Chef Interview: Chris Horridge (September 2009)

Posted on: September 6th, 2009 by Simon Carter & Daniel Darwood

Tell us some background about yourself?

I was fortunate that in my family, life centred around the dining table. When my father came home from work, the whole family would sit down together for dinner & discuss the day’s events. Food was always an integral part of family life with both my mother and grandmother giving me a great introduction to good cooking.

My family have a military background so it was an easy decision to enlist when I finished catering college. I joined the Royal Air force at 18 and had a great 9 years before leaving at 27. While I was there, two Michelin Starred Chef, John Burton-Race, inspired a half hour TV comedy series which actually inspired me to consider a future as a top end restaurant chef.

After leaving the forces, I got a break with one of the top restaurant kitchens in the country, initially working as a commis in Raymond Blanc’s Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons. I had a great and extremely hard working 5 years there.

I left as a senior sous chef, winning both an employee of the year award and – thanks to Gary Jones (unsung hero and Executive Head chef at ‘Le Manoir’) and Raymond Blanc – a Caterer and Hotelkeeper magazine ‘Acorn award’ along the way.

I took a break after leaving ‘le manoir’ and worked as private chef to a Canadian entrepreneur. Then one day I received a call from the manager at The Bath Priory asking me if I would like to put my name forward for the head chef position – I took the role on and within 6 months, on an anxious January day in 2006, I was to open the Michelin website and was delighted to find that The Bath Priory had retained the Michelin Star, something the restaurant continued to retain during my tenure.

Early on at Bath Priory, Raymond Blanc took me to one side and said “this is the time to find your own style, your own cooking, your own signature and express yourself in your cooking”, “don’t copy me or others but find your own cuisine.” Find my own cuisine? How?

I put my large collection of recipe books to one side and decided to start from scratch armed with a little blank leather book and a pencil that I carried everywhere to record ideas. Slowly I started to create ideas, that although initially were influenced by what I had seen and experienced, were from my head rather than straight out of another chefs book. A few months down the line and whole sheets of A4 paper would be full of scribbles, pictures and half recipes as the process became second nature.

This is when my passion for nutrition was rekindled from a time in the early ‘90’s when a major operation would make me research foods to get me back in the kitchen quicker.

Have you always set yourself goals or has your success just happened?

I’m very much a believer in objective and goal setting. This is something I do in both my social and work life. When I was 25, I set myself a goal to be a Michelin starred chef by the age of 35. Within a few months of the deadline I achieved it. Without planning there is no way that an ex RAF cook could go on to achieve a Michelin star.

There was a certain amount of leaving the pride at the door when entering the Manoir kitchens. I was 27 and had 18 year olds who could not only cook better than me but also had more responsibility.

Having a goal helped me through some difficult times; there was one day in particular that I stopped my car on the way in to work and said to my self what am I doing? Do I really want to put up with this? I had been at Le Manoir for almost a year and was running on empty as were most of the other 15 guys in the kitchen (now Le Manoir has close to 40 chefs). Having my ten year goal was the one and only thing that made me turn the engine back on..

Fortunately, during my second year, Gary Jones arrived and the situation improved beyond recognition. I left indebted to Le Manoir and its team for being absolutely pivotal to my career.

All of my close colleagues know my career story well. I believe it’s very important that as a manager you are seen to be human and pass on anecdotes of key moments in your life that might help them when they are in a difficult spot or undecided on what to do. I think it’s important to decide on short, medium and long term goals and work backwards from the end objective; have a plan in the present to ensure the goals are achieved in the future. I use the same principles in my personal life although it took a bit longer than planned for the conception of my baby boy!

How did your interest in Nutrition in cooking begin?

Originally, in the early 1990s, I stumbled upon a book in the N.A.A.F.I called ‘Healthy eating’. I set about planning a diet that gave me all the recommended vitamins and minerals in two meals leaving me to eat what I wanted for the third meal of the day. It seemed logical to me that a good balanced diet can help repair the body and make it function more efficiently and this was evidenced by the pace of my recovery following an operation which at the time surprised my doctor and ultimately led to me, 10 years on, “finding my cuisine” as Raymond Blanc had suggested..

In more recent times, thinking about nutrition in a ‘Michelin style’ gastronomic context, was started by bumping into various scientists, nutritionists and experts through a string of fortunate accidents. It began several years ago when I chatted to a herbalist from University College London and found that more and more of the questions I was asking were about the nutritional and potential medicinal elements of herbs.

It was quickly apparent that I needed to meet a nutritionist and so I did.

I wanted to discover how the fundamentals of good, sound nutrition could be embedded in fine dining cuisine without affecting the level of apparent richness or tastiness of the food. Healthy food still has this stigma that because its healthy it must taste and look awful, however, we are at the stage now where I’m confident that customers would not tell the difference between the Waldo’s “with” and “without” (“without” meaning virtually sugar, gluten and dairy free) menus and only know of a difference because we label the menus with obvious titles.

So how would you describe your gastronomy?

It became apparent after talking with various journalists and interested people that I needed a catchy phrase to sum up what we are doing so I eventually came up “Three dimensional cuisine”. The three dimensions being presentation, flavour and nutrition.

Presentation is important – it’s the first thing the diner experiences – and has to be appealing. I’ve always been interested in art and architecture and take some inspiration from the many visits to galleries I’ve made over the years. I have also been inspired by the great chefs of history such as Fernand Point so correspondingly the dish is very simple in presentation.

Flavour is obviously critical in fine dining – having clear, clean, deep and balanced flavours across the whole dish. In fact balance is a key word – balance across the ingredients of a dish, amongst taste, texture and temperature but also right the way across the three dimensions of the cuisine. Although an idea may come to me initially through a process of visualising its presentation I am always careful to ensure that flavour backs it up. To coin a phrase I think I’ve learnt that “presentation is folly unless it stands on the shoulders of flavour”.

With nutrition, it’s principally about digestibility and importantly, bioavailability and it is this area that fascinates me. Bioavailability is essentially getting the maximum possible nourishment out of each ingredient. Can you increase the availability of the vitamins and minerals by combining ingredients? This is not as far fetched as it may sound. Put iron & fibre together and the fibre will bind the iron making it less available to your normal digestion process. Grapefruit juice was discovered in drug trials many years ago to increase the drugs’ side effects.

I could talk for hours about nutrition and where we are with our research but I suggest those that are interested pop into the restaurant for a night out and have a chat. Only if you’ve got an hour or so to talk though!

To what extent does nutrition affect your perspective on food?

I was a founding member of the Nutrition Research Group (NRG), which is a loose collaboration of like minded individuals looking into the benefits and applications of nutrition in food. The like minded people turned out to be professors, doctors and nutritionists. As I previously mentioned it was a set of fortunate accidents that brought us together and the idea of formalising things seemed the next logical step. We are ever expanding: Currently there are four universities involved with many people acting as associates so we can pick their brains if and when needed. The focus of that work is to look at how nutrition in food can significantly aid recovery and recuperation in hospital patients.

As head chef in a fine dining kitchen I believe the only thing that limits us all is our imagination and the drive to achieve what ever it is we set out to achieve. I am in the fortunate position of not only cooking for the pleasure of others but being able to use the information we glean from our research to help others.

Give examples of things that inspire your dishes?

I am inspired by many different things. I’m a very visual person so always attempt to get the feel of my initial inspiration through the presentation of a dish and find this approach more instinctive.

For instance, I was researching the great chefs of history and their recipes when I took the position here at Cliveden (I also look after the dining experience in the Terrace restaurant at the hotel). I stumbled upon ‘Ma Gastronomie’ by Fernand Point or rather, the collection of recipes and ideas his wife put together when he passed away. Fernand Point was the Heston Blumental of his era – respecting history while doing things his own way. In particular he questioned the very structured style Escoffier had brought to haute cuisine. At one time in France, 7 of the 18 three Michelin starred chefs had been through his kitchens!

I wanted to recreate one of his dishes but put it off until we could do it justice. After many trials, the homage to Fernand Point crayfish and sweetbread dish went on the menu. As a matter of respect I deliberately kept it very simple, it just didn’t feel right to come up with some type of overly modern presentation.

An irony was that one of his famous sayings was “butter, butter and more butter”. I’m not sure what he would make of my ideas on this but I hope he’d appreciate the dish in his name! Our customers certainly do.

Sometimes I’ll read a piece of information about nutrition that will spark an enquiry and eventually end up being a dish. A year or two ago I discovered that a significant proportion of the global population (up to 50% is estimated) are lactose intolerant so I asked myself “could we do a crème brulée without cream, dairy products, or soya and vastly reduced amounts of sugar?” Pretty much make a crème brulée that tastes and looks the same as the classic version but with none of the normal ingredients, and do it using natural ingredients rather than fancy chemical powders. It took months to get right but when we were 99.9% sure it was good we put it on the menu du jour at The Bath Priory without mentioning that it was made without cream, no dairy and about 95% less sugar than otherwise would be the case. The last 0.1% was down to our customers and critics – who never mentioned it! Now it’s an integral part of our “without” menu at Waldo’s.

Since then we have further developed the idea for other dishes such as our classic French ‘opera’ that is traditionally laden with cream, sugar and flour where our version is not.

What can you expect from the Waldo’s menu?

We are attempting to be inclusive, ie to appeal to everybody. Although I am predominately known for my “without” style of food we are actually trying to welcome one and all. That’s one of the key points of what we do. Not only can those that just like good food enjoy themselves, but also those that normally have a problem when eating out because of dietary conditions. Our “without” menu caters for the latter, where dairy, gluten and sugar is kept to an absolute minimum, i.e: 0% in all dishes except the brulée where we use a small amount on the top to caramelise but none in the mix. We like to think that the menu retains the typical fine dining attributes in terms of taste impact.

There is also an a la carte menu made up of dishes taken from our tasting menus. We are fortunate in that we sell on average 75% tasting menus. The restaurant is open at dinner times only which means we can research, experiment and take dishes and ideas forward during the day. I also have the other kitchens to overlook so it’s a careful balancing act.

How often does the menu change?

The menu will change as we go, for example we worked on two dish ideas this morning that we’ll develop over a period of time and then ease into the menu when we are happy that it’s the best we can do. Sometimes we go over the top and have to take a step back as an idea may have been better several stages before but that’s the excitement of creativity.

Other times, a dish that I have worked on for what seems an age just doesn’t make the grade so its either moth balled if certain specific information is stopping the idea going further or binned if it’s plainly going nowhere. It’s really an ongoing dynamic process as and when we have creative moments.

The menu is not specifically seasonal.

What is the size of the brigades in front of house and kitchen?

A compact size of me and three others in the kitchen and four in front of house plus a sommelier. It’s a kitchen that’s like an old railway carriage in width & length and the team is very small which is great. They are all very focused, loyal and dedicated. I’m hoping I have a Michelin starred chef or two of the future within my current kitchen brigade.

The restaurant is 20 to 28 covers so it’s busy in the kitchen during a full night. We pretty much work in silence apart from the checks being called and the odd comment between orders. In that regard I think it’s quite unique. Relaxed, confident but intently focused.

I like an atmosphere where my team is focused on their job rather than worrying about how I will react to a minor incident so I will never bark at anyone. I think they appreciate the way we work. They all came with me from Bath and most will have done over 4 years before we decide the best move for them.

Once they’ve left they know where I am & I’ll be watching their careers too. So far I have two of my guys who have moved from me in Bath to work as Chef de Parties in 2 Michelin star restaurants and another who has taken his first position as head chef with the ambition and ability to get a star. Once a chef has proven himself in my kitchen I’m always there for them no matter what the scenario and they know that.

What is your proudest professional achievement?

It was exhilarating and slightly deflating when I won my first star in January 2006. It had taken 10 years and thanks to the guide and its hugely respected inspectors, I and my team had achieved it. I was in a type of limbo for a short while until I found my next life goal.

Now I long for a major breakthrough in the research with ‘The nutrition research group’. It’s the various puzzles in the area of nutrition and cuisine that both keeps me up at night and gets me up in the morning and if I can help other people with this then job done. We are about to place a grant application with one of the world’s largest biomedical research charities for a website we intend to launch to raise awareness of pre-operative nutrition and the benefits it can bring to recovery. Currently there is nothing out there. After a brief meeting they expressed an interest but if we get accepted, now that would be another day to remember!

Life at the moment is hugely satisfying, exciting and highly motivating!