Chefs spend their lives cooking for other people but how important is it for them to eat out at other restaurants? Hilary Armstrong investigates
It's fair to say that at the end of a long shift, after what was probably a tiring and demanding week, the last place you feel like going to is another restaurant. But checking out the competition, your peer group and the legends of our glorious industry- locally and further afield - is a crucial part to any chefs' development.
Eating out in restaurants - not just cooking in them - is increasingly seen as part of the job description of any chef of ambition. It's not enough to be able to cook - chefs need to know who is cooking what and where.
"Traditionally, the manager went out sometimes, the chef went out sometimes," explains Galvin At Windows' general manager, Fred Sirieix. "But in the last five or 10 years, people have started to realise how important it is to keep up with what's going on."
While knowing what's in and what's out is useful, it's not actually the main reason why at Galvin Restaurants all the younger chefs are encouraged to dine out regularly. Jeff Galvin explains: "I know from personal experience how important it is. We have chefs start with us at 16 or 18. By 26, 27 - if they stay with us - they could be quite senior, maybe running a kitchen for us, so they need to have some knowledge about wine and how food and wine go together.
"I'm still playing catch up myself. Senior chefs have to be able to talk to customers who might ask them whether a Côte du Rhône goes with a particular dish."
Nathan Outlaw puts it more bluntly: "They can be a bit weird chefs, trust me, they can! They need to get out more. We all get hung up on our own plates of food but we need to see life as a customer."
Some lessons that can be imparted over the course of one dinner, could take a chef a lifetime of earfuls to learn. "Sometimes, someone will come back from somewhere - often very good restaurants," says Galvin. "And they'll say ‘Chef, you'll never guess what! I was seated near the kitchen and all I could hear was the chef shouting' or ‘There were too many flavours on the plate - I couldn't finish it' and I'll think ‘Hallelujah! You've got it!' These are things I have a constant battle with."
Stephen Terry, of the Hardwick, Abergavenny ,takes his staff to see his favourite restaurants on their yearly team outing. Last year it was the River Café. "I want to show them places that use amazing, unadulterated ingredients at their peak. The River Café is a benchmark in this country. If my staff find me demanding sometimes, then seeing my favourite restaurants at least makes it more understandable. It helps them understand how I feel about food."
But eating out is an expensive habit, one that few young chefs can afford to indulge in. Some restaurants therefore set aside a budget. Galvin, whose business stumps up for junior chefs to attend Caterer‘s Chef Eats Out events, reckons the educational value is at least 10 times greater than the actual monetary cost. His colleague at Windows, Sirieix, also has a budget to send a top-performing chef, bartender and waiter out once a month but also sometimes arranges a mutually beneficial "swap" with another restaurant.
Similar arrangements work for Camden's Namaaste Kitchen, where owner Sabir Kalim holds a monthly draw for a meal for two - at a venue chosen from a list drawn up by Kalim himself - and at Vivek Singh's Cinnamon Club, London, where three "employees of the quarter" stand to win a £150 voucher to a restaurant of their choice. Some view these as no-strings-attached perks - "I don't quiz them about it afterwards!" laughs Singh - while others expect staff to report back, albeit informally.
Singh is happy to mix business with pleasure and often conducts senior staff appraisals over a lunch. "It helps the conversation flow," he reckons.
Deciding where to spend your one precious evening off is the tricky bit. Spying on the competition is invidious. Far better to check out this week's Twitter sensation or a legendary address you've been meaning to try for ages. Some chefs love to go from place to place picking up ideas, magpie-like. Others revisit old favourites. Sriram Aylur keeps his eyes peeled for things that will work at his south Indian restaurant Quilon in London such as the Nordaq Fresh water that he's been after ever since he first tried it at Thomas Keller's Per Se in New York three years ago. He will soon be among the first UK restaurants to list it.
Toby Leigh, of Age & Sons, Ramsgate, has certain restaurants that he'll always go back to - he cites his uncle Rowley's restaurant, Le Café Anglais and his former workplace, the Anchor and Hope. "They're not doing anything new, yet it always feels new because of the way they do it," he says. "I'm not looking for the next way of balancing one potato on top of another."
Eating out locally makes sound business sense. Matthew Williamson, of Flinty Red in Bristol, says that though he heads for London for new ideas, he finds his West Country neighbours more useful sources of ideas about sustainability for example. Terry also sees the value in keeping up locally. He encourages his chefs to eat at neighbour Shaun Hill's Walnut Tree "once a year at least" not because they're competition per se but because the Hardwick and the Walnut Tree are often "bracketed together".
It's easy for London-based chefs to explore their restaurant-packed postcodes. "Out-of-towners" have to really capitalise on time off. Sue Ellis, of the Belle House in Worcestershire, makes the most of trips to London for trade shows. She takes the first train in, heads straight for the Wolseley for breakfast - "We've got a deli so I like to see what cakes they're doing" - then will try "a couple of stars" for lunch and dinner before taking the last train back - attending the show between meals.
Others will do most of their year's eating out during their annual closure. Group outings at such times work brilliantly - you can't put a price on chefs and waiters bonding over a beer, or three. Which brings us to the most important reason of all to eat out: for the sheer greedy pleasure of it. But if calling it "research and development" helps ease the pain when you hand over your credit card, then so be it.
getting the most from dining out
â- Go in with a positive attitude. Don't dwell on the negatives.
â- Let restaurants know you'll be coming. It's a courtesy many chefs appreciate. You might even get to sample some new dishes.
â- If you only have the budget for one "blow out", take recommendations from senior colleagues who eat out a lot.
â- Look out for good lunch deals. There are some good bargains around.
â- Go for tasting menus or "small plate" menus to try as much as possible.
â- Make a day of it starting with breakfast and finishing over cocktails, taking in as many establishments as possible.
â- Bond with front of house over a meal. There's no better way.
â- Pay attention to your companions' reactions. What's boring to you could be new to them.
â- Bend over backwards for industry folk when they're in your restaurant. They deserve a treat.
the benefits of dining out: A CHEF'S PERSPeCTIve
Choosing where to go is always a hard part of the experience, with great restaurants opening all the time and established chefs spreading their wings and opening new ventures in different styles, so I tend to listen to what people are saying or tweeting about new places, and try and see some of the dishes on offer before booking.
A prime example of this was Roganic, where Simon Rogan has taken his first steps into the London market. Although the restaurant had only been open for a few days when I visited for dinner, most of the people who had already eaten there had tweeted photos as they ate, so I knew how the food looked, and the style on offer, so I felt comfortable that it was the sort of place where I would enjoy the food, and the contact through Twitter with Simon, Ben Spalding (head chef) and Jon Cannon (manager) convinced me that I would enjoy the atmosphere just as much.
I consider eating out part experience and part market research, so spending the money to do it is always justified in my eyes, however, it doesn't always have to be multi-course Michelin-starred extravaganzas to justify going out. Events like Caterer's own Chef Eats Out lunches are always good value and offer the chance to swap opinions with my peers in some of the finest restaurants in Britain - the most recent at Nathan Outlaw's in Cornwall was a great day out in a stunning location with some fabulous food and interesting people, exactly what the dining experience should be all about.
Personally, I would say that I am a fairly prolific restaurant-goer and usually eat out at least once a month. I often cram two restaurants into one day, combining an early lunch with a late dinner, or even further I will spend a few days in one place where I will take lunches and dinners in several places, as I did after the Nathan Outlaw event, where I also ate at Rick Stein's Seafood restaurant, Simon Hulstone's Elephant, Paul Ainsworth's No.6 and Jack's in Padstow, all in the space of a few days.
Choosing the best meal I had is a bit tricky, but I think Grant Achatz's Alinea in Chicago just pips René Redzepi's Noma in Copenhagen for me. Both were stunning meals and great experiences - I met both chefs and had tours of both kitchens - but Alinea was an amazing night which I can still recall and remember every bite I had along the way. There was a fantastic buzz around the place when I was there, as I ate just days before the release of the inaugural Chicago Michelin guide, where chef Achatz was awarded three stars. The blog posts I wrote on Alinea are by far the most visited on my blog (thymeandplaice.blogspot.com), where I record most of my dining experiences.
The benefits of eating out are multiple. Not only does it give you the chance to sample some amazing food, it is also a great networking tool, and I have met some incredible chefs and great people through dining at their restaurants. There is also a chance to remind yourself that the meal is about the diner and putting yourself in their place can give great insight into how it feels when service is perfect.
Steve Bennett, head chef, Llansantffraed Court, near Abergavenny
funding your research and development
â- If you're employed, ask your boss if they would consider giving you - and your team - a budget to dine out for research purposes.
â- Run an employee of the month-style competition with a prize of dining out at a restaurant.
â- If you don't have a budget and your brigade can't afford to dine out themselves, organise a quid pro quo swap with colleagues and friends in the industry.
â- Arrange for your individual team members to dine in your restaurant at least once a year - it's important they understand the customer's experience.
â- Make the most of inexpensive set-lunches in restaurants - you won't find a cheaper way to dine.
â- Look out for Caterer's regional Chef Eats Out event.
Bocca di Lupo, London
"Some dishes are quite involved but others are as simple as cabbage dressed with olive oil and lemon. It's reassuring to see places with such a good reputation doing such simple things. It gives you confidence to do it yourself."
Matthew Williamson, Flinty Red restaurant and wine bar, Bristol
The Ledbury, London
"I went and was so impressed by the service I sent all the management and front of house. It's so friendly but that doesn't mean there's a lack of discipline. Maybe it's because Brett's Australian. They really are light years ahead."
Jeff Galvin, Galvin Restaurants, London
"I was blown away by the food. The produce is excellent. I talked suppliers with Marc Wilkinson and came away with a few potential suppliers."
Mary-Ellen McTague, Aumbry, Prestwich
The Seahorse, Devon
"I was knocked over. I probably had the best fish I've ever had, better than at any two- or three-star restaurants. It was the simplicity of it - just beautiful fish cooked over charcoal and served with little more than a wedge of lemon."
Nathan Outlaw, Restaurant Nathan Outlaw and the Seafood and Grill, Rock
"Nuno Mendes' cooking is the best I've had in some time. The plates look simple but the textures and techniques are fascinating. "
Sriram Aylur, Quilon, London
"If there's something in season, they're using it and in an intelligent way."
Stephen Terry, the Hardwick, Abergavenny
The Ledbury, London
"It pains me to say it but it really is superb! It was so nice to be somewhere where they really go the extra mile."
Sue Ellis, Belle House restaurant and Traiteur, Pershore
Bocca di Lupo, London
"There wasn't one particular thing, but nothing ever slipped below an ‘eight'."
Toby Leigh, Age & Sons, Ramsgate
Les Deux Salons, London
"The snail and bacon pie was sensational but what really impressed me was the level it was at even in its first week."
Vivek Singh, Cinnamon Club, London