.

"I loved it. I was really surprised at how a kitchen works and how you can take something so simple and turn it into something beautiful," he recalls. He secured himself a two-and-a-half-year apprenticeship "gutting fish and preparing Kilpatrick oysters" and - against the advice of everyone, including his parents and teachers - left school aged 15.

"I knew then that's what I wanted to do," Graham explains.

At the age of 18 the bright lights of Sydney beckoned, where Graham landed a job with Irish chef Liam Tomlins at his new restaurant Banc, which would go on to become one of Australia's top eateries. Graham describes his time at Banc as the toughest part of his life.

"Liam was an incredibly tough taskmaster and I don't think I've worked as hard anywhere else," he says. But despite describing Tomlins as a tyrant in the kitchen, Graham to this day considers him one of his biggest mentors.

"Liam was tough but always fair," he explains. "When I found out I had my first Michelin star in 2006, he was the first person I called to thank. He was the one who made me wake up and realise that I had to become more serious about my career."


ONWARDS AND UPWARDS

Graham took the wake-up call and his career pretty much kick-started. After winning Australia's coveted Josephine Pignolet cookery award as Sydney's best young chef, with the prize of a flight to London, he arrived in the capital in 2000. Armed with little more than a recommendation from a mate, he secured a job under Phil Howard at the Square, where he quickly made an impression. He worked at the Mayfair restaurant for three-and-a-half years and says he has been incredibly lucky to have had chef-patron Howard as a mentor.

"Phil is one of the very few true gentlemen in this trade," Graham says.

"He is very respectful of his staff and always treated me like an equal. He never talked down to me and we formed a very special relationship. In a way he was the polar opposite of Liam, but just as important to me as a mentor."

In 2002, Graham won the Restaurant Association's Young Chef of the Year title, gaining industry-wide recognition, and less than three years later, at the age of 26, the Square partners Howard and restaurateur Nigel Platts-Martin presented him with the opportunity to open his own restaurant. The Ledbury launched in spring 2005 to wide critical acclaim - restaurant critics and chefs alike were queuing up to taste Graham's modern French food - but the first few months were a steep learning curve for the young chef.

"It was incredibly tough, both physically and mentally," Graham recalls.

"Never having been a head chef before and suddenly having the responsibility of running a restaurant was very hard.

"What I found the most difficult was that people are so quick to knock you. Of five great reviews and one bad one, you only remember the bad one and I took that quite hard because I felt like we were failing. I have a much more grown-up approach to all of that now but at the time it was an awful lot for me to take on."

SEASONAL INGREDIENTS

But backers Platts-Martin and Howard never had any doubts about his ability to succeed and after the initial shock of it all subsided, Graham, with the help of his then sous chef Nathan Thomas, quickly found his feet.

His superb cooking gained him numerous awards, including a Michelin star less than a year after opening, and the Ledbury swiftly developed into one of London's most recognised restaurants.

Graham describes his food in straightforward terms: "It's focused on seasonal ingredients and while it has classical roots, I try to add a modern touch and lighten things up a bit."

He says he uses some modern techniques "but not too many as they can be a bit gimmicky". Indeed, while his menu is sophisticated and full of originality and experimentation, it retains a level of earthiness and simplicity. Graham's Antipodean roots make a very subtle appearance in his cooking and although he uses some foreign ingredients, such as Japanese shiso (seaweed) and Australian eucalyptus to "make things a bit more modern", his cooking adheres much more to the doctrine of seasonality and locality.

Dishes such as celeriac baked in ash with wood sorrel, hazelnuts and a kromeski of wild boar; or poached breast and confit legs of pigeon with Cevennes onions and liquorice (see recipe on page 20) are cases in point: packed with lots of different flavours but never overbearing or gimmicky.

When asked how his cooking has developed and what he puts the award of the second Michelin star down to, Graham says it has been a process of slow refinement.

"We never sat down and made it our goal to get a second star," he explains. "All we wanted to do last year was to improve the restaurant and the service we give to our customers to strengthen the business overall. We knew 2009 was going to be a tough year so we really focused and in the end it was our strongest year ever by a long shot.

"I think the second star came on the back of that success and us concentrating so much on making our product better."

However, Graham admits that with the second star comes an added responsibility and more pressure. "There's a two-star expectation now; people will come in and demand that we're as good as the other two-star restaurants, which is a tough act to follow," he says.

"We really have to perform now so in a way it's like starting the restaurant all over again."

His plans for the next 12 months are simple: continue to work hard on constantly improving the product. There is no ambition for another pub or restaurant, just the goal of keeping up the high standards he has set over the past year.

Long term plans are no different and while the last time Caterer interviewed Graham his ultimate ambition was to return to Australia and open his own restaurant in the famed wine region of Hunter Valley, the chef's priorities have shifted over the years.

"I am really happy at the Ledbury and want to be a chef there for a very long time," he says.

THE LEDBURY

The Ledbury is open seven days a week. The set lunch menu costs £22.50 for two courses, and £27.50 for three courses, while dinner is £60 for three courses à la carte. An eight-course tasting menu is priced at £70 (£108 with paired wines), while its vegetarian counterpart is £60 (£98 with wine). Graham says there are no plans to hike the prices on the back of the second Michelin star.

TASTING MENU

  • Amuse bouche
  • Ceviche of hand-dived scallops with seaweed and herb oil, kohlrabi and frozen horseradish
  • "Risotto" of squid with pine nuts, sherry and cauliflower
  • Celeriac baked in ash with hazelnuts and a kromeski of wild boar
  • Roast cod with grilled leeks, hand-rolled macaroni and truffle purée
  • Pyrenean milk-fed lamb with baked Jerusalem artichokes and winter savory milk
  • Pre-dessert
  • Raviolo of rhubarb with buttermilk and hibiscus
  • Cheese (optional)

    POACHED BREAST AND CONFIT LEGS OF PIGEON WITH CEVENNES ONIONS AND LIQUORICE

INGREDIENTS (Serves four)

  • 4 large 500-550g pigeons
  • Sea salt
  • 200g chanterelles (prepped, cleaned, washed and dried)
  • 50g butter
  • Chives (finely chopped)
  • 4 liquorice sticks
  • Dried fennel branches
  • Balsamic vinegar
  • Duck fat

For the onion tart

  • 4 small rounds of puff pastry
  • 2 Cevennes onions (cut into wedges and roasted)
  • Winter savory
  • 2 Jerusalem artichokes (peeled and thinly sliced)

For the onion purée

  • 3 Cevennes onions
  • 30g butter
  • Cream to adjust
  • Burning charcoal

For the onion and liquorice compote

  • 3 Cevennes onions (sliced)
  • 20ml vegetable oil
  • A small piece of smoked bacon
  • 1 liquorice stick
  • Sea salt

For the pigeon sauce

- 50ml vegetable oil 51. Carcasses from pigeons

  1. Pigeon livers (finely chopped)
  2. 50ml Madeira
  3. 20ml sherry vinegar
  4. 1 banana shallot (sliced)
  5. 6 button mushrooms (sliced)
  6. 500ml brown chicken stock
  7. Salt and pepper METHOD

Remove breasts from pigeons and peel off their skins. Place pairs of breasts together and sous vide in small vacuum bags.

Remove legs and wings, lightly salt with a tablespoon of sea salt, then place in the fridge for six hours. Wipe off all the salt, then put the legs and wings in warm duck fat and stew gently until tender. Remove from the fat and place in the fridge between two small trays.

Remove the hearts and livers from the carcasses and reserve. Clean out the innards and lungs and discard.

For the pigeon sauce

Chop the carcasses and roast in a little vegetable oil until golden, then add the chopped shallots and button mushrooms and caramelise. Deglaze with Madeira and sherry vinegar and add the brown chicken stock. Transfer to a small pan and simmer for 30 minutes. Pass through a fine chinois and reduce to a light glaze. Season. Lightly cook the livers in the pan with a little seasoning and add to the sauce.

For the onion purée

Cut the onion into wedges and lightly roast until tender. Place on a rack and cook over charcoal that is burning in a small tray and cover tightly with foil. Barbecue until soft and smoky. Place in a pan then add butter and milk, and boil, then purée until smooth.

For the onion and liquorice compote

Caramelise until nice and dark with bacon, a little vegetable oil and the liquorice. Add a little sea salt. Reserve and keep warm.

For the onion tart

Roast the wedges of onion and cool and lightly season. Place some slices of Jerusalem artichoke on the pastry and brush with butter. Add the savory. Bake until crisp and layer with slices of roasted onion.

To finish

Poach the pigeon in a water bath at 63˚C for 13-15 minutes and keep warm. Sweat the chanterelles in a little butter and finish with chives. Warm the tart in the oven for three minutes.

Caramelise the pigeon legs until crispy. Place the legs on some dried fennel sticks and flame with a torch then cover with a glass cloche. Sear the pigeon heart and wing and place on a liquorice skewer.

On a large plate put a swirl of the onion purée, a quenelle of onion compote and the tart. Carve the pigeon in half and place on a pile of chanterelles and finish with the sauce. Serve the legs on the side and remove the cloche at the table.

THE HARWOOD ARMS

Graham launched the Harwood Arms with restaurateur and TV chef Mike Robinson and publican Edwin Vaux in late 2008.

The 60-cover pub in Fulham, west London, underwent a minor refurbishment on a shoestring budget, before opening with ex-Ledbury chef Stephen Williams in charge of the kitchen.

Graham says he had no ambition to open another business besides the Ledbury until he met the 27-year-old chef.

"Stephen worked for me at the Ledbury and I found someone with tremendous talent who needed to be given the opportunity to do something he's really good at and passionate about," Graham explains.

"A lot of people find the idea or the restaurant first and then look for the right chef. I found Stephen first and then we went looking for the right place for him."

Graham has never donned the chef's whites at the Harwood Arms and it is Williams' cooking that stands at the heart of the success of the pub, which won the Catey Menu of the Year award in 2009 and is the first and only Michelin-starred pub in London.

It's a menu of exclusively English produce - the current meat is game, vegetables are celeriac and turnip, and fish is rainbow trout or Cornish cod. Williams describes his food as approachable British food that is respectful of classic British cooking.

"But we're also making it fun and social, and not too formal," he adds.

Winning a Michelin star was a big surprise to both Graham and Williams.

"I had no idea or expectation that it was coming," Williams says.

"I'm delighted that people are enjoying the pub and the food and it's an honour to have been recognised in this way. There's lots of pressure now; lots to live up to."

The Harwood Arms
27 Walham Grove
London SW6 1QR
Tel: 020 7386 1847

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