He's one of the few high-profile chefs to open a restaurant this year - which means the critics haven't had many top-end places to review in 2009. He also has to get it right after a parting of the ways with Gordon Ramsay and, before him, Marlon Abela. James Aufenast meets Bjorn van der Horst in the mood to set the record straight.
SCROLL DOWN TO WATCH AN INTERVIEW WITH BJORN
There are some chefs who say they don't care about Michelin stars, and they mean it. Then there are some who say they don't care about accolades but secretly obsess over the prospect - and that's actually most of them, despite what they admit to.
Bjorn van der Horst probably fits into the second category. A 36-year-old chef with a French mother, Swiss father, brought up in the USA and now in the UK is an unusual mix of nationalities. But having made his name in the kitchen under restaurateur Marlon Abela and a chef called Gordon Ramsay, he has the common trait of most ambitious chefs: immersion in the Red Book.
Van der Horst certainly dresses the top chef part, in immaculate whites and slicked-back hair with pen tucked in front pocket for last-minute ticket adjustments. Yet there's a curious lack of ego, a relaxed way about him, and he seems exotic: the dark hair and swarthiness of his mother's Spanish ancestry has carried through to make him look like a young Groucho Marx.
Van der Horst doesn't quite say "walk this way" in classic Marx brothers fashion as we step over half-sawn off floorboards in search of a place to sit, but we spend a lot of time talking about his new £2,000 Bonnet stove. Is your ambition, Bjorn, to have Michelin stars here? "The ambition is to have a really successful business and have guests leave with a big smile on their faces," he replies.
Which is fair enough, except that he could achieve precisely those aims via the brasserie part of the new Eastside Inn restaurant alone. With its place-mat menus, French bistro style food and main courses all under £20, van der Horst is firmly aiming at a more casual market. He's printing 4,000 place-mat menus, which should run out by the time three months are up - ie, as the season changes so does the menu. On these he'll serve cassoulet - "not deconstructed, but done the traditional way", or frisée salad with lardons and poached egg.
But - and this won't come as a surprise to everyone, based on his CV to date - the bistro isn't the only eating area planned. Van der Horst had the second part of the building, previously a bar called Vic Naylor's, knocked through for more top-end cooking. "I'm going to have a lot of fun with amuse bouches there, with little awakenings, introductions to what I'm about," van der Horst says. "I've lived in different parts of the world, and I want to share my experiences, my childhood memories with people." There'll be a choice of three courses at £65 or seven at £85 and diners will be able to choose the dishes for themselves or leave it up to van der Horst.
This sounds like classic Michelin fare, but is now the right time for between-courses action? "We had a bit of a shock when the market went down late last year," van der Horst admits. "We wondered whether this was the right time to go ahead" - which explains the delay from a scheduled September opening, eight months later than planned.
So has the climate got any better? "Well, we thought, ‘Let's just pursue our dream. Let's not allow circumstances to get in the way of what we want.' And in fact some things have come down in price because of the market shift, particularly in the construction."
It's a bold take on the situation, with van der Horst's can-do American upbringing coming to the fore. "Look, Sir Terence Conran says now is the time to open. Listen to the successful man," he insists. Hence £2m has been poured into the project, from private investors that van der Horst refuses to name.
Which brings us neatly to the fact that Conran's former company, D&D, has invested in a restaurant nearby called Modern Pantry, run by Anna Hansen. There's also St John two doors down from Eastside Inn, John Torode's Smiths of Smithfield and Mark Hix's Oyster & Chop House around the corner, plus the Michelin-starred Club Gascon on the other side of Smithfield market square. Isn't this part of town rather saturated with good restaurants?
"No, on the contrary, as more people get to know the area for its food, the more they'll come," van der Horst insists." I go out a lot in this area and the restaurants are doing well. There may not be the fly-by-night big-hitters buying those big bottles of wine, and the average price per cover is down as a result. But you just have to adjust your margins."
Phew, it's nice to have a hefty dose of realism. Let's just hope van der Horst is right about the area, too, because he got his previous location badly wrong. Number 164 on Sloane Street had seen Alain Ducasse, Jamie Oliver and Ian Pengelly open restaurants - and fail. And van der Horst, despite being backed by Gordon Ramsay, surprise, surprise closed there, too.
"It's just not a good site. The entrance is a big negative - you don't know what you're entering. The carpet is like an Atlantic City hotel lobby." So what made you go there? "I saw the kitchen, designed by Ducasse, with the amazing stove, saw the light flooding in, and thought ‘I can do good work here'.
That was the chef rather than the entrepreneur speaking, and since working under Ramsay van der Horst says he has "learnt a lot about the business side of things".
Generally there's no problem with his food, after all. Only Matthew Norman slated La Noisette, describing his watermelon carpaccio with black olive tapenade and feta cheese as being born of "maniacal pretension".
"I'm thinking of putting the dish on at Eastside and calling it ‘the Matthew Norman salad'," van der Horst responds.
Otherwise all his reviews have tended to be good verging on ecstatic. AA Gill wrote that his meal at La Noisette was "elegant, well made, with clear flavours that were smart, complementary and respectful of the raw material". Giles Coren described La Noisette as better than Pied à Terre and Jay Rayner called his meal "good, great in places".
Other chefs rate him, too - such as Gordon Ramsay for example. Ramsay swapped jobs for a day with Giles Coren in late 2005 and went along to review of the Greenhouse. He wrote in the subsequent review that "Bjorn needs to find someone to help him hit the heights he's clearly capable of."
"No one was particularly happy with that," van der Horst says. "But Gordon's cheeky, he's got a mouth on him, that's for sure." It smacked of public tapping up of the type that Real Madrid goes in for when it is after a particular star football player. And, lo and behold, van der Horst had soon joined Gordon Ramsay Holdings.
Many couldn't understand why, having just been awarded a rising two star, and with three in the offing, van der Horst would want to leave the Greenhouse. There he could go into the dining room and shave 30g of truffle on a plate or devise tasting menus without thinking about the cost. "The dining room was the right size for the cuisine, there was a beautiful garden. It had all the resources you would want as a chef," van der Horst says.
So why did he leave? "I wasn't happy" - which is a simple point, but an important one. Owner Marlon Abela had had his differences with previous chef Paul Merrett, and they were emerging with van der Horst, too. "Marlon's a fantastic man, and I loved working for him, but neither of us was happy by the end. I listened and listened to him, but then the question arose: what do I want?"
However, when he left the Greenhouse van der Horst found himself without the funding: whereas a £600,000-a-year rent on the Greenhouse mattered not a jot to Abela, Gordon Ramsay Holdings had to make La Noisette pay. "You need to sink serious money into that site to make it work," van der Horst says. "There should be people just at the entrance welcoming people - a huge extra expense. We didn't, and it wasn't mine, either, so I couldn't do much on the PR."
As for working with Gordon, "It was great, but the association was also in some ways a cloud. Ask any of us in that situation - Marcus Wareing would say the same. When you join him you either play the game like Jason Atherton does - and he does a very good job - or you don't. And I didn't want to - I wanted to play another game."
There are some who say, too, that Ramsay felt threatened by van der Horst - that he didn't want another three-star chef in London, and that's why he took him out of the Greenhouse.
"Really? Well, that's pretty twisted. It's crazy that there are more three-star restaurants in Holland than in the UK. But there's a bigger reason for it, and I'm going to speak too much here. We have a generation of chefs that were trained by a really angry man, and a cultural change needs to happen before more people are recognised. Some gentlemen came out of Harvey's but they were few and far between.
Van der Horst feels that the professional kitchen in the UK has to change, that those working in it need to become more respectful: "People are paying for beautiful, intricate food, and our behaviour in the kitchen has to reflect that," he says. "Young chefs should take their lead from the likes of Michel Troisgros and Patrick Henriroux of Pyramide," insists van der Horst, warming to his theme. "When you go to a three-Michelin-star restaurant you should feel extremely comfortable. Often at a one- or two-star I feel that they're trying too hard. Those successful three-star restaurants have achieved something magical, something that's beyond hard work. When it's all in tune everything just works."
That sounds like reverence of Michelin in its purest form - let's just hope it doesn't get in the way of success at Eastside.
Head chef Nick Ward (Pétrus, the Savoy Grill and formerly senior sous chef at La Noisette)
Pastry chef François Leo (head pastry chef at La Noisette, consultant chef, La Trianon, Versailles)
Restaurant director (front of house) Justine van der Horst
Restaurant manager and sommelier Thierry Sauvanot (Claridge's, Pétrus, the Savoy Grill)
May 2009 Opens Eastside Inn as proprietor
July 2006-Feb 2008 Executive chef, La Noisette
2004-2006 Executive chef, the Greenhouse
2002-2004 Executive chef, Gaia, Connecticut
1999-2002 Chef de cuisine, Picholine, Manhattan
1996-1998 Commis, rising to chef de partie at all Alain Ducasse Paris restaurants
1989-1990 Commis, Joël Robuchon
GOLD SPHERE WITH POPCORN MILK SORBET
Pop corn milk sorbet
- 550g whole milk
- 75g cream (35% fat)
- 50g milk powder
- 200g popcorn
- 2g stabilisateur super neutros
- 25g dextrose
- 50g water
- 120g caster sugar
Bring the milk, cream and water to the boil then add the sugar, dextrose, stabilisateur and milk powder and mix together. Allow to cool in the fridge. Stir the mixture well and freeze.
Araguani chocolate mousse
- 150g Araguani chocolate - at least 72%
- 300g cream (35% fat)
Melt the chocolate at 50/55°C and while doing this warm one-third of the cream gently. Add the melted chocolate to the cream, whisk and check the temperature is at 45/55°C. Slowly fold in the rest of the cream. Allow to cool.
Top with caramelised popcorn, chocolate star dust sugar and sweet whipped cream "chantilly".
Gold Chocolate Sphere
Start by filling the mould with a layer of milk chocolate. Allow to cool. Add a layer of white chocolate.
(Milk chocolate: warm to 45-48°C then cool down to 27-28°C and warm to 31°C.
White chocolate: warm to 45-48°C then cool down to 26-27°C and warm to 30°C.)