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Chef Interview: Alyn Williams (January 2012)

Posted on: February 17th, 2012 by Simon Carter & Daniel Darwood
Chef: Alyn Williams

Chef Alyn Williams

Alyn Williams may not have had the conventional path to the upper echelons of restaurant chef, having spent six years pursuing his second love, ski-ing, but his rise through the ranks of Gordon Ramsay Holdings demonstrated dedication, skill and passion for the craft.  Now at a new venture with his own name above the door, Alyn speaks to Simon Carter of fine dining guide, about his past, present and future.  Interview took place in the lounge at The Westbury, in late January 2012.

Tell us some background about yourself?

I was born in East Ham, London and a life long West Ham supporter.  I think I was conceived as a World Cup celebration, being born almost 9 months to the day after the 1966 final.  It was a good place to be brought up in those days and only a ten minute walk to Upton Park.

At the age of ten we moved out to leafy Barking, which was considered quite a step up – middle class – in the mid-1970s.  My mother’s side were all Glaswegian and my father’s side very much Londoners.  I have a brother who is a lawyer, probably inheriting my dad’s brains and perhaps my artistic slant has come from my mother.

Cooking wise, inspiration came from my Dad.  He was and is a keen cook.  We had a reasonable size garden where he grew vegetables, he would spend his weekday evening daylight hours working on his vegetable garden.

Saturday and Sunday we would have dinners prepared by my father – on Sunday the roast but Saturday’s would involve all kinds of offal; sweetbreads, kidneys, liver, brains and so on – not just this but all sorts of things.  He could turn his hand to quality Indian, grinding his own spices, and Italian food.  The ingredients were always good in the house.

The traditional English dinner time was important in our house and we all sat round the dinner table for around two to three hours enjoying our food at weekends.  It was a social event.  These memories are amongst the fondest of my childhood and instilled in me the enjoyment of food as a social occasion. School wise it was quite a tough area, I took home economics as an option but there was so much ridicule that I swapped the subject out to metalwork; I think I made a trowel in the year – the power of peer pressure for you – in that part of town ‘men were men.’

During most of my final year at school I spent four days a week working and one day, Monday, at school.  English was my only real academic love, I liked literature and was vaguely articulate and gained an O Level in the subject – everything else in those days were CSEs (Cetificate of Secondary Education).  So for most of my final year at school I was working, the first real break was working as a kitchen hand in a kind of gentleman’s club in St James’.  The chef gave me more and more responsibility, there were only three of us in the kitchen and I really loved that experience.

Between 1986 and 1988, I did my 7061/2 (City and Guilds) at Waltham College.  During my second year, I had a placement at Claridges, which was amazing, there were up to 100 chefs working in section upon section.  I feel really privileged that I got to see that bastion of hotel cooking at the peek of its powers.  The place was huge, grand, extravagant, extraordinary and a real eye opener.

Fredericks in Camden was my first real job, it was a respectable restaurant that took its inspiration from Michel Guerard’s lighter style of ‘Cuisine Minceur’.  There was also the traditional brigade system, which was mainly French.

I then went to a restaurant near Esher in Surrey, the kitchen was run by a couple of brothers.  At the time there were only about 25 restaurants with one, two or three Michelin stars in Britain so one star was something of a holy grail.  Michel Perraud came in as head chef (formerly head chef at The Waterside Inn) and within two years Les Alouettes gained a Michelin star.  Everything was done by the book with attention to detail and classical cooking, this really instilled in me the right approach to discipline in the kitchen and was inspirational in the right way.

Taking a step back, Britain has come through a revolution, or even renaissance, in dining out over the last thirty years.  If you look at our traditional dishes, they are ‘food that equates to fuel’ rather than something you would associate with a dining out occasion or experience.  We’ve come a long way since prawn cocktail, tournedos Rossini and Black Forest Gateaux were considered the height of dining out.

I think we may even be getting to the point where culturally we are a dining out nation.  In comparison, looking back at Claridges at the time of my work placement, you probably needed a title or some land to get a table there – nowadays fine dining (or top end restaurants) are open and accessible to all without the stuffiness or barriers that existed previously.  What is on offer at these establishments is also leaps and bounds better than ever before.

Back in the 1970s to early 80s there were The Roux Brothers, Nico Ladenis, Pierre Koffmann and a little later Raymond Blanc who broadened the horizons of a generation of chefs.  The world also got smaller with the advent of technologies that opened up global influences to cuisine.   Then came Marco Pierre White and Gordon Ramsay – before these chefs, Michelin, in public awareness terms, was a tyre company in Britain, now they are a chef recognition system.  People are so much more aware of what is available today and willing to try what is on offer, at the same time chefs up and down the country have spread their wings and are creating some wonderful food.

After Les Alouettes I spent a short time working at an extraordinary new restaurant, run by a technically accomplished young man called David Everitt-Matthias (currently Michelin two star, Le Champignon Sauvage).  I didn’t last long, the standards were so high, everything was from scratch and the food was visual but technically accomplished in terms of flavour. It proved a real learning curve as to the true value add of one man in the kitchen (there were only two of us in the kitchen at that time).

I then had a life changing experience of spending six months back packing in India with my brother.  This made me appreciate the British quality of life plus also empathy, humanity and understanding.  You may grow up in an environment that you think is tough, that is also (some might say) closed minded, perhaps even slightly bigoted and harsh, then you see people who have absolutely nothing – and I mean nothing – and how they live literally from hand to mouth.  This affects your core set of values, I think fundamentally for the better.

I also took in the food side of India from street stalls to occasionally nice hotels.  It was truly fascinating.  I often pass on, to this day, the lessons of my trip to India to my children.

Then the following six years, I pursued my second love – ski-ing.  After a short time I took up snow boarding, by the end of which I was teaching groups.  This was in France for a year and then five years in Colorado.  I met my wife out there (in Colorado) and she is from Hertfordshire.

In 1996 we decided to settle down and come home, I answered an ad by Gordon Ramsay (who was still at Aubergine) for a role in a restaurant working for Stuart Gillies (now at The Savoy Grill) as a chef de partie, I stayed 18 months and before I left had been promoted to Sous Chef.

Toward the end I did a number of stages – The Greenhouse, Zafferano, Chez Bruce and then Petrus on St James’ Street.  Petrus had only been open a couple of weeks and was simply magnificent.  Angela Hartnett had taken me down there and she asked if I wanted to be considered for a position.  It was a tough, hard, hard kitchen that was firing on all cylinders.  Quite aggressive in its approach.  Marcus (Wareing) was/is a highly driven man and expects a lot from people and many chefs came and went.   It was the scrutiny of having everything you do put under the microscope and the pressure was intense.  Apart from being a perfectionist, he (Marcus Wareing) has a great palate and is an exceptional chef and it shows in the results.

Marcus had a very loyal set of chefs who believed in him, we all really felt very personally about it and for a two and half years it was a ‘team mission’.  The first star came and he had to be very close to the second star for a long time before it finally came along.

In 2001 I went to Claridges under Mark Sargeant for the three months of the opening – they were doing 150-170 covers over there and the speed required was a less enjoyable experience.  Gordon (Ramsay) noticed this and asked me to take up a vacant sous chef position at Royal Hospital Road.  I felt like I’d gone home when I arrived there.  To also work at one of the only three Michelin Star restaurants in the country was something I was very proud to have achieved.  I stayed there a year, mainly on the pastry section, and everything was scrutized to the nth degree, something which was taken to a higher clinical level and another big learning curve.

Mark Askew (Head Chef) knew everything about everything in the kitchen and to my mind took the role of head chef to the next level.  I’m also a big admirer of Gordon (Ramsay) who is probably the most natural chef I’ve ever met.  His affinity with food is amazing.  He would come in once or twice a fortnight and would produce things at the stoves that demonstrated that he was a truly magnificent chef.  He also has a sharp eye for detail in every respect and it is clear, when you work with him, why he has been so successful.

In general Gordon Ramsay Holdings was driven like a machine, with a strict set of almost military style rules, but within that talented people were empowered to grow, develop and flourish in their creative talent.

Tell us about the refurbishment at The Westbury

We had a complete refurbishment of the restaurant that was formally known as Artisan, previously the restaurant had to cater for almost all of the dining in the hotel, breakfast lunch, afternoon tea and dinner. It was open seven days a week so took an awful lot of traffic, the décor was specifically designed to cope with a lot of people so it was a solid room with wooden floors and quite minimal features to be all things at all times.

I joined the discussions over the refurbishment quite early on, the designer, Alex kravetz had already been commissioned for the job but we were undecided about the décor. Alex had four different ideas for the structure and we all agreed that the current one with the wine room was the best, I had already said that I wanted the cellar to be a feature of the room but it was Alex who thought we should make a room of it rather than a simple cellar.

We did a lot of talking about my style, he saw some of my dishes and we discussed how we felt the room should feel. I initially wanted a large terrarium as a feature at the entrance to the dining room but we ended up with fifteen small ones close to the kitchen. They are designed and made by Yun Hider who has been supplying me with foraged herbs and vegetables for the last ten years, he developed the terrarium idea at his home and promised me that I could have his first commercial piece, so I feel very privileged indeed.

Alex did a lovely job with the décor, deep rose wood finishing, comfortable furnishing lots of nice features, intimate banquettes and even a sparkly carpet! I am very happy with the result

What are your aspirations for Alyn Williams at The Westbury restaurant?

I would like to think that my greatest goal is to be busy and popular. There has been a lot of talk about accolades but they only come if you are good enough, even though I have worked for some fantastic chefs you cannot take it for granted that I will emulate what they have done. Opening my own restaurant was a big step for me, I come into it though with my eyes wide open and with an energy that I think only comes when you do your own thing.

How would you describe your cuisine?

My cooking has evolved over a lot over the last few years.  Whilst cooking at the Berkeley I developed dishes that I enjoyed but always with Marcus in mind. I now do that for my own palate which is a liberating place to be. The root of my cookery can be traced back to French classical cuisine, but there are so many influences and places of inspiration that it is hard to put a name to it. My cooking is quite straightforward, looking to enhance and layer flavours so that what you end up with are simply appetizing tasty dishes. I also like to have a bit of fun with my food, some of the dishes appear a little whimsical like the French onion soup with crab and beef cheeks, but the preparation is serious with plenty of skills used. I like to use Asian flavours and also lots of Italian vegetables like their wonderful bitter greens, Catalonia, Puntarella and radicchios, so the French side becomes more about technique than actual dishes.

What is your philosophy regarding the food/wine/service mix?

The three parts go to make up the whole, take one part out of the equation (unless you’re teetotal in which case forget the wine!) and you lose the essence of hospitality. I believe that good service is more important than good food in gaining regular support for your restaurant. So we pay particular attention to the style of service, a friendly but formal mix, we also concentrated on finding a front of house team with characters rather than robots. I was determined to have a relaxed enjoyable place rather than stuffy and stilted.  We have a very close team here and communicate well, it is vital that we stay in touch with each other to make our guests experience enjoyable. I also discuss the food and taste with our sommeliers regularly so that we can make informed decisions on pairing. The wine room in the restaurant is a perfect example of all three coming together. I design a menu around the wines that have been chosen after talking to our wine team. Myself or my sous chef Richard meet our guests and explain the dishes and the planning behind them.

What is the make up of the brigade – back and front of house?

We have a front of house team of 18 made up of Giancarlo Princigalli, my restaurant manager, he has two assistant managers, we also have two receptionists, three sommeliers, chef de rangs and a team of commis waiters.

In the kitchen we have 15 cooks, with me running the pass, my sous chef Richard and between one and five on each section. The pastry has five of which two make the bread, canapés and petit fours.

What is your philosophy of management from the kitchen perspective?

I have a firm belief that you cannot run a successful kitchen/restaurant as a democracy. Therefore I make all of the major decisions both back and front of house. I run a professional kitchen which is strict and disciplined but without being hostile. We work hard but the cooks all have a decent amount of time off too. I think it is important that they are fresh and responsive when at work.  I’ve found that you don’t lose so many staff and you remain more consistent that way.

As Examples of ‘philosophy’ Do you – Rotate the sections? Noisy/quiet? Foster talent? Trusted team members from past experience?

Rotation between sections is done when I feel the cooks are ready, they don’t have a say in which section they work on. I don’t believe in mixing it up just for the sake of it. We have four distinct seasons that we go through each year that are all made up of their own micro seasons, if you only stay on say the garnish section for three  months you only really see one seasons range of vegetables, you would be missing out on so much, so many flavours, techniques of cookery and experiences.

I hate noise, so get quite agitated with crashing and banging around. We talk in the kitchen but there is no shouting other that calling during service. You need to show a high level of professional discipline in all areas, not just the obvious, from personal presentation to correct language and fridge organisation. They all go to produce a good kitchen and good cooks.

Fostering talent goes without saying. If you see a cook with talent you need to nurture them. Although the policy of training goes for everyone. You cannot expect to evolve the restaurant if the team around you are not progressing themselves.

How often would you expect to change the menu?- lunch and dinner

I change my menus as and when mother nature dictates, when ingredients change then so does the menu. I find the produce we use inspiring in itself so we tend to find creating new dishes a very natural thing to do. The lunch menu changes to some degree every week. Whilst the a la carte and tasting menus will change throughout the seasons. When we are on the cusp of a season you might see the menus changing 2-3 times in a week just to harness what is at its best at that moment.

How do you go about sourcing ingredients for the restaurant?

The sourcing is something that evolves as you go. Before we opened I spent some time travelling around meeting my suppliers, part of my trip took me to Cornwall along with Matt Chatfield who runs a fantastic company called ‘Cornwall in your Kitchen’. I visited my existing suppliers and picked up a few more along the way. I only have two companies that supply me fresh produce in London all of the others are scattered around the UK from far north Scotland to the south of Cornwall with lots of others in between. I am in constant contact with them all, they tell me what’s new, what’s coming in or going out of season and what they consider the best quality. I also use Natoora for Italian produce, Oakleaf in Rungis and ‘classic fine foods’, they all keep me up to date with the produce that they are seeing. The common factor behind all of my suppliers is their love for food and passion for ingredients.

What are your culinary influences?

I grew up looking up to chefs like Marco, Nico and Pierre Koffmann. It was a really exciting time in London, gastronomy was taking a new turn and beginning to become properly respected. I remember watching ‘Take six cooks’ with Paul Gaylor, Peter Kronburg, Joyce Molyneux and the previously mentioned three. I thought the food they were preparing was amazing, I’d never seen anything like it. I thought then that was how I wanted to cook.

During my career my mentors and most influential teachers were Michel Peraud (formally head chef at the Waterside inn)  from my formative years and as my career progressed it was Angela Hartnett, Mark Askew, Gordon Ramsay and of course Marcus Wareing. Without those four I would probably not be here today, I owe them all an enormous gratitude.

But ultimately it was my old man who first made me appreciate good food, good vegetables and the love of dining.

Do you dine out yourself often?  Where to?  What do you think of them?
What are your plans for the future?

I love to eat out, but don’t get too many opportunities to do so, casually and most regularly I eat Indian food…I am crazy for curry, usually quite spicy or I love to eat dim sum in china town. During last year myself and giancarlo dined in most of Mayfair’s good restaurants, we have found ourselves in a very gastronomically rich neighbourhood. My favourites of last year were Roganic, Texture and Helene D’arroze at the Connaught. All very different but precise cooking, innovative ideas and wonderful flavours.

I plan to eat out more often in the future, hopefully my restaurant will be successful and once I am comfortable to leave the service in somebody else’s hands I will try more  restaurants, it is vitally important for cooks to see what other kitchen are doing and how the service works in your peers dining rooms