Chef Interview: Martin Burge (March 2011)

Posted on: March 19th, 2011 by Simon Carter & Daniel Darwood

As one of the elite band of Michelin two star chefs, Martin Burge has achieved his success by focused dedication to the craft. With years, not months, in the kitchens of multi-Michelin starred chefs under his belt, Martin learnt all aspects of the profession: Perhaps most tellingly, that of consistency, structure and discipline. Martin found time to speak to Simon Carter of fine-dining-guide, interview took place in The Dining Room at Whatley Manor Hotel. Published March 2011.

Martin Burge

Tell us some background about yourself?

I am from Bristol and while at school I did work experience at Brunel College. This made a strong impression on me and I went on to study a full time education catering course at Brunel college before taking my first job at The Royal Crescent Hotel in Bath under Michael Croft.

I worked five days and went back to college on one of my days off to study an advanced pastry course. Even at that early stage, I was quite passionate about pastry and aware that it was a potential weakness for the future if I didn’t study the subject properly.

Michael Croft moved to London and I went with him (to The Mirabelle) and stayed for about fourteen months. One of the chefs at Mirabelle was telling me about Pied a Terre, which was run by Richard Neat. At that time the restaurant was putting some of the best food in London on the table. The kitchen there was super tough and had a particularly high turnover of chefs. I stuck it out and actually thrived under the pressure, realising it was cooking and a career at that level that I had envisaged.

One day Richard (Neat) told me I should go to Le Manoir (aux Quat’ Saisons) and work for Raymond (Blanc). Initially, they offered me a second commis position and so I turned it down – I was really a chef de partie on pastry at Pied a Terre – they came back to me and offered me a first commis position with the chance to progress. I took the job, put my head down and stayed for three years.

I really learned so much about structure and discipline at Le Manoir and it was very different from working in a relatively small kitchen. The sectional set up and development approach at Le Manoir is something I still have kept with me today at Whatley Manor.

During my holidays I got invited to do a food festival with John Burton Race in Singapore. I worked for John for six years, taking in L’Ortolan and The Landmark Hotel, London. I was so pleased when we retained the recognition (Michelin Two Star) after uprooting a country house restaurant setting and moving it to London. I was his head chef so had significant responsibility in making sure the kitchen ran smoothly and achieved what was expected to be achieved.

One day John (Burton-Race) decided he was going to pull the plug on the business and do his French Leave. My daughter was one day old and I was out of a job. Then the Whatley Manor opportunity came up. Many hotels try to be all things to all people and hope for Michelin stars but that doesn’t really work. We have the right channels to market here to enable us to focus on top end fine dining as well as facilitate the broader needs of the guests.

What are your current roles and responsibilities at Whatley Manor?

Essentially everything to do with food: From the room service through the brasserie to ‘The Dining Room’. There was a bedding-in period where energies were cast in all directions; we were doing Lobster salads on the room service menu and cooking (probably) three (AA) Rosette standard menus in the brasserie. Over time you become more sensible, balanced and pragmatic as the model for how a hotel operates becomes clearer. Each element has its own identity, focus and objectives and we stick to that process.

What is the size of your brigade?

After eight years, the operation is a fairly well oiled machine with a fully staffed sixteen chefs. There’s been a lot of innovation in kitchen technology over the last few years that have helped efficiency in the kitchen. A simple example is water baths which have created much more working space.

I take great pride in the longevity of the staff here and making sure they are motivated, fresh and developed properly. In particular Robin Stock one of the two Senior Sous Chefs here has been with me for six years and Lee Bamforth the pastry chef has notched up five.

Let’s say, for example, I have someone who is demi-chef de partie level and doing well, I might rotate him to the brasserie on fish and meat for six months, couple that with some training and I can bring him back to ‘The Dining Room’ team at the next level.

Likewise, if I have had someone with me for three years and they’ve done all the sections, then they may have the opportunity to do pastry for six months to a year. Yes, they would start as third on pastry but on chef de partie wages and learning a new aspect of the trade. This not only keeps staff with me but develops them and keeps them fresh.

A number of chefs who make it to chef de partie, move on from a chef de partie to doing the fish and meat section – possibly making it to sous chef – but missing out on that vital element of pastry. I believe that this would restrict the opportunities of becoming an all round complete chef for the future.

What is the creative process for a new dish in the kitchen?

It depends on whether there is a new product on the market which inspires you to a dish or it might be a new technique or re- inventing an old dish or picking up ideas from other restaurants and so on.

In terms of fine tuning long standing dishes, Raymond Blanc was a past master at finding something new and exciting that would tweak the dish perfectly. When I was young I wondered why change something that had been perfect for years but actually making changes reflects progress.

It’s actually a natural process to me as I’m sure it is to a lot of chefs – the process of creating a new dish. The most important thing of course is to eat what you create. For example, I had this roasted scallop dish with truffle and white bean puree. I thought it would be wonderful but when I ate the dish, the puree of white beans coated my palate and I was unable to enjoy all of the flavours. Ultimately, taste is the test.

What’s the policy on sourcing ingredients for The Dining Room?

When I started here I sourced from the suppliers I already knew but have now introduced more local suppliers. I don’t fly the flag for anything – I do have my principles; sustainable fish and so on – but really its quite black and white with produce, it has to be the best. So while I might be able to get scallops from Cornwall, the ones I get from Scotland are outrageously good, and I won’t change just to tick a box.

You have to be efficient and make sure the produce is here day in, day out and of a consistent quality. This makes the romance of purely local and/or artisan suppliers not work in reality. Having said that we may, once a month, put on a Sunday roast in the brasserie and have a fantastic cut of beef from a local farmer.

How often do you change the menu at The Dining Room?

I’m a seasons man, although autumn is tough because by and large the game isn’t good enough and again in February the same happens. I feel you wait forever for spring to come and the vegetables to be ready, although I’m not an absolute purist on the seasonality of the menu as I feel it may get too repetitious.

I will set myself goals and aim to create around four new dishes per menu and bring back some of the favourites from the previous year. I feel if you create twelve new dishes a year, you’re making steady progress and staying fresh and motivated.

Is it a deliberate strategy to be open dinner service only at ‘The Dining Room’?

That was always the template when the hotel was being developed. The brasserie opens seven days a week and ‘The Dining Room’ five nights a week.

Were we to change it then we would have to review the whole structure of the staffing – size of brigade, salaries and so on. So changing has not been discussed; we’re realistic about what we’re offering and thus far the template has worked well for Whatley Manor and for the customers.

What are the strongest culinary influences on your career?

The people I have worked with have had a great influence. Pied a Terre introduced me to cooking at a Michelin level. Le Manoir for several things – Raymond (Blanc) was all about taste, taste, taste and so I trained my palate while at Le Manoir – there was also the organisation and structure to a successful Michelin starred kitchen. John Burton-Race was really about empowerment; allowing me to create dishes while at the same time learning how to run a kitchen.

Eating at Per Se four or five years ago was like an epiphany as to what great food should really be about – keep the ingredients true to themselves – beautifully done but not too complicated. If every single ingredient on the plate tastes exactly of the wonderful flavours of that ingredient then it will come together.

Do you have a signature style to your cooking?

Yes, I suppose building on the Per Se experience, it is to bring out the strong, clear, deep and natural flavours of the ingredients while, on the creative side, not getting too carried away with fashions and trends.

How has the enhanced media profile of chefs affected you and your restaurant?

Masterchef was fantastic for us, we had 13,000 page views of the website for three days running and had to enhance our bandwidth to cope. I am, however, very conscious about the programmes I will participate in and remain aware of the way in which I want to put across messages. Masterchef is a quality programme and our involvement motivated the staff – from the gardening team through to kitchen, restaurant, spa, and front of house.

Have you been tempted to step out of the kitchen and into the office?

I understand both sides. A chef needs to develop and doing ‘the executive role’ or selective media work can be fulfilling. So whilst my feet are firmly in the kitchen I see achieving the right balance between the two roles is crucial.

What is your proudest professional achievement?

Well I shed a tear the day we got the second Michelin Star. A happy day. Hard to top. I shared a bottle of Bollinger with some key colleagues.

What are your plans for the future?

I think you have to be proud and motivated in what you are achieving each day. I’ll always be open to the idea of new opportunities but right now Whatley Manor and I are a happy marriage that is achieving everything I want to achieve.

And so it was time to leave, Martin had proven the most charming host, with an easy manner and a glint of mischief in the eye. No doubt Whatley Manor will continue to go from strength to strength.