Chef Interview: Phil Thompson (Auberge du Lac, Welwyn)

Posted on: November 6th, 2012 by Simon Carter & Daniel Darwood
Chef Phil Thompson

Executive Chef Brocket Hall, Phil Thompson


Phil Thompson has been an ever present at Auberge du Lac for nearly ten years.  While being philosophical about the future, Phil retains strong ambition with a determination to drive the restaurant ever forward.  His career has seen him spend time in some great kitchens – experience which gave him the tools for success at the highest level.  Phil found time to speak to Simon Carter and Daniel Darwood of fine-dining-guide in late October 2012.  Interview took place in the lounge of Auberge du Lac restaurant.

Tell us some background about yourself?

I’m from Dagenham in Essex and come from a family of chefs: my nan, my mum, my sister and my uncle were all chefs.

When I was eleven or twelve years old, my uncle had a contract catering business (for weddings and christenings) and on Saturdays I used to go along and wash up for him – so while my friends were out playing football in the park, I was washing up! My uncle would show me aspects of food preparation, like blanching a tomato and so on and my interest just naturally grew in cooking.

On the school holidays I would go and work with my mum in the Ford Dagenham kitchens and wash up while my mum would show me how to cook stews and apple pies.

After leaving school, I went to Thurrock College to complete my NVQ Level 1 and NVQ Level 2.  I decided that I would be the best chef I could possibly be and that desire and aspiration led me to London.

While I was at college I did two weeks work experience at The Lanesborough under Paul Gayler.  This was a really positive experience and they said I should get in touch should I be looking for a job at the end of my course.  A year later, after college, I did exactly that – the head chef and sous chef remembered me and after a day’s trial I got offered a job.

I stayed at The Lanesborough for two and half years, covering the corners of the kitchens from banqueting to larder, from afternoon tea through to room service.  It was a great kitchen, there were no shouting sous chefs; it was relatively calm, relaxed and focused – you did the hours but I wouldn’t call it a tough kitchen by kitchen standards.

Then I went to The Orrery – which was tough!  Chris Galvin and the team achieved a Michelin Star at the restaurant.  It was a great but hard kitchen: If I had left college and gone straight there I would possibly have left the industry, because it was such a massive culture shock.  I look back now and many of the team there have gone onto gain Michelin stars in their own right; it was an excellent learning experience.

When I decided to move on, Chris Galvin helped me by calling around his network of chefs – I remember the first he tried was Phil Howard at The Square, who had 26 chefs and 3 stages constantly on the go and just couldn’t take me.  I did a couple of stages at Gary Rhodes and Chez Bruce before doing nine months at a new opening – St Martin’s Lane.

Toward the end of my time at St Martin’s Lane, Chris (Galvin) got in touch and suggested I call his brother Jeff (Galvin) at The Oak Room Marco Pierre White.

Jeff (Galvin) was about to become Head Chef at either Les Saveurs or L’Escargot and was in the process of getting a team together.  The result was that I worked at The Oak Room for Jeff (Galvin) for a couple of months (March/April 2000) as part of a group of four chefs who were being prepared for the kitchen at The Picasso Room, L’Escargot.

L’Escargot had a small brigade with an amazing dining room for guests, it was a real privilege to work in that environment.

Chris and Jeff Galvin have had the biggest impact on my career, style and cooking ability. Chris (Galvin) showed me man management and how to bring out the best in people – more of a quiet focus than pressured shouting.  And Jeff (Galvin) just had an aura about him as a cook – you would watch him cook a piece of meat and be inspired to “want to cook like Jeff”

I’m pleased to say that Jeff (Galvin) remains a good friend, lives just round the corner and eats here quite regularly with his wife.

When I came to Brocket Hall, I like to think that I brought with me the disciplines learned from the Lanesborough and the Orrery, the man management skills of Chris (Galvin) and the inspiration to cook in an ever better way from Jeff (Galvin).  Yes, it took me a while to find my own signature but felt I had all the grounding I needed to be successful in the future.

Nearly ten years later, I’m delighted that the ‘new boy’ in the kitchen has been with me quite some time right through the longest serving at nine years.  We’ve bonded well as a team and I think that has shown in what we have delivered to customers over the years.

Tell us about your sourcing of ingredients?

The most important thing is to have long standing positive relationships with suppliers.  I’m not one of those chefs that will spend all day shouting down the phone at a supplier.  In all cases the relationships are strong and in certain cases they have even become friends; even to the point of dining in the restaurant here with their families.

I would hope, for example, that should they have three Sea Bass and are working out which one comes to Brocket Hall then I will get the best (smiling).

So we have two suppliers in Cornwall for our fish, who keep us informed of what has come in off the boats: For shellfish it is Loch Fyne in Scotland and for the meat it is Direct Meats, who have state of the art facilities in Colchester.  The latter are based at Knight’s Farm and have strict practices regarding the managing, handling and provenance of produce (sourcing all meat from within a fifty miles radius.)

Once a month the chefs and I will visit around the farms to see how the supply chain works at the same time building an ongoing relationship with the supplier.  This all helps build confidence that we will get the best possible produce.

Every time my butcher rings and says he’s got some really good veal, for example, I’ll take the whole carcass and break it down – it shows the chefs how butchery works and enables us to get all the cuts of meat we need, while allowing us to put dishes on the menu at reasonable prices. We also try and get as many specials on the menu as possible.

We certainly aren’t on the bandwagons of foraging and local produce and where we do forage or use local produce we don’t advertise the fact.  For example, we might forage a reasonable amount of ingredients from the Estate (Brocket Hall) – we do it because its of the right quality first and on our doorstep second. Should someone happen to ask then there’s a nice story behind the ingredient.

Along similar lines I will always try and use British produce, however it has to be the best produce to go on the menu.  For example, should we be considering a duck dish, we might try one from Aylesbury, one from Devon and one from France, the one we put on the menu will be the one that tastes the best!

How do you create a new dish?

It’s a real team effort – particularly so as the restaurant have moved from a big a la carte menu to offering the two tasting menus in conjunction with a smaller a la carte.

The menu evolves and changes over the months rather than changing wholesale with the seasons.  In this way the team can show their creativity – I might say “There’s two weeks left on this Sea Bass dish, what fish dish would fit into the menu and take us forward – you’ve got until next Friday come up with a solution for me” and then we take it from there and experiment until the new dish appears on the menu.  The team really make me proud of their achievements and creativity in delivering new dishes.

How would you describe your cooking signature?

I think the market has gone full circle.  There was a period when you would go out to eat and the entire menu would be jellies, foams, and an array of chemical products.  I think there’s a general move back towards stripping the food back to bring out the most of the ingredients without too much of ‘the technology of food.’

Yes, there is some technology that helps bring something interesting, surprising or just deliver superior execution of the cooking of ingredients, however this must be used in moderation – to assist rather than be the objective of putting a menu together. I believe that when providing the journey of the tasting menus to diners it’s important to apply different cooking techniques across the menu as this excites the diner as well as keeping the team learning and motivated moving forward.

Seasonally, we aim to bring out the best of the flavours that are in season – if someone tries a dish and says ‘that’s nice’ that’s no good – the depth and clarity of flavour should say ‘wow!’

Are there any chefs or restaurants that particularly inspire when you eat out?

I try and eat out with the chefs around once a month and we’re always looking to learn and take things on board that can enhance what we do at Auberge du Lac.

I ate at Sat Bains and I was not sure what to expect, I somehow imagined it might be ‘off the wall’ – in the event the food was first class – brilliant cooking that brought out the flavours of the ingredients in a way that appeared simple but was in fact labour intensive.  For example – onion – cooked five different ways in a jar, with extraordinary intensity of flavour.  I left very impressed, it was a pleasure to eat, a fantastic journey of wow factor flavours on a tasting menu.

Where do you see your cuisine in two or three years time?

There are markets for all types of restaurants, not just fine dining, such as the more relaxed and informal bistro/brasserie style of cooking.  I have the good fortune to have an insight into all types as Executive Chef of Brocket Hall.  Ultimately, you have to take each day as it comes as you never know what is round the corner – right now I’m delighted that Auberge du Lac is evolving with the tasting menus (that can also mix and match with the a la carte).

I feel very fortunate as I have plenty of ambition left in me and aspire to keep progressing the offering at Auberge du Lac, with a great team, in one of the most beautiful settings in the country!