When Duck & Waffle in London's Heron Tower took the decision to open its doors 24/7, executive chef Dan Doherty knew he had to build a winning team that shared his ethos for the venture to succeed. Janie Manzoori-Stamford reports
After getting his first taste of the industry as a fresh-faced kitchen porter, Doherty spent three years doing an advanced apprenticeship with support from a (now Royal) Academy of Culinary Arts scholarship, undertaking a work placement in Michelin-starred restaurant 1 Lombard Street in London.
"It was the best thing I did because it instilled discipline and commitment in me from a very early age," he admits. "Everybody I know that graduated from that course and remained in the industry is a very, very good chef. People like Adam Byatt and my sous chef Tom Cenci. Not the old-school apprenticeship where you go and get bullied for five years at a three-Michelin starred restaurant. That's another way of going about it."
Having laid a solid career foundation, Doherty went to work at Roux Fine Dining, before taking his first head chef role at the Ambassador in Exmouth Market in 2008, followed by spells at the Empress in Victoria Park, and then the Old Brewery in Greenwich.
In March 2012, he assumed the executive chef role at Duck & Waffle on the 40th and top floor of the Heron Tower in the City of London, the second London launch from international restaurant group Samba Brands Management after Sushi Samba on the two floors below. It wasn't until he was in the depths of menu
development at a sister restaurant in Miami, ahead of Duck & Waffle's opening in August 2012, that the scale of the challenge became fully apparent. It was there that he learned of Samba Brands' owner Shimon Bokovza's plan to operate the restaurant 24 hours a day.
While many chefs might have been put off, Doherty was undeterred. "Shimon has a sparkle in his eye and you know when he's up to something," he laughs. "When he was 21, he built a ski resort in Israel. I decided that if he could pull that off, it was worth a punt here."
The business of cultivating from scratch a restaurant's reputation for exciting food and excellent service is no mean feat at the best of times, but to then maintain it while around 120 staff work to deliver a non-stop service seven days a week is a mammoth task.
It is perhaps more apparent than ever these days that chefs need more than just culinary talent in their armoury in order to run a successful restaurant, with sound business sense, a grasp of numbers and the ability to manage people all essential skills.
With the best will in the world, it would be impossible for Doherty, or indeed any other chef, to have been on hand at all times as Duck & Waffle found its feet, so how did he foster a high quality of service when contact with the entire team was so challenging? It's not surprising to learn that he quickly developed a like-minded team, with sous chef Tom Cenci taking a crucial role.
"I did my apprenticeship with Tom - we've known each other for 15 years and he's my best mate as well. We complement each other because we learned and we cook the same way. In the beginning we worked at opposite times, so that one of us was here 24 hours a day," says Doherty.
His justifiable confidence in Cenci meant that, between them, they were able to develop a strong core of five or six other sous chefs who have been on the team since day one, or thereabouts. "They are completely part of the ethos. They've learned our way and how we work," he adds.
Doherty's decision to only ask people to do the shifts they want to work has also been pivotal in ensuring high levels of morale and motivation because, in his view, there's no point making a person that likes to sleep in do the breakfast shift - the hardest slot to recruit for in comparison to the overnight posts, which are relatively easy to fill.
A restaurant that remains open all hours and offers breathtaking views across one of the most celebrated cities in the world is already brimming with reasons to visit, but if diners initially come for the sunsets, they return again and again for the food. Describing his menu as both traditional and playful, Doherty is resistant to efforts to pigeon-hole his style, preferring not to limit the ingredients and techniques he can bring to the table.
"I'm old school in the sense that there needs to be a balance of vegetarian to fish to meat dishes, light to heavy, hot to cold. If we take a meat dish off, naturally a meat dish will go on. Then it's about what we want to cook."
Inspiration can come from anywhere, with travel and eating out at other people's restaurants often acting as a catalyst for ideas.
The number of senior staff on the team as a result of the scale of the operation means that Doherty is also able to give his chefs the opportunity to develop dishes for the menu. "All my senior chefs are creative and I don't want to stifle that; I want to allow them to get their creative juices flowing."
Four to six changes are made to the menu each month in order to give the team the chance to make the most of their ideas, while the popularity of the signature dishes mean they stay on unless the seasons dictate otherwise.
"It's important for a restaurant to have these little tweaks," says Doherty. "It means it never becomes old."
Somewhat surprisingly, the dish for which the restaurant is named - a dish developed at Miami restaurant Sugar Cane Raw Bar & Grill that enjoys enduring popularity with the diners - was not so revered by The Times critic Giles Coren, who scored the restaurant 2/10 or 8/10, depending on whether he included the
duck and waffle in his 2012 review.
But with social media and online reviews sites now offering the masses the opportunity to voice their opinions, such plain criticism is perhaps not as resonant as it once was. Indeed, Doherty is convinced that even a bad review will likely result in a spike in demand for tables as foodies rush to form their own opinions.
At the same time, he's adamant that to blithely ignore feedback would be folly.
"Food is very subjective, so if someone doesn't like something, it doesn't mean it's bad," he says. "But if lots of people don't like it, take it off the menu or change it! Don't try and force it - it's just food."
Mackerel tartare with smoked vodka and pickled cucumber
Photo by Anders SchÁ¸nnemann
Recipe taken from Duck & Waffle by Daniel Doherty, published by Mitchell Beazley, £25
Preparation time: 20 minutes (if the cucumber is already pickled, otherwise two hours to three days)
Cooking time: none
- 1/4 of a cucumber, peeled and deseeded, cut into 2mm dice
- 100ml pickling liquid
- 4 fresh mackerel fillets, skinned and pin-boned
- 1 shallot, finely chopped
- 1 chive leaf, finely chopped
- 1tbs smoked vodka
- Sea salt
- 4tsp crème fraÁ®che
- 8 fresh coriander leaves
- Sourdough bread, toasted
- 200ml white wine vinegar
- 100ml water
- 80g caster sugar
- 10g salt
- Pinch of coriander seeds
- Pinch of black peppercorns
- 1 bay leaf
To prepare the pickling liquid, put all the ingredients into a large saucepan and bring to the boil, strain and allow to cool. Put the cucumber into a sterilised jar, pour over the pickling liquid and seal the jar tightly. This is best done three days in advance, but a couple of hours will be fine too. Simply cover the cucumber with the pickling liquid and allow it to work its magic. When ready to serve, slice the mackerel into 5mm cubes and place in a mixing bowl. Drain the pickled cucumber and add to the bowl, then add the shallot, chives and smoked vodka and season with salt.
Divide between serving plates, and finish each one with a teaspoon of crème fraÁ®che and a couple of coriander leaves. Serve with fresh sourdough toast.
Chefs of Tomorrow - supporting rising young talent
In recognition of the value of his own route to the top, Doherty is a keen supporter of today's apprentices, with a student from Bournemouth on the team through the Royal Academy of Culinary Arts, on top of countless placements in conjunction with Jamie Oliver's Fifteen, Westminster Kingsway College and Galvin's Chance. The investment is expensive but worth it, he says, if not for the restaurant, then the wider industry.
At the same time, ambitious kitchen porters are given the opportunity to get their first feel for the chef life with a six-month stint in the restaurant's production kitchen in the basement - jokingly referred to in-house as the 'academy' - where they learn knife skills, organisation, stock rotation, packing away deliveries and cleaning.
Not content with simply helping those on the first rung of the career ladder, Doherty has gone a step further and launched a new scheme aimed at showcasing rising young British culinary talent. The Chefs of Tomorrow initiative held its first event last month at the Pizarro Restaurant in London's Bermondsey with a line-up comprising Jonathan Hawthorne (Quay in Sydney), Alex Dome (Petersham Nurseries, London), Lewis Sully (Duck & Waffle) and Dani Molero (Pizarro) assuming responsibility for the ticketed service.
But while supporters of the scheme, including Damian Clisby (Petersham Nurseries), Ollie Couillaud (Sam's of Brighton) and Mark Poynton (Alimentum, Cambridge), are as passionate as Doherty, he's finding that their numbers are swelling very slowly.
"For the number of restaurants we have here in the UK, there should be loads. People need to care more about it. It's frustrating because everybody complains, but very few actually do anything about developing future talent," says Doherty. "My biggest fear is that it's down to insecurity. I'm not going to stop one of my guys progressing. Sometimes you need to have that trust. If they leave at the first opportunity, it wasn't meant to be in the first place."
A blog on bloggers
In the first in a series of guest posts for The Caterer's blog Guide Girl, Dan Doherty examines the growing role that food bloggers are playing in the restaurant industry
Relax, this isn't another chef rant aimed at our blogging friends. In fact, it's quite the opposite. Last month saw the first event in my Chefs of Tomorrow initiative come to life with a dinner at the Pizarro restaurant in London. The chefs of the future were showcasing what they can do and, in some cases, blowing people away with their food. However, towards the end of the night I came to realise we had bloggers in our midst. We had made a decision not to give away any tickets, so they had bought tickets unannounced and got in under the radar. These were bloggers that are already established as the 'not-so-bad ones' - I'm jesting; well, a little. But it made me think, why are they here?
We chefs can be so self-absorbed as to think they are reviewing us. But by doing so we forget that there are some people who are only trying to support this wonderful industry. By coming to a dinner of this nature, I think the dynamic is changing. Rather than being only known for the aforementioned reviewing, they are actually helping to develop the talent of tomorrow.
They paid, came, ate, helped raise the profile of the chefs, and gave them frank yet encouraging feedback. And importantly, they helped me teach these young chefs that succeeding in this industry is more than just cooking. It is also about making sure the food connects with the people you are cooking for.
We all know that food is very subjective, but talking to the people who write about you and understanding what they thought, and then taking that information back to your kitchen, allows you to move forward. Of course, judging what is valuable or not is down to the individual, but I believe the conversation with bloggers and critics can be a healthy thing. Likewise, allowing them to understand why you served them sweetcorn pannacotta with a parsley sorbet is important too! Knowledge is power.
Of course, I'm making sweeping generalisations towards bloggers and their intentions. There is a chance my current buoyant feelings will quickly be shot down by someone's self-serving attitude. But what I am realising is that there are some great bloggers who feel supporting the less experienced is important, exciting and very much a part of what they do.
Needless to say, there are also some pretty ignorant, self-preoccupied chefs in this world too. But the realisation that bloggers can play an important part in the development of chefs is one important step forward in my book.
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