Postscript 2009: Chris Staines left the Foliage Restaurant at The Mandarin Oriental in September 2009. fine-dining-guide await update news of Chris’ new venture.
Chris Staines is a Head Chef who has been making quiet but impressive progress at Foliage. At the tender age of 27, Chris took the opportunity to succeed Hywel Jones. Two and half years later he has well and truly stamped his personality on the restaurant. Already recognised in the Good Food Guide with 7/10 and holder of a coveted Michelin Star. Perhaps even greater accolades are soon to follow. Chris, along with Shevaun Porter (Director of Communications at The Mandarin Oriental), took some time out of their hectic schedules to talk to fine-dining-guide.com Interview took place Tuesday 17th August 2004.
We were impressed with the Foie Gras and Pineapple combinationstarter. What was the thinking behind the dish?
We were thinking of basic contrasts of hot and cold, sweet and sour, crispy and soft and using the ingredients to give a combination of balanced tastes of textures.
You seem to like combinations that include Offal?
A fascination for me is taking traditional second cuts and making them something a bit exciting and tasty. I’ve heard St John is doing really interesting things with ingredients like tripe which takes some doing.
What was your background prior to Foliage?
I was at The Oak room for 2 ½ years with Robert Reid, Chez Nico on Park Lane with Nico Ladenis, Lucknam Park in Bath prior to that. My first job was working in Wales for Sir Bernard Ashley in a country house hotel called Llangoed Hall.
What do you think are the main differences between large hotels and an independent restaurant?
Pluses and minuses – a big plus is the security of being in a big company, opening a stand alone restaurant is very tough, for every restaurant that opens, a year is the life expectancy. Two in every ten will see out their first year, these are frightening statistics! The back up of the financial resources of the hotel group is great and we’re effectively treated as a stand alone restaurant – they really do let us get on with it – working here has given me a lot of scope.
Which chefs have inspired you the most?
Difficult to say, when you love your work and are passionate, you take so much from all those around you all the time. I found Robert Reid a massive influence at the Oak Room. He’s an extremely talented chef who taught me a great deal about flavours, cooking process and how to treat ingredients. And certainly since I’ve been here David Nicholls has taught me a lot about management style. Probably 30 years ago chefs were just chefs in the kitchen but today they are rightly considered managers who need the necessary skills.
How do you get the best out of your brigade?
Choosing the right staff is key to getting the best out people, if you have people who want to better themselves then they develop naturally. We have also changed the working day to enable the chefs to get 3 days off a week, so they’re not doing 90 hours a week and they stay fresh. Leading by example is important, I try to be first to arrive and last to leave but generally if people are dedicated to bettering themselves you can’t go far wrong. As a result I have two fantastic sous chefs who I trust without question. This in turn enables me to stay fresh. When I’m recruiting I’ll typically ask someone to come in for a service or a day and you can glean a lot about them in that period. Once they get the job we train and build them up slowly. The brigade is close and friendly which encourages a quiet and comfortable atmosphere, people do not feel intimated.
Have you any thoughts on Molecular Cooking?
The two people who are good at it do it extremely well. Heston is a really really clever guy – I’ve eaten there (Fat Duck) a few times; fascinating and challenging, really brilliant. What concerns me is that people will try and emulate it, Heston has done so much research and has used a team of scientists, trying to copy it or mix and match is very dangerous. It does have a place in catering but if you’re going to do it then you need to deliver wholeheartedly. I hear good things about Anthony’s in Leeds, where the chef worked at El Bulli. On the other hand I’ve heard horror stories about people who’ve eaten at places and found them poor copies that haven’t pulled it off.
Which chefs cooking today in England do you admire?
Tom Aikens without a doubt is doing brilliantly; the restaurant is stunning, he’s been away for three years and wham he’s back! He’s really trying to make the food different and original; when you look at his dishes there’s so much work that goes into it, it’s incredible. Shane Osborn at Pied a Terre is very talented. I hear Morgan M is very good but I’ve not had time to get there yet.
How do you see Front of House?
Very important, we’re trying to create an atmosphere where you enjoy quality food without feeling intimated by the serving staff. Paul has joined us and is getting to know the regulars which is good. They’re my eyes and ears and can judge a situation.
What is the career path in the kitchen?
Another benefit of the Mandarin Group is that it offers a career path. We have 7 different nationalities in the kitchen who have the opportunity to gain experience around the world. They’re all ambitious so having that scope is a real help. The average time they spend with me is about 2 – 2 ½ years which is ideal.
What do you think about the Guides?
The Guides tell people that you’re here. Michelin is certainly one of the most highly respected Guides in the world and so it is important. It’s not my main motivation though, I’m most happy when the restaurant is full and the feedback is positive.
What are your thoughts about the future?
I don’t have any short or long term plans as at Foliage I have the perfect company, brigade and location. I do like France a lot, perhaps in a perfect world I would have a small, provincial restaurant in the South of France but knowing myself I’d end up working all hours to make it the best restaurant in France, which would defeat the object.
Does any chef inspire you in France?
Pierre Gagnaire is the best meal I’ve had in France, that was a couple of years ago, his understanding of flavours was quite stunning.
How do you delegate a taste?
Very difficult, I find that trust comes through training the staff and developing their knowledge. It helps to always explain why, you can’t just show them how I do it or you get a 100 different results – when working on a dish I explain why you caramalise it, why you roast it, why it’s roasted for so long, why you cook it so slowly, why you don’t season it until it’s nearly cooked or why you season it before it’s cooked. The team have to have that level of understanding or I would have to be here every time.
To Shevaun Porter:
What are the hotel’s views on having a Michelin Starred restaurant?
Chris is our number one priority this year , food plays an integral role in every one of our hotels, it’s not just about a comfy room – the food experience is important and we get the best from the restaurant by encouraging it to develop as a separate entity. For example after 9/11 we found that Foliage stood firm from a revenue and covers perspective when all of Europe was suffering for hotel guest numbers.
Do you find that the restaurant advertises the hotel and vice versa, with hotel guests feeding into Foliage?
I think we have a good balance, about 20% of our covers are typically hotel guests which we’re happy with, it’s a fact of life that guests will look around London for places to eat.