Chef Interview: Joel Antunes (July 2010)

Posted on: October 10th, 2010 by Simon Carter & Daniel Darwood

Joel Antunes

After investing ten years in forging a career in the United States, Joël Antunes has ‘come home’ to the city where he forged his reputation: the early to mid 1990s saw Les Saveurs restaurant in London gain widespread recognition, including a Michelin Star. Now Joël Antunes wishes to focus his culinary skills on the capital once again, Brasserie Joël is the exciting result.

Joël found time to speak to Simon Carter of fine-dining-guide about his motivations in the industry and plans for the future, interview took place in the kitchens of Brasserie Joël during July.

Tell us some background about yourself?

I started to cook when I was 15 years old and over the following ten years had the good fortune to work in five different Michelin Three Star kitchens which incorporated time in the kitchens at each of Marc Meneau, Jacques Maximin, Pierre Gagnaire, Paul Bocuse and Troisgros. I then had the pleasure of working for a world-renowned pastry chef: To me this is very important as learning pastry is a discipline in itself and very different from cooking savoury courses. To be an accomplished head chef having all round experience is important.

After this I went to Bangkok and was chef at the Oriental Hotel, then a spell at Raffles in Singapore as well as some opening work for the Oriental Group in various destinations around Asia.

In 1991, I came to England and opened Les Saveurs, which was a great success, including gaining and retaining a Michelin Star for several years. After the passing away of my business partner in 1996, I was 32 years old and simply didn’t have the capital to take sole ownership of the restaurant. In the mean time – some three years before – I met my wife in London, an American, so it was a natural opportunity to travel to The US and make a career in that country.

I started at the Ritz Carlton which did very well in Zagat. In 2000 I opened my own restaurant – Joël – on a ten year lease in Atlanta. The restaurant was very successful up until around November 2007. The credit crunch hit hard – not just for me but for many chefs across the United States. Over the last few years I had been looking for an opportunity to come back to Europe and the only place I would come to is the UK, London in particular, as that is where I had built my reputation.

How did the opportunity arise at Westminster Bridge Park Plaza?

I happen to know the son of the owner. We sat down and talked and Brasserie Joël was the result. I am not an Executive Chef for the Hotel, I could not do that – banqueting, room service and so on – I need to be on top of my suppliers and developing dishes in a restaurant kitchen environment! At the moment I’m delighted that the restaurant kitchen is at Brasserie Joël at The Westminster Bridge Park Plaza.

What is the size of your brigade?

We currently have seven or eight chefs but when you are a seven day a week dinner operation and are turning over 100 plus (last night was over 125) covers you realistically need at least twice that number. In fact, fifteen chefs would just be a starting point.

How would you describe your gastronomy?

I would say that there is tide change in the industry, which is in direct response to the change in tastes and budgets of the customer. What may have been thought of as Michelin style cooking is now perhaps a little over elaborate, labour intensive and expensive. Yes, the quality of the ingredients must still be high but more simple, rustic and classically prepared dishes of the bistrot or brasserie style are becoming fashionable. You see many leading Michelin chefs now going in this direction. In these economic times, the restaurant can remain busy while serving a mixture of this style of food along side dishes that display a gastronomic twist.

We also have more flexibility in this way to make specials that keep as many people as possible happy and fill the restaurant every day.

How did you source your suppliers?

Mainly by networking around some good friends in the industry to ask their opinions of the best suppliers. That has worked very well.

How does the F&B Accounting work – the Restaurant compared to the Hotel?

The restaurant is set up to run with its own F&B. The hotel group like to see the hotel and the restaurant both working successfully independently of each other. I believe this is fairly typical. Where the hotel wishes to upgrade the standard of the restaurants, it’s important that the restaurant is seen to stand on its own two feet. When we are doing 150 to 250 covers a day, I’m sure that the restaurant will be considered a great success by the hotel group.

What are your plans for future?

I would like to think that, in the long term, I will stay with the company and develop this restaurant. The signs are good in that we are busy. The people here are very good to me and it is important to be honest about wanting to make good food and be a success at the same time.

Another possibility, is that in the long run I would like to have my own restaurant in London. It is my career home and having run my own restaurant for fifteen years there is no feeling like putting the key in the door in the morning and knowing that it is yours. You know, head chefs who put themselves on the line every day, 14 hours a day, to have that rewarding feeling of owning at least a part of what you do is important.