Chef Interview: Brett Graham (March 2010)

Posted on: March 12th, 2010 by Simon Carter & Daniel Darwood

Brett Graham is a man who has achieved a great deal in a relatively short space of time: Holder of two Michelin Stars in his flagship restaurant (The Ledbury) and a Michelin Star at a second (The Harwood Arms).

From spending time with Brett, one cannot help but feel admiration for a near boundless ‘never quite satisfied, can’t relax’ inner energy, balanced by a generosity of spirit. One suspects, too, that there remains a level of untapped potential, which may see him go to the very top of the world-wide stage of this great industry.

Brett found time to speak to Simon Carter of fine-dining guide.

Brett Graham

Tell us some background about yourself?

I grew up in a small town, just outside of Newcastle (Australia), called Williamtown. There was no real food culture and going to smart restaurants was not something we did in the family, not something I was really aware of anybody doing.

I was never someone who had a mental picture of a mapped out career, although I remember having been vaguely interested in becoming a vet.

One day, this mate of mine came back from England who had been restaurant cooking – he said I really should give that a try. I was open to the idea and when, at the age of 15, a week’s work experience placement came up at a restaurant called Scratchley’s on the Wharf, Newcastle, I took the job. I was hooked; fascinated by the whole experience!

The week of work experience turned into two and a half years of work (at Scratchley’s) – I left school as early as possible because I couldn’t wait to start cooking; I don’t regret that, although gaining your HSC qualification is typically a sensible thing to do as a young Australian.

As I was about to turn 18, a chef called Liam Tomlin – who was from Ireland and had worked in a number of very good places in Great Britain and Ireland – was opening a restaurant in Sydney; it would prove to be an excellent natural progression.

However I recall not understanding too much; for example, as I walked past the head chef on my first day, slapped him on the back and said ‘how yer doin,’ mate?’ He took to me to one side and said ‘what are you doing?’ I had not had proper exposure to the chef hierarchy in a professional kitchen before and didn’t realise that it is a trade where you simply do not have familiarity with your boss. (laughing).

When the restaurant opened – and it was aiming to be a top three-hatted restaurant – it was huge pressure. When the first order came in the head chef called the order ‘rien avant; one John Dory one salmon’ – the following lunchtime he called a similar order starting the same ‘rien avant…’ So I walked round the pass and said to the head chef, ‘hey mate, you know that guy ‘rien avant’ was also in yesterday!’ I thought I was helping and of course ‘rien avant’ means mains only (literally ‘nothing before’). (laughing).

For about 6 months I would say ridiculous things like that all the time – like trying to figure a recipe and asking ‘what’s vin roogee [sic].’ (Laughing)

But the sheer speed of learning experience and pressure set me up very well – a lot of perseverance and hard work; we went through 35 chefs in 6 months and I stayed two and half years. He (Liam, who believed in me) made me realise that I would have to work 80 plus hours a week and have fatigue headaches and sometimes feel sick with tiredness but it was part of what was required to become successful in the trade!

I look back on those two and half years as singularly the most important in my career as they led to The Square, which in turn led to The Ledbury.

How did your association with Phil Howard come about?

One of the chefs that left in the first 6 months travelled over to London and spent some time at The Square, when he came back we were in touch and he spoke very highly of Phil Howard and the restaurant and thought I should go over and give working there a try…so I did.

I went for a day’s trial in the kitchen and was initially taken on doing ice creams, sorbets and chocolates as a commis in the back room.

Within a year and a half of having started I had worked my way around the kitchen very quickly to the position of junior sous chef. Robert Weston was sous chef and is still at The Square (and a really fantastic cook). Between Phil and Robert they taught me a lot about ingredients, quality of ingredients, the seasons and preparation. They really polished me up in cooking terms, although I feel that Liam Tomlin had ingrained the need for consistency into me prior to arriving at The Square.

And what was the sequence of events that lead to The Ledbury?

I was working at The Square and got a fair amount of attention after winning a Young Chef of The Year Award. Phil (Howard) just came up to me one day and asked if I’d like to run a restaurant in London. I really wasn’t sure and gave it some serious thought; my English girlfriend had been very supportive of the whole idea but I knew it would mean staying in London for 5,10 or 20 years and not going home to Australia. In all, it took a couple of years before we found a site; the site which is now The Ledbury.

Nigel Platts-Martin did the majority of searching for the new site and negotiating. He spotted that this part of Notting Hill was an up and coming area. When we came along and looked at the building and surroundings, we realised he was right but that it would need a complete refurbishment.

While that was happening I took the opportunity to take some time out and went travelling round the world. Then came back and did a little bit of work at La Trompette before starting at The Ledbury.

And how did the Harwood Arms come about?

There was a sous chef here (The Ledbury) called Steve Williams who is now the head chef at The Harwood Arms. A very talented guy who decided he wanted to pursue a slightly different area. I recognised a real talent as well as a good friend and decided that whatever he wanted to do, I wanted to be part of backing him.

I stayed in touch with Steve while he worked in a kind of Deli for a year before putting it to him that we set up somewhere like the Harwood Arms. He felt this was exactly what he wanted to do, but before we could go any further we needed to sort out the site, the finances and have Steve back at The Ledbury to work on pastry for a year.

I must have been to The Harwood Arms over a dozen times checking it out and it felt like home, I got that real gut feeling about it as a place where I thought customers would enjoy spending a night out.

It was a very big move to open a pub. I had to tell my business partners here and persuade my girlfriend that it would be a great. We did the refurbishment in 5-6 weeks on an absolute shoestring. We opened the week the credit crunch headlines came out. There were all the usual teething troubles in the kitchen and front of house. In spite of these things, when you have the right chef, the right team, the right venue and the right product then you can still do very well.

The pub is now really flying and the Michelin Star has come as a massive surprise and we’re delighted. When Derek Bulmer phoned last month, he said congratulations on the two stars at The Ledbury, you’re the only new two stars in London and also…The Harwood Arms is receiving its first star. I was gobsmacked, could hardly speak, great news!

How do you achieve the work/life balance while being a chef/patron?

I was hoping you were going to give me the recipe! It’s tough! Yes, you still have to work long hours and while I’m working on getting a balance, I’m by no means there yet! In the last couple of years I’ve learned a lot about people management, delegation and communication.

Gone are the days where a restaurant that’s open thirteen services a week sees a head chef in the kitchen every service. We have such increased demand here at The Ledbury that we have decided to close for Monday lunch, which will enable us to utilise this time to develop new dishes and concentrate on staff training.

I’ve been in for all bar three services in the last three weeks and to an extent that has to change – nine or ten out of thirteen a week will be more practical and sensible.

I also, of course, enjoy shooting and get out to Berkshire as often as possible during the game season.

So how would you describe your management style?

Someone who likes the control of knowing that the details are right for each and every customer, however, at the same time, respecting the developmental needs that come from delegation of responsibility to everyone in the kitchen.

I can, on occasion, be temperamental but that’s only a reflection of wanting to get the job done and the job done right. We all need to work together to protect the reputation of The Ledbury, to also maintain standards and consistency for the customer. There have probably been three main results of this approach: There has been staff turnover, if cooks deliver something not good enough for the standard we are looking for then they move on: There’s been staff loyalty; at the end of last year there were five in the kitchen who had been here since the day of opening: There’s been progression, we have a guy who started as a kitchen porter who looked, listen and worked hard and is now on the pastry section.

I would say I’m learning all the time and this is reflected in the overall development of the restaurant.

How do you go about sourcing your produce?

A mixture of local (British), artisan and European. What customers demand is the best quality and receiving that quality consistently. So we will source our fish from Looe, our game from Berkshire and about 40% of vegetables locally. In certain cases, let’s say pigeons, you can’t find pigeons in this country that are bred to the standards that we require. In this case, we simply have to go abroad.

Having said that, there may be some fabulous quality produce from artisan providers but you simply can’t run dishes based on their produce every day on the Carte because the volume isn’t there – from time to time we may be able to support them through specials on the menu.

Overall, the key words where sourcing is concerned are quality, reliability and consistency – all the things that our customers demand from our restaurant and we, in turn, aim to deliver.

How would you describe your gastronomy?

Well the cooking is based on classical techniques but I would say ‘modern French’. At The Ledbury we may take classic combinations and add a new interpretation; for instance a puree of white onions might contain liquorice and be served with pigeon with the legs smoked on fennel sticks. Again, a roast john dory with pumpkin and ginger with a little Clementine juice in the pumpkin and so on.

So I like the customers to have a little to think about in the food while I certainly don’t want to go over the edges of classical boundaries.

How often does the menu change?

It’s predominantly seasonal although we do all our printing in house so making a change to the menu is operationally straight forward and we will add or remove dishes every couple of weeks; mainly to keep us all fresh and focused.

Have you found your cooking ‘signature’?

No and I hope I never do. By that I mean there’s a need to be constantly evolving, progressing and developing – as a person, a chef, a team, a restaurant and a business. If each of us improves what we do 5% year on year, then I’ll be a happy man. In fact this year I intend to put real focus on taking the restaurant up a notch and finding the next level. A lot of focus will go into dish conception, preparation and execution that will hopefully excite a whole new number of customers.

What are the sizes of front of house and kitchen brigades?

The Ledbury employs around thirty-five staff, which is split roughly equally between front of house and kitchen.

What are you proudest professional achievements?

Having the satisfaction of looking at the customer sheet every day and seeing how many are returning guests and how far in advance we are booked! Two years ago we knew it was going to be a tough market so we set out to look after our customers as best as possible and look to build up loyalty from a customer base.

Years earlier, when the first Michelin star came along I was under so much pressure that I couldn’t really enjoy it but when the second one arrived we really enjoyed it – even though we only had time to have a quick glass of champagne in between services!

What are plans for the future in the industry?

To be cooking here at The Ledbury and maximising its potential by constantly look at what we do in the restaurant (The Ledbury). There is no long-term plan outside of what we are doing with the restaurant and maintaining focus on development of The Ledbury.

There are no plans to open more restaurants (in addition to the Harwood Arms), not to say that opportunity won’t arise, I’m a firm believer that you find the right person first and then worry about finances and the rest later – The right person is the right choice in this business!