Chef Interview: Billy Drabble (November 2008)

Posted on: November 1st, 2008 by Simon Carter & Daniel Darwood

For over 10 years Billy Drabble has held a Michelin Star at Aubergine. A to Z restaurants – now London Fine Dining – were thrust into the limelight in 1998 when Gordon Ramsay packed his bags and set up on Royal Hospital Road.

They found a new chef – Billy Drabble – to take on the media spotlight and he has shone ever since, gaining a Michelin Star for Aubergine.

Confident in their brand and with a feather in the cap of their long standing head chef, London Fine Dining have taken Aubergine to Marlow. They could not have found a happier setting than The Compleat Angler, replete with fantastic views of the Thames and a beautiful dining room.

Billy found some time to speak to Simon Carter and Daniel Darwood of fine-dining-guide. Interview took place: 1st November 2008.

Postscript: Billy Drabble has subsequently moved to Seven Park Place, St James Hotel Restaurant London (Septemeber 2009).

Billy Drabble

Tell us a little background about yourself?

I started many years ago doing a three year course at Norwich City College. Upon leaving I went, for the following three years, to the Grand Hotel in Eastbourne to work for Keith Mitchell at The Mirabelle.

Then I went to London, where for a year and a half, was working for Philip Britton at The Capital Hotel. Next on my CV was Chez Nico at Ninety Park Lane where, over a three year period, I became a junior sous chef and did the fish section. It was a good time at Nico’s, I started about a month after they got the third Michelin Star.

From there I went to Pied a Terre and worked under Tom Aikens as sous chef: Tom and I have crossed paths a few times – he was the year above me at college and worked at the The Mirabelle the year before me too. It was a really hard kitchen; the hours we did we insane but we kept the two (Michelin) stars.

Then a job came up at Michael’s Nook as head chef, I left Pied a Terre in the July, started at Michael’s Nook in the August and received my first Michelin Star in the January. July 1998 came around and Gordon Ramsay had left The Aubergine and I started there just over 10 years ago on 1st September.

Which of your restaurant experiences proved the most inspirational?

They were all different and each brought something to me: Mirabelle at Eastbourne was good because it was a small and fairly quiet restaurant, this allowed the chef to take time out to teach the basics of what was required to be a proper chef in the real world.

The capital was good because Philip’s food was different from anything being done elsewhere – the way he made his sauces, the way he cooked. We also went down the market twice a week to buy vegetables; I remember sorting through Girolle mushrooms at 5am in the morning trying to pick out the small ones (laughing).

Nico taught the need to do the simple things well, less is more and preparation is key – you don’t need too many garnishes on a plate, just let the ingredients speak for themselves.

Tom (Aikens) was tough, I remember we would be in at 5am going down the market and finishing at 12.30am to 1am. At the time, Tom’s food was very complicated, I remember being on the pastry section, we made around 50 different Petits Fours and a dozen different breads. Everything was labour intensive and multi-layered.

It was important experience to work on the pastry section, most chefs shy away from it but those who work in my kitchen have to do their time on all the sections. After all, I say to them, “If you want to be a head chef one day you have to have done everything well to be able to teach and show others how to do them well and that includes pastry”.

Michael’s Nook taught me how to be a Head Chef, which was a learning curve in itself. Then of course, The Aubergine, where the whole world is watching and asking “Gordon Ramsay has left what’s going on there?”

Who owns Aubergine?

The owners are London Fine Dining, that used to be called A to Z Restaurants. There’s been some juggling of ownership over the last ten years but the restaurant group is basically, The Aubegine, Zafferano, L’Oranger, Alloro, Edera and Memories of China.

How would you describe your cooking style?

It’s kind of new classical French with English ingredients as much as possible.

How do you source your ingredients?

I spend a lot of time sourcing the ingredients: for example, I have an excellent fish supplier in Brixham who phones me every morning and tells me what’s come off the boat that day. I have another in Dorset that I can phone up at 11pm to midnight every night and find out what they’ve got for the next day. Langoustines and hand dived Scallops come from Scotland. I have a great supplier for meats in Cumbria and I’m on the phone to them two or three times a day, I was on the phone this morning and he said he’d have some great Gloucester Old Spots in the next three weeks so I should plan a pork dish. I have great relationships with them and trust them implicitly.

What about local suppliers?

Yes, we’re planning on researching sourcing locally from after Christmas. I think it’s important to have strong local relationships – its good for the community and good for business. Naturally it’s a balancing act, I won’t source something for the sake of it being local, we can’t compromise on needing the best but at the same time we have to support each other in the community.

How do you conceive a dish? Do you have a taste memory?

Broadly speaking from drawing on experience, including, if you want to put it that way, a taste memory. Essentially I cook from the heart rather than the head, although the trial and error element 90% is in my head, the conception comes from the heart.

If you have regulars coming in once a week it’s important to turn over the menu fairly frequently and for real regulars I will try and occasionally cook something off menu.

Is Marlow the new Ludlow?

I don’t think about it really. There’s The Waterside and The Fat Duck not too far away and on the other side Danesfield House, Vanilla Pod and The Hand and Flowers. Hopefully we sit somewhere in the middle and meet the needs of the local dining public. People might ask about the competition but in Chelsea I’m used to having Tom Aikens and Gordon Ramsay just down the road. We’ll just cook what we cook and hope that people like it and keep coming back. I haven’t seen such a beautiful setting for a restaurant as this room in the Compleat Angler.

How do you split your time between the two restaurants?

I’m quite lucky in that the two restaurants are closed on different days, I will tend to split my time according to where needs must. I have absolute faith in Miles here; Miles knows my food and has been with me as sous chef for four years. He heads a brigade of five that may become six. Martin in Chelsea has been with me for four years and was with me as a commis at Michael Nook, he too heads a brigade of five. So I’m very lucky in knowing that I can delegate and if I say how I want it then that is how it will be done. It’s a good thing for the team because you push them, nurture them and respect them and then they see Miles become a head chef and ask themselves “could that be me in a few years time?”

How would you describe the kitchen environment? Is it quiet or noisy?

It’s fairly quiet, everyone knows what they’re doing and they get their heads down and do it. I think if you shout and scream all the time people go deaf to it. I think if you teach people and stay calm you get much more from them. Having said that I will show people, show them again and then again but if they’re still not getting how to put a piece of fish in the pan then I may say “Come on, wake up.” So if I do shout, they’ll know there’s a reason – they need to get moving.

When I was younger I did from time to time lose my temper; I was 26/27 years old when I took over at Aubergine and to begin with the systems were not in place and there was a pile of pressure. Over time you get older and wiser, better organised and develop other perspectives in life – like starting a family – it all helps to mellow you in your approach.

You have a PR company Cooke and Brand, what campaigns are they doing to ensure people come to restaurants of this calibre in this economic climate?

They’re very good, I speak to them often. We have an official meeting once a month to see how we’re drip feeding awareness into the market and keeping the name “out there.” For example, we had the first organically certified Oysters in England and were looking for an article about that – just to get placements in magazines and so on.

Throughout your career the guides have smiled upon you, what do you think of the guides?

I think they’re important. As you get a little bit older you lose a little less sleep over them. Yes Michelin is very important, yes AA is very important, yes I’d love to get two stars and five rosettes and the rest of it but that’s not my decision. So long as customers are coming through the door and they’re happy that’s the main thing. The Guides sure help bringing people in but it’s a balance, the people who come through the door are the most important. We like to think we treat everyone the same; if a Michelin inspector comes in we would treat them exactly the same, we wouldn’t be true to ourselves should we treat him or her any differently.