Chef Interview: Will Holland (March 2008)

Posted on: October 6th, 2008 by Simon Carter & Daniel Darwood

Hands up those foodies that haven’t visited Ludlow in the last 10 years! Well, Shaun Hill and Claude Bosi may have moved on but the beautiful market town is still thriving. Will Holland (above left) has big shoes to fill, as Alan Murchison Restaurants Ltd open on the site of Hibiscus. Will found time to talk to about his passion, enthusiasm and determination to succeed in Shropshire. Interview by Simon Carter, Saturday 15 March 2008.

Tell us a bit about yourself and your background prior to coming to La Becasse?

I am 28 years old and originally from Bristol , where there were once many great restaurants, and one day in the (long long) term I’d love to go back there and run a successful, recognised, fine dining restaurant.

I got my early training in Bath at Homewood Park Hotel from Gary Jones (now Raymond Blanc’s executive chef at Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons) and Andy Hamer. I was there for over three years and this really kick started my career. Then it was off to West Sussex , at Gravetyre Manor under the guidance of chef Mark Raffan. I was there for nearly four years, predominantly as sous chef. Mark (Raffan) had classic Roux training, this and his own style and experience really rubbed off on me.

Immediately prior to coming to La Becasse I was at L’Ortolan (our older sister restaurant). I’ve worked for Alan’s (Murchison) company since day one – coming up for four years. I started as sous chef at L’Ortolan and within 6 months Alan had promoted me to his head chef. So I ran his kitchen for three years at L’Ortolan.

How did La Becasse come to pass?

When the opportunity to buy Hibiscus (as was) came up it was too good an opportunity to miss. We couldn’t resist buying a property that was running at a two michelin star level – it’s not everyday properties like this come on the market.

The situation was ideal – Alan and I had discussed I needed a fresh challenge (Alan and I could both see that) and 2007 would be the year when something was going to happen. I was thrilled when the opportunity came up in the form of opening and being involved in La Becasse.

We hadn’t lost a chef in over two years at L’Ortolan and the talent and experience in the kitchen had really built up to something incredibly strong, so taking on a new venture was an ideal way for all the boys to move up a notch. There were new challenges for everyone, not just me!

Three chefs from L’Ortolan came up here with me – Ian, my sous chef, who has been with Alan and myself at L’Ortolan sinceday one. Mark Bartonator, who had been at L’Ortolan for two and a half years and Chris my pastry chef up here, who had been at L’Ortolan for a year and a half. The total kitchen brigade is five at La Becasse and we have seriously strong Michelin Star experience.

And that has made way for others at L’Ortolan too?

Rob, the sous chef at L’Ortolan, filled my shoes when I left and was promoted to head chef. Some talented chefs from the original brigade have raised their game and stepped up. Plus there’s some new guys that have come in there. Hopefully my example of working hard for Alan and being rewarded, sets a good example to the other boys, that effectively says to them”work really hard, keep your head down, push on and one day you might find yourself in charge of a kitchen in one of Alan’s restaurants”.

How much control do you have here?

Alan keeps a very watchful Scottish eye on what I’m up to! – but generally I have total control over how I run my kitchen and the food I want to cook. Alan is very good at delegating to people that he trusts (he’s given me one of his kitchens to look after!).

What is the creative process?

When I was still at L’Ortolan, typically Alan and I worked on new dishes together and who had the majority of the creative input varied. Over time there developed the L’Ortolan “style”. At La Becasse I’m looking to use all the important experience I’ve learn’t from Alan and my previous head chefs. I want to create a unique identity, especially with my food. The creative process can take a day or it can take three months. To “create” a dish that goes on the carte can take some time.

The rabbit dish for example was a thought process – the sweetness of the prune, the sharpness and sweetness of the lemon confit, the saltiness of the capers and the slight smokiness of the bacon that the rabbit is wrapped in. It is a “complete dish”.

The foie gras sandwich is a dish Alan and myself invented at L’Ortolan and is featured in Alan’s (Murchison) book. This is where a link between the two restaurants is vital. We are not a chain of restaurants, we each have a unique identity, however we share the strengths of each other. Stability while maintaining a unique identity is of vital importance.

How often do you think the menu will change?

The menu will be seasonal. I already have a date in mind for the next menu change. There will be slight changes in between but otherwise quarterly (with the seasons). There are always a few minor changes along the way: For example we added a pig’s head terrine in place of the ham hock salad on the du jour menu. I wasn’t sure that people would go for a pig’s head terrine so I trialled it as an appetiser for a week and it went down well so I added it to the du jour menu.

The menu will have a seasonal accent – venison and mallard for today (winter) then in the spring the likes of Carpaccio of Langoustine will come onto the menu. That dish is an interesting story – I ate it about seven years ago in a Michelin Two Star restaurant in Spain and the memory has always stuck with me. I tried reproducing it but just couldn’t get the dressing right, so in the end I contacted the chef in Spain and he kindly emailed me the recipe. After about a week of trialling it was like re-living the experience – I’ve got it just right and am excited about this dish going on the a la carte.

I’ve got other dishes in my mind already! Classical with modern twists – featuring quail and pink grapefruit, raw squab, crab and vanilla and guinea fowl and strawberry!

What about sourcing of ingredients – is that local?

I’m uncompromising about the quality and consistency of the ingredients that enter my kitchen. Where possible I source locally and I’m all for using local produce as long as the quality and consistency is there. I won’t use local produce just to say it’s local.

A large responsibility as Head Chef at L’Ortolan was to build relationships with suppliers and that only happens over a long period of time. So originally I came up here with suppliers that I knew and that I had worked with and trusted. In the last seven months while I have been up here I am gradually building relationships with more and more local suppliers and I now have some beautiful local produce on the menu. It’s a pleasure to have such amazing ingredients on your doorstep.

The front of house works very well. Tell us about the team.

Greg, the restaurant manager here at La Becasse, was at L’Ortolan for two years and then went up to Seaham Hall to develop his management skills. When Alan bought the restaurant here he wanted to get Greg back on board. It works really well as Greg knows how Alan works, he knows me and what I expect from him in the front of house, as well as him knowing 4 of the boys in the kitchen. It’s like a family business! The team is 5 and 5. 5 in the kitchen and 5 in the front of house. We’re really pleased with our new Sommelier, Alberto. He has charm with the guests, not an ounce of arrogance and knows his wine really well. He previously worked in a number of two Michelin star restaurants in and around Milan .

Where do your clients come from?

Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday business is generally local. Friday dinner through to Sunday lunch guests have generally travelled to Ludlow as a destination. It’s a “weekend away” sort of place. The spring and summer is high season here for restaurants like us and we’re looking forward to a really strong third and forth quarter.

What has it been like stepping into the shoes of Hibiscus?

Obviously they are big shoes to fill – Hibiscus had two Michelin stars, Claude and Claire had created an amazing restaurant with an incredible loyal following and Claude had an almost “god-like” presence amongst the foodies in Ludlow ! But we are here to do our own thing. We’re not here to sponge off the back of the Bosi’s hard work. We are here to build on the reputation that Claude, Shaun Hill and Chris Bradley have made for Ludlow to be one of the gastronomic destinations in the country.

What do you think of the guides?

The AA Guide is accessible to the general public. I was delighted when they awarded us 3 rossettes after just 6 months of opening. We’re one of only twelve restaurants in the country to be awarded that accolade when the guide was updated in January. It’s a brilliant achievement that was only possible with the dedication and hard work of all the staff to get La Becasse off the ground and running at such a high standard from day one.

Michelin remains head and shoulders the most influential guide in the industry for professionals. We have been recognized in the 2008 Michelin guide and with a huge amount of determination we hope to find a little star symbol next to our listing one day too!!!