Antonin Bonnet has travelled a long journey with his current employer and soon to be business partner Marlon Abela.
Over nearly eleven years Antonin has worked in three entirely different capacities; as personal private chef to Marlon Abela; as chef at the MARC Group’s Morton’s Club; as Head Chef of the flagship restaurant The Greenhouse where, over the last near five years, he has garnered an ever increasing reputation.
Antonin has a great pedigree, too. “Three years of magic” spent in the kitchens of Michel Bras. Here’s what he had to say to Simon Carter of fine-dining-guide. Interview took place April 2010 at The Greenhouse Restaurant, Mayfair
Tell us some background about yourself?
I am from Lyon, from a family where the main focus of the day was the food we were having to accompany our daily family gatherings. My mother, aunties and my grandmother were all interested in food so it was natural and easy for me, in this family environment, to gather an interest in cooking.
The first spark of doing something with cooking professionally came from visiting a bistrot in Marseille.
It was a fascinating place – twenty years ago – and probably one of the early restaurants where half the space was an open kitchen and the other half was the dining room for customers. I was just glued to what all the chefs were doing in the restaurant.
At the time, I was 14 years old and asked if I could do a stage in the restaurant; they said yes and for the following two summers I spent a week learning in their kitchen. That was the beginning.
From my parents’ point of view, they wanted me to remain in school and achieve the best qualifications that I possibly could – like most parents they like the idea of their son becoming a ‘professional’, meaning a lawyer, a doctor or an architect.
A chef was (and is) a highly regarded profession in France but it is less straightforward – on the one hand, you always have work but on the other, you make many sacrifices. In addition relatively few are “successful” to point of being regarded in the same breath as a doctor or lawyer (to the parents of a young person). So basically my parents wanted to make sure that it was a job and not just a passing passion for me before giving their blessing.
I started cookery school at 18 and went on a number of stages through every holiday and thoroughly enjoyed every experience. I knew it was what I wanted to do permanently. It was a four year course and I finished with the top marks in the region, so my abilities were being channelled in the right place.
In my first job there were 60 chefs and it was slightly crazy; we worked ten days in a row, double shifts and at the end of it to say you were exhausted was an understatement. I stayed a year and learned a lot; about discipline, punctuality, rigour and respect. It was very difficult but an important experience.
For my next job I went south and spent two years working my way up to chef de partie in a high quality restaurant. Each year that I was there I was applying for a position at Michel Bras – the first year, couldn’t get a spot, second year, no good so by the time the third year came along I decided to try somewhere else.
I went for an interview with Marc Veyrat; at least I had called and arranged the interview with Marc Veyrat. I drove for four hours to get to the meeting, however when I arrived he was nowhere to be seen! I remember going out of the restaurant to phone home to get advice my mother said “I think someone called Michel Bras has called and left a message for you, here’s the number…” So from that same telephone cabin I called Michel Bras and he was so friendly and said, come up next weekend, I’ve got a position for you at the restaurant.
The following weekend I went to Michel Bras’ with a friend, we were invited in and Michel said he couldn’t see me right then but to have lunch on him! It was the most incredible food and I will remember every mouthful for the rest of my life! After that lunch, we sat down and chatted for thirty minutes and Monsieur Bras said that I would start at the beginning of April. I worked there for three years – three years of magic!
How did your association with Marlon Abela come about?
Well originally, directly after leaving Michel Bras, I decided to expand my horizons and move to England. I did a few bits and pieces to make some money, including a stint in the kitchen at Marco Pierre White at The Oak Room under Robert Reid, before joining up with Mr Abela.
It has been a ten year association: Three years as his personal chef, three years as the chef of Morton’s Club in Mayfair and now nearly five years as Head Chef of The Greenhouse restaurant.
How have you found the three different roles and how would you compare them?
As a private chef you have to put yourself in the shoes of the person you are working for and realise that having freshness and variety is very important. Anyone who works closely for Mr Abela will tell you that you have to dig deep, to be passionate and enthusiastic, to give a 100% and, as a personal chef, renew yourself every day in your food.
Flexibility is the key as you are feeding the same or a similar group of people all of the time, so having a flow of new dishes is very important. The role may have ranged from what I do here at The Greenhouse – a full fine dining repertoire – three times a week, through to weekend barbecues.
At Morton’s it was about providing food that is reassuring to the members. It was not about showing what you have inside, being clever or creative, but giving the customer what they need and want from a meal. For me, it was a learning process, to understand more of the first principles of food, of what is involved in the building blocks and foundations of creativity that would help me in the future.
The Greenhouse came about by complete surprise. It was 10am one morning and I was in the bar at Morton’s. I got called down and told I was taking over at lunch time at The Greenhouse. There were 45 covers. That day and indeed for the first six months I didn’t have a clue, in fact it took me about two years to reach a point where I fully understood how everything worked and figure out what I personally would like to achieve.
After the first year we retained the Michelin Star. When you have a ‘machine in place’ like the Greenhouse that has a high Michelin and media profile then you cannot make radical changes.
You have to stick to the style and product that the customers, the media and the guides are used to, before gradually bringing in your own ideas of how the kitchen should function, what the end product should be and develop a personal customer base.
You also have to look at the kitchen habits and processes of the team, changes to a ‘machine’ have to be made gradually to ensure a smooth running operation at all times.
How would you describe your gastronomy today?
I saw a new term for gastronomy – “hybrid” – where you bring together the best product with the best techniques with the best preparation. This may involve many classic recipes but with a modern twist.
The essential factor is to respect the ingredient, which means respect for the flavour. An ingredient must taste as cleanly and accurately of that ingredient as possible. If you eat Rabbit it should taste of Rabbit and so on. There is beauty in simplicity; a purity in going back to nature and perhaps those that have had the greatest genius have demonstrated the wonder of natural flavours.
From a technical perspective, a process that started at Michel Bras, is to ensure that the proportions of a recipe are exact. To gain consistency you need precise measurements of ingredients and proportions of ingredients to get the chemistry side right in the preparation of a dish. This is also helps build up a kind of reference library of building blocks and processes.
Once the process and the recipe are nailed right down, there’s the human factor: If you don’t taste, you can’t cook! Your hands, eyes and mouth are vitally important to capture the variations in product to deliver the best finished dish possible for the customer.
There may be variations in speed of the pan, the heat, the ingredient itself. So twice a day, one of the three sous chefs will go round and taste everything in the kitchen, just as a check that we are delivering consistency.
How do you go about sourcing ingredients?
We get the best that we possibly can at a price point that customers will tolerate. I have some great suppliers and will do tastings two or three times a week.
What do you think of the trend in tasting menus in high-end restaurants?
You can look at it two ways. First the tasting menu approach – where you have say a twelve course and an eighteen course menu and no a la Carte. This is easier to bring consistency and quality because the repertoire is limited to a relatively small number of items. The produce is very fresh because it is all you stock every day and the consistency will be there because it is all your team do day in, day out. You may change the menu regularly and so customers might make return visits on that basis.
Other restaurants, for example, have customers who make regular return visits and they are looking for perhaps more variety from the food, so the repertoire has to be wider. There’s plenty of room for both types of restaurant.
I like the idea of the Michelin Two Star chef in Honfleur who goes to the market and produces a tasting menu with a brigade of seven chefs that is the freshest and best tasting menu of the week. That would be ideal and I guess in Honfleur you have the product and the market to achieve that successfully.
What are your views on sous vide cooking?
For colour, texture, preservation of flavour with long slow cooking then for meat fantastic. For me, certain fish proves unsuccessful cooked in this way as there can be a kind of fermentation that changes the product. The method is good for some vegetables, for others not so good. It’s really just another tool or technique that can help get the best out of an ingredient, which may work for some kitchens and not for others…
What are your long term plans for the future?
We would like people to come to the Greenhouse and feel they are in safe hands to have a good time. In many years, perhaps be considered as one of London’s great dining institutions.
The customer always comes first but any further guide recognition would be warmly received and welcomed!