Brasserie Bar Co's executive chef tells Alice Crinnigan what it's like to work with Raymond Blanc at Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons
Apparently I cooked my first meal at the age of five. I woke up one Sunday and told my mother to stay in bed as I was going to cook a roast for the family. I didn't have a burning desire to be a chef growing up, but my mother was a fabulous cook so it rubbed off. She suggested that I go to catering college when I was 16 and I've never looked back.
I learned my passion for food while working in Norway. It was my first time on the job and I was exposed to these amazing chefs. This kitchen would have whole reindeer or huge salmon constantly streaming through the door. There was all this "real food" that was mine to play with and to make the most wonderful plates with. It was just fabulous.
My food is all about full flavours that smack you in the mouth and make you want to lick the plate clean.
I didn't know anything about French food when I started at Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons. I learned everything from Raymond Blanc. He spends so much time training, teaching, developing your palate; developing your understanding of textures, flavour combinations and presentation on the plate - I was just absorbed.
In those days we'd start at 8am and finish at midnight and not think anything of it. You're in your own world; in a team where everyone's enjoying themselves.
The main things I learned from Raymond were organisation, systems, training, consistency and communication. All that and the importance of the provenance
of ingredients. You'd have amazing suppliers bringing incredibly seasonal produce into the kitchen that you'd never seen before. He'd open up boxes and ask,
"Has this duck had a happy life?", or go around emptying bins to make sure we weren't wasting food.
When creating a dish, the most important question I ask myself is, "What can the chefs do to mess this up?" You've got to read and re-read the recipe. If there's any ambiguity it'll go wrong. Raymond and I complement each other well when we're constructing recipes together. He's incredibly creative and always wants to give more, and I suppose you'd say I'm the more practical voice in the partnership. He's right, of course, and we should always be striving for excellence, but there comes a point where I have to say 'no', because I've got eight chefs and 300 people waiting for food. You can have wonderful dishes, but if they're too complex to be reproduced consistently, why are you putting it on the menu?
Offering great-quality food at an affordable price can be done. It's a lot of work and food costing is a constant battle, but it's all about working with your suppliers. I'm a great believer in seasonal produce as you know you're getting the best price. Local, seasonal produce is a major part of our philosophy. Plus, it'll always look and taste stunning.
Training is the top priority for Brasserie Bar Co. It's what makes us different. I run a rigorous training programme where chefs could make up to eight plates of one dish until it's perfect. I have their undivided attention and pass on the skills I learned with Raymond: flavour, seasoning, butchery, fishmongering, presentation - you name it. There are good chefs but there aren't many great chefs who want to work hard. And with us it is hard work because we're cooking
every single ingredient from fresh. When we hire someone we train, we develop and we promote. They'll become head chef and eventually get moved to a bigger site. Training is an investment.
I've been with Brasserie Bar Co for almost 13 years and expansion isn't slowing down. I'll be overseeing the opening of another 15 White Brasserie pubs over the next three years. While my vision for the company is expansion, it's also about development. It's about pushing the brand in erms of quality and value.