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Meet the seconds-in-command

22 February 2007

Successful chefs can't be in the kitchen all the time, especially when their fame sees them taking on additional projects. Janet Harmer meets some of the seconds-in-command who keep the business running when the boss is not around

Ashley Palmer-Watts
Ashley Palmer-Watts
Ashley Palmer-Watts

Age: 29
Position: Head chef, the Fat Duck, Bray, Berkshire
The boss: Heston Blumenthal

Originally from Dorset, Ashley Palmer-Watts joined the Fat Duck soon after he had eaten there to celebrate his 21st birthday in 1999. He previously worked at Le Petit Canard in Maiden Newton in his home county. "It is difficult to explain, but I felt drawn to the place," he explains. "It was very different then from how it is now - the meal we had was quite rustic and hearty and there was no tasting menu - but it was distinct from anywhere else."

Initially, Palmer-Watts worked for Heston Blumenthal for nothing during his holidays. Then he got a call with a offer to join the Fat Duck's brigade of five chefs. He was appointed head chef in 2003 and today heads a team of 27 chefs, who include up to 10 stagières at any one time.

Palmer-Watts's position involves writing menus and dish development alongside Blumenthal, together with the day-to-day management of the kitchen, which includes achieving the gross profit, overseeing the quality of ingredients and new suppliers, and leading the team.

"And then, all day, every day, there is constant training, both in the kitchen and with the front-of-house staff," he says. "As well as teaching the staff in the restaurant, we've taken all the restaurant staff on training days to an oyster farm in Colchester and a mushroom foraging day in the New Forest.

"During service I'm on the pass, constantly tasting and monitoring, making sure the food we send out is what we intend to deliver."

On the plus side, Palmer-Watts has found it rewarding to have been part of the evolution of the 46-seat Fat Duck over the past seven years, during which he has constantly tweaked recipes and dishes with Blumenthal. The only downside is that there are never enough hours in the day to do the job he loves.

"Working with Heston is truly inspirational," says Palmer-Watts. "As well as his constant drive for perfecting food and getting the best out of ingredients without overcomplicating dishes, he is also a fun and exciting person to be with. He constantly inspires enjoyment among the staff in what we do and in the experience of eating here among the customers."

The boss says "Ashley is my right-hand man and has been with me for over seven years. He will not compromise perfection and is fastidious in his attention to detail. His enthusiasm and assistance with my menu research and development work is fundamental. It is imperative that continuity is maintained in a restaurant like the Fat Duck and, as my head chef, I have always been able to rely on Ashley 100%. He is an invaluable member of the team."

Sian Rees
Sian Rees
Sian Rees

Age: 29
Position: Head chef, Galvin Bistrot de Luxe, London
The bosses: Chris and Jeff Galvin

After leaving catering college at the age of 17, Sian Rees arrived in London from her home town of Kidwelly in Carmarthenshire. She joined Claridge's as a commis chef under John Williams and left four years later as demi chef de partie.

Rees's move to the Orrery to work for Chris Galvin was the start of what, so far, has been an eight-year-long stint working for the Galvin brothers. She moved to L'Escargot to work with Jeff after Chris left the Orrery, and when the brothers opened Galvin Bistrot de Luxe in September 2005 she joined them as their sous chef. Rees was promoted to head chef, in charge of an 11-strong brigade, in May 2006.

"It was initially quite worrying standing in for Chris and Jeff if they're both away, as people expect them to be here every day. I'm also very aware that I have to uphold their reputation.

"I manage the day-to-day running of the kitchen - although Jeff is here most of the time and Chris moves between here and the Hilton [where he runs Galvin at Windows] - as well as write the daily changing menu, with input from both Jeff and Chris.

"During service I'm either on the pass or on the sauce section, which I enjoy, as I like to be involved. I think the rest of the brigade didn't like it at first that, apart from one apprentice, I'm the only woman in the kitchen. But once they could see that I was prepared to get in there and cook alongside them, I think they started to respect me."

Rees describes the Galvin brothers as being enormously inspirational, but in very different ways. "Chris is the more approachable one and a fantastic teacher - he has plenty of time for everyone. Jeff is stricter and ensures everyone is in line. He ensures standards are always high."

The boss says "Sian's key strengths are her attention to detail, her dedication and ability to maintain standards set. She is also very loud for such a tiny Welsh girl - we all take notice of her." (Chris Galvin)

Stevie McLaughlin

Age: 30
Position: Head chef, Andrew Fairlie at Gleneagles, Auchterarder, Perthshire
The boss: Andrew Fairlie

At 16 years of age Stevie McLaughlin wanted to be the best chef in Glasgow and sought a job at the restaurant which he believed to be the best in the city at the time - One Devonshire Gardens - where Andrew Fairlie was the head chef.

"I was absolutely petrified when I first met Andrew, but then calmed down a bit when I found that he was smaller than me," says McLaughlin. "There was no doubting, though, that he was big in reputation and had a powerful aura about him. I'm both an employee and a fan."

Initially, McLaughlin worked at One Devonshire Gardens for one day a week, for no pay, while he was a student at Glasgow College of Food Technology. He eventually landed a full-time job there in 1992, having briefly worked at the sister hotel, Malmaison.

When Fairlie moved to Glenaeagles in 2001, McLaughlin followed him and six months ago was appointed head chef. "It is an incredible honour to be part of one of the best kitchens in Scotland, if not the UK," he says, referring to the 10-strong brigade that cooks dinner for the 44-seat restaurant six nights a week. "Andrew and all the guys who work here are phenomenal."

As well as being involved in menu development, a major part of McLaughlin's job revolves around training staff. "Keeping the guys inspired is a huge part of what I do - they come to me with all their problems, both work-related and personal ones concerning girlfriends. During service I'm on the pass, making sure the guys are on their toes and keeping their peckers up. I rely on them and they rely on me.

"Working with these guys is easily the best part of the job. What I'm not very good at is delegating jobs to them. If there is a big bag of onions to be peeled, then I gather a group around and we all do it together in no time."

The boss says "Stevie is very self-disciplined and self-motivated, loyal and able to manage the kitchen when I'm not here. We've worked together for so long now that he almost second guesses me."

Tristan
Tristan
Tristan Welch

Age: 29
Position: Head chef, Pétrus, London
The boss: Marcus Wareing

Following stints at City Rhodes and Le Gavroche in London, at L'Arpège with Alain Passard in Paris, and in his first head chef position - "when I was still far too young and naïve" - at Glenapp Castle in Ballantrae, Ayrshire, Tristan Welch joined Pétrus as Marcus Wareing's sous chef in June 2005. He had met Wareing two years earlier on winning the Gordon Ramsay scholarship and had stayed in touch.

Before officially being appointed head chef in February 2006, Welch had to prove that he could run the kitchen on a day-to-day basis. This he did admirably, and today heads a brigade of 18 who together cook for the 65-seat, one-Michelin-starred restaurant.

"My most important jobs as head chef are the development of the menu and making sure the business makes money, is well staffed and they are well trained. Most afternoons Marcus or I do some kind of master class with the boys, such as boning a suckling pig. Developing the staff and instilling excitement in them is so important in taking the restaurant forward.

"I run the service on my own when Marcus is at the Savoy Grill, or in tandem with him when he's here."

For Welch, the creativity involved in his job is what drives him. "There is a great platform here to be creative, with such a superb kitchen at my disposal, with fantastic equipment, staff and quality of ingredients. As long as we are on budget, we have very few limitations. I feel very privileged. The only downside of the job is having to use the computer.

"Working with Marcus is totally inspiring. We have a similar temperament and have a similar ethos - always aiming for the highest standards without compromise."

The boss says "Tristan is a complete perfectionist and runs the kitchen as if it is own business and his own money is involved."

Chris Dobson

Age: 31
Position: Head chef, Café 21, Newcastle
The boss: Terry Laybourne

After an early career at such prestigious establishments as Chewton Glen in New Milton, Hampshire, and Kildare Hotel and Country Club in Ireland, and working alongside Paul Heathcote in Lancashire, Chris Dobson moved to Newcastle to work for Terry Laybourne. He joined as chef de partie at what was then the Michelin-starred 21 Queen Street, which less then a year later was reborn as the more informal 70-seat Café 21.

"At first I was gutted at the change, as I was only used to working in Michelin star-style places," says Dobson. But, soon after, he was appointed head chef and now every day rises to the challenge of making money out of cheaper ingredients.

Dobson oversees the kitchen on a daily basis, with Laybourne now based at the city's newly opened hotel, Jesmond Dene House. "I also do the prep and cook on the meat and fish section every day order the ingredients using as much fresh produce from local farmers as possible and write the menus - of which we have four every day. About 60% of the dishes are Terry's, the rest come from me.

"I love cooking every day. It's why I do the job. On the downside, there is just never enough time to teach every member of the brigade. Altogether, there are 11 of us in the kitchen, including two apprentices and the pastry chef."

A new challenge faces Dobson this year with the planned relocation of Café 21 to bigger (90 seats) and buzzier premises in nearby Trinity Gardens.

"I'm very excited - particularly about the brand-new state-of-the-art cooking equipment. I know we can fill the seats, as we could currently fill the restaurant three times over on a Saturday night. The new restaurant will be open all day and we plan to serve 200 covers every Saturday evening."

The boss says "Chris's ability as a cook underpins everything. However, his key strength is his ability to lead - which probably comes from a combination of a cool, calm head, a self-effacing nature, an ability to inspire his team and command their loyalty, a charitable outlook - sometimes! - and a strong work ethic… and, of course, a unique ability to put up with me."

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