What inspired you to enter the hospitality industry 50 years ago?
I grew up in a little town in the mountains of Austria. Everything we ate was either foraged or came from our little farm and gardens or was exchanged with neighbour's products. My mother is the most amazing cook and the flavours she achieved in cooking were just incredible and remain with me to this day as a guideline. As a young boy I always cooked with my mum and by the age of nine I decided I wanted to become a chef. The late 1960s were also a very exciting time in many aspects and I knew becoming a chef would allow me to be part of that and travel the world.
Why did you decide to come to the UK?
I spent five years in Switzerland's best hotels and I moved to Jersey for a summer season to try something a little different. I then had a contract for the winter season lined up in a famous hotel in St Moritz, but on my way back I decided (with an English girlfriend, of course!) to visit London. I loved it and stayed. My first job was at Fredericks restaurant in Camden Passage, Islington. It is still there today.
Who has inspired you most during your career?
Michel Bourdin [executive chef at the Connaught hotel, London, for 26 years until 2001] - he was a true professional, an amazing chef with enormous knowledge, who understood real cooking and food. He was responsible for guiding me to another world and level of gastronomy.
How do you inspire the staff working for you?
I try and pass on all my knowledge and wisdom. I guide my team by teaching skills, techniques, consistency and loyalty. I want them to understand real and genuine cooking and be able to differentiate it from the rubbish. I try and be fair but I am demanding. I try to guide them to the top of the profession where life as a cook is much more rewarding. I look after my team and I see them as partners.
Most of your career has been spent in hotels and restaurants; why did you make the move into the world of livery halls?
When I left 1 Lombard Street, I didn't want to get involved in another fine dining restaurant, Michelin stars or any other five-star hotel. Most of all I wanted to be independent and be my own boss.
By chance I met the clerk of Innholders Hall at a dinner; we started to chat and it turned out that they wanted to outsource their catering. It was the best move I could have made at this stage in my career and it's been a wonderful and very successful story. It has worked out extremely well for both parties. We certainly have transformed livery hall and events dining in the city and on top of all that, we've made it a financial success.
What sort of career can livery halls provide for young people entering the industry today?
The work-life balance is better. Some days we do breakfast, lunch and dinner, but others we may only do a breakfast or a dinner. We are focused on events and therefore the work is not as relentless as in a restaurant or hotel. Livery halls have become more commercial and we have a repertoire to match any other kitchen. The menus and events vary from traditional to fine dining, seasonal and gastronomic tasting menus. Everything is homemade from the best and freshest ingredients, within a civilised and professional environment.
Are you still as focused on working in the kitchen as you ever were?
Yes, I still love it. And I have the added benefit of running a business.
How do you cope with the job physically?
I work almost every day. I try and keep fit, I eat and drink well and I look after myself. I still ski as much as I can and try to be active.
Is there anything you would have changed about your career?
Not really, not the things I had control over. Perhaps I could have been a little more public, but I am comfortable with the fact that I mostly want to be in the kitchen with my team and looking after the customers.
What has been your proudest moment during your career?
Each time I achieved a Michelin star for three different establishments, and becoming a Freeman of the City of London and then a Freeman of the Worshipful Company of Cooks. I am also listed in Debrett's and have received many other awards.
How has working as a chef enhanced your life?
I have travelled, worked and dined in some of the best places in the world, and met the most amazing people. I've also learned to love fine wine, go shooting and skiing. It's given me a very good quality of life and I was able, coming from a very humble background, to give my daughter a much better start in life than my humble beginnings. I'm very proud of that.
What advice would you provide to someone considering joining the hospitality industry?
Work hard, be passionate, care about what you do, be consistent, be polite and respectful, work your way to the top and don't rush. Build excellent foundations working in various and top establishments. This will help you see out and enjoy a long and financially successful career.
Any thoughts of retirement?
Sometimes, but not really. It's not quite time yet to hang up my jacket. I still love it, I'm lucky!
Herbert Berger's career to date
2012-present Chef director, Innholders Hall, London
1998-2011 Chef-general manager, 1 Lombard Street, London (one Michelin star)
1992-1997 Executive head chef, the Café Royal, London (one Michelin star)
1988-1991 Chef partner, Keats restaurant, Hampstead, north London (Berger & Sawyer)
1985-1987 Head chef, Mirabelle restaurant
1984-1985 Executive sous chef, Claridge's, London
1980-1984 Sous chef, the Connaught, London
1978-1989 Head chef, Connoisseur restaurant (one Michelin star)
Fifty years of change
Berger reveals the biggest changes he has seen in the industry over half a decade:
Equipment has made a huge change to what we can achieve in cooking - everything from non-stick pans to food processors, purée makers to ice-cream machines. Temperature and humidity controls are also so much better in ovens. It's given us more precision.
The beginning of Nouvelle Cuisine had the biggest impact on cooking, chefs and the profession as a whole, as well as the media and PR. It inspired many new trends.
Chefs and people have become much more aware of the importance and provenance of fresh and real food.
The influence and availability of ingredients from all over the world and the impact that has had on cooking is just wonderful.
There is now an amazing choice of dining, with so many different cuisines and some very good concepts.
Dining is more relaxed and casual, less elitist these days. Even street food is a welcome new addition.
The rise of the celebrity chef for celebrity's sake is one of our biggest problems. It is misleading and damages our image.
Working conditions, hours and pay have become worse and not much is being done.
The dreadful, notorious behaviour of some chefs to gain fame is despicable and very sad.
The training of chefs and catering staff is in chaos. Hotels don't train any longer and colleges are too removed from the real industry and don't set the students up for real life in the kitchens. The bad behaviour of some chefs has not helped our image and profession; it prevents youngsters from coming into this otherwise fantastic industry.
The rise of junk food resulting in ill-health and obesity and ending the family mealtime.
Intensive farming, food waste and allergies.
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