Chef Interview: Alan Murchison (May 2005)

Posted on: May 13th, 2005 by Simon Carter & Daniel Darwood

L'Ortolan and Alan Murchison

 There is something comforting about returning to certain restaurants; there are those for which you develop an affection for the bricks and mortar. It would be easy to suggest L’Ortolan has that affect but there is so much more. Since the days of Nico, through John Burton-Race, Daniel Galmiche and now Alan Murchison, this building has seen four great Michelin starred chefs.

There is a fundamental difference with the package that is now L’Ortolan to those of the past – a very intelligent difference – Alan and business partner Abigail Lloyd have developed a combination of front of house, food, eating environment and value for money that hits the difficult leafy provinces market squarely between the eyes. Don’t get me wrong, there is no implication of compromise or cutting corners, on the contrary; the food is of the highest quality; the service impeccable; the dining room more comfortable than ever – Alan and Abi simply know how to run a restaurant that delivers the absolute best to their customers at an affordable price point.

Alan Murchison (and Abi) kindly found time to talk to late into the night one Friday evening – interview by Simon Carter, 13th May 2005.

Tell us about your background leading up to L’Ortolan

I started working as a kitchen porter from 14 so I’ve always been in the business. The first Michelin Starred kitchen was at Inverlochy Castle with Graham Newbold in 1988; he was brilliant – he’d been a personal chef to the Prince and Princess of Wales – there was no compromise in the quality of ingredients and you really had the feeling of being in one of the leading kitchens of the country. At the turn of the decade I spent a few months at Claridges, which was really tough, a complete contrast from the views from Inverlochy to never seeing daylight for a month.

I took a career break to run for Scotland for 18 months as a full time cross country runner before spending a couple of years working here with John Burton-Race. I found John excellent fun to work with – a really intuitive cook – and by the time I left I’d been promoted to junior sous chef. The next challenge was Le Manoir aux Quat Saisons, both John (Burton-Race) and Simon (Haigh, of Inverlochy Castle) had trained at Le Manoir. I was excited about working there and within two years was promoted to senior sous chef before being asked to run the cookery school. This was a turning point for me, both personally and professionally, I met my wife there and also had the chance to learn and absorb so much through some excellent stage opportunities.

You came here to run the L’Ortolan restaurant from 2001?

Well I arrived having learned so much about attention to detail: You see the whole package at Le Manoir – Raymond Blanc was such an inspiration in that way – it’s about the whole team, not just the kitchen. When you’re chef/patron you must of course ensure quality from the kitchen, but that is lost if service is no good and service is no good if surroundings and atmosphere are not right. As an example we’ve recently invested in both crockery and lighting, elements that are subtle changes to even our regular customers, which nonetheless improve the overall package. I’ll also try and chat to regular customers as it’s important to me to show appreciation to those who appreciate us.

There was a gap in your tenure at L’Ortolan, Daniel Galmiche came in for a while, what happened there?

We had a difference of opinion with the owner of the building, we didn’t have the freedom to run the business as we wanted. Spreadsheets were suggesting longer opening hours and higher prices. We felt that this could not be achieved without compromising quality and consistency to the customer. Abi and I now have an agreement where we have full control to run the restaurant as we want to and it’s working out very well. The break gave me a chance to recharge my batteries as well as fulfill a gastropub consultancy in Winchester

Your kitchen is a relaxed and controlled environment?

It always is and that extends right through from the kitchen to the front of house, we’re one big team and everyone knows exactly what they have to do and when they have to do it. There’s an unspoken trust that the whole team have in each other and that generates a relaxed and professional environment.

Do you consider yourselves as evolving with the restaurant?

We don’t stand still. We could sit back and be happy with six good starters, six good main courses and six good deserts but we’re always looking to improve, improve in every aspect of the package that is L’Ortolan restaurant. Abi and I have both been visiting two Michelin Star restaurants just to see what they’re doing and possibly stimulate some ideas.

So how would say your food on a plate is evolving?

Six months ago the cooking was safe. It had to be; we’d just come back and reopened and needed to be straight down the middle straight away. Getting the foundations right was my main criteria as there was a Michelin Star at stake. September to January was about ensuring the new brigade could deliver single or double component cooking with timing and consistency. Retaining the Star in January was great and a base from which to evolve the cooking style and signature.

What is involved in the creative process of developing a new dish?

All the team are involved. There are no egos. We all work together on thinking and creating new dishes. It may come straight away, take a dozen plates or on one occasion 27 plates and we scrapped the concept. We’ll keep working a dish until we’re absolutely sure it is something that works perfectly, that we can consistently reproduce and takes the style of the kitchen forward. Only then will it make the menu.

The menu now displays a mixture of components and techniques?

We’ve been looking at using every part of the animal and using a variety of techniques in their preparation and execution. The important thing is balance; trying to do simple perfectly executed dishes along with those that show off techniques. I’m finding with the complex dishes that it takes time to ensure we don’t over manufacture them; getting that fine balance is key and we just know when the dish has come together and works well. Within that, we like the customer to have an element of surprise and a wow factor – to walk away wondering how we achieved something – as one example the chocolate tasting plate has a combination of seven different types of chocolate with seven different textures on one plate and is source of pride as a signature dish.

Do you trial dishes on the lunch menu for the a la carte?

No not at all, it’s all made to measure as I believe the customer should have something unique whether they come at lunch, dinner, set or a la carte. The only time we may adopt or adapt a lunch dish is as a component of the gourmand menu such as the asparagus dish you ate this evening.

Tell us more about your lunch menu?

It is £18 for two courses and £21 for three. The customer gets canapés and an appetizer and three courses – for us it’s very hard work and effectively a marketing exercise. To get One Star cooking in these surroundings, with our overheads is very tough to put on for £21. There are always those customers that may go for the Carte at lunch time or have the bigger wine budgets – the set in itself is by no means a profit spinner for the restaurant.

Where do you source your supplies?

Cheese is about the only thing that we get locally. We’re unashamed that 70% of produce comes from France, we know we get consistency and quality from these suppliers. There is a particular supplier that sources from Rungis market in Paris that we use almost exclusively.

Where does your clientele come from – are they local?

We get a real mixture – there are many locals who become regulars, also business people from the M3/M4 corridor, as well as those loyal to the restaurant for generations of chefs. We do get customers from as far a-field as Ipswich, Poole and London so it’s a real mix.

You’ve just re-launched your website,, are you pleased with it?

Yes we are, it took some time to get done and there are still some improvements to finish off. It is a great vehicle for people to see what we’re doing and where we are. We’ve just completed some more food photography which we’re very pleased with and that will go on the website in due course. There are more and more customers that seem to have access to a computer while they’re on the phone to us and we can just walk them through aspects of the restaurant which when the website is of the right quality is a real benefit.

We also send an email newsletter to our database of customers. This also helps to get the phone ringing and is very cost effective and simple marketing.

Do you ask customers how they came to hear of you?

Yes we do and by far the largest proportion of new customers are by word of mouth recommendation, although they are second to the returning customer. It just shows us how important customer care is to growing our client list. The guides are also important as they each have a band of followers that take their recommendations on trust.

The Private Dining Rooms – tell us about them?

We’d had the idea of the champagne room for some time. A celebration room that is golden and light and we’re absolutely delighted with the result. The second room is more dark, masculine and rich. They are selling well but again they are like selling a car – seeing a picture of them isn’t enough, you need to see and feel them to know that you want to book one so we’ll always encourage guests to go up and take a look for themselves when they’re here.

And finally – your chef’s table, tell us about that?

Well I’ll tell you what – you’ve experienced it – I’ll leave that to you!

Alan Murchison (and Abi) kindly found time to talk to late into the night one Friday evening – interview by Simon Carter, 13th May 2005.

Husband and wife Matt & Rachel Weedon have thoroughly enjoyed the experience of working for team L’ortolan. Matt has been developing his skills working as Head Chef while Rachel has had front of house responsibilties. From June 2005 they are moving on to Glenapp Castle in Scotland. All at L’ortolan and wish them the best in their new adventure.