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Chef features and interviews

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James Holah, The Ebury, London

Right first and foremost thank you very much for inviting me in.

Pleasure.

Give us a bit of background on The Ebury, obviously your second time here from talking earlier?

I worked here as head chef from 2005 to 2006, it was the first head chef position I got after I left Gordon (Ramsay) and I met with Tom Etridge who was the owner at the time and him and I seemed to click and we did really well, we had a lot of success here back then.

Did you want something very different from Gordon Ramsay then?

I was looking to do something where I had a bit more control over how the place was run, the style of food, Gordon runs a very tight ship it's a fantastic environment to work in but I felt like I just wanted to do something a little bit more individual and something not quite as high profile, and the Ebury was perfect, it was kind of like a top end posh pub, a place where I could kind of go away and cook what I liked.

Was it a business that was already operating?

Yes it was. They were having a reasonable amount of success and then when I came on board we made a few changes and it very gradually got busier and busier and we got more and more successful. It was a great time.

So tell us what's different this time round the James, what's the project now?

The project now is Tom and I are at the back, formed a company which the concept is based around restaurants and micro hotels and gastro hotels, instead of gastro pubs.

You've probably just invented a new term there.

Yes gastro hotel. The concept is we're going to be closing for refurbishment in January and we're going to be reopening as a ten room boutique hotel with a very nice restaurant and cocktail bar, hopefully. The hotel is being designed by Lou Davies who recently did The Riding House Café. It's going to be very modern, very slick, very quirky and then hopefully we'll have a good restaurant that people will enjoy, a modern cocktail bar, a good vibe, good atmosphere, great people and a reasonable price point.

So are you going to be a community restaurant? Who are you appealing to? Who's your market?

Yes absolutely last time around when we were here we were very much a cornerstone in the local community, we were used by all the local residents and people were proud to have us there.

That's the key isn't it?

Yes we were used frequently by lots of people who lived locally as well as obviously having people coming here because we had a half decent reputation. That's the challenge now is to try and get that back,to get back those customers that sadly have been lost in the interim and so we're doing a lot of promotions, we're going round people's doors, literally by hand and introducing ourselves and telling them that we're back and the feedback we're getting is, "Oh thank God, we've missed you, we used to love the place and we don't go any more. We're glad you're back, we'll be along soon and we'll give you another try," and when they come and give us our second chance we need to grab that with both hands.

This is a lot different than your last job, obviously you were head chef at the restaurant at the Ritz.

Yes I was.

Massive, grandeur, pomp, ceremony, big brigade"¦

Absolutely and the kitchen and the size of the brigade at the Ritz I don't think I'll ever see that again in my career but yeah it's different but it's also the same, I mean working with John Williams was fantastic for me. It caught me at a time in my career when I needed somebody to really turn me round and pull me in the right direction and he did that.

Because you were very much at restaurants before that weren't you?

Absolutely

Paul Heathcote, Gordon Ramsay"¦

Yeah The Square etc. it was very much a difficult time for me I'd just left Paul Heathcote wasn't particularly in a good place mentally, it hadn't worked out particularly well between Paul and I, not for want of trying, but I came back to London and John Williams took me on and he really picked me up, shook me down and got me back cooking again, got me going in the right direction and yeah he taught me a hell of a lot, not just about cooking either but about how to run a team, how to"¦

Was it difficult to make that transition from restaurant to hotel?

Oh at first I mean my first week there"¦

You thought, "˜Oh my God what have I done?'

No the chef was on the pass and he'd be calling out the restaurant checks, where's the function for that? Is that afternoon tea ready? And then there's room service and I remember sitting there thinking, "What the f**k is going on?" I didn't know where I was, what was going on but after a couple of weeks I kind of got my head around it and with the Ritz it's a very particular hotel, it's the greatest, most famous hotel in the world probably and the set up's just so different. So the function rooms for instance the maximum they'll sit is 60, 70, 80, not like 1,000 covers like you get at the Grosvenor or whatever, so for someone from a restaurant background it's very easy for me to get"¦

Yeah it's still quite intimate the Ritz isn't it?

Yeah so it was very easy for me to make the transition into hotels going somewhere like that because it wasn't massively different and John Williams was great. He shepherded me through the whole thing and then it took me two or three months to find my feet and then after that the next two and a half years we had a lot of success at the Ritz and working together and it was great.

In terms of the food here at The Ebury, then are you looking to do a similar style to when you were here originally or have you got a different sort of food footprint that you're going to do?

I've spent a lot of time in my career working at high end, fine dining, for lack of a better phrase, restaurants that serve French food and that's what I do but I notice there is a kind of dichotomy between what I was doing for a living and where my heart lay, where I was going to eat on my days off and I like to eat at places say like La Petite Maison or Barrafina, places like that. I just love it, they're so relaxed you sit there, there's a good vibe in the room, there's atmosphere and going out and having a night out is more than just about the food. I like the two star food style restaurants and I go there for special occasions but I mean you sit in them and the food is great, the service is great, the wine is great, if you drop a fork the whole room looks at you like, "˜Shhh' and that isn't the sort of environment we are trying to create"¦

It's kind of breaking down that formality isn't it?

Yes, I mean I don't see why you can't serve great food in an environment where if the whole room want to sing "˜Happy Birthday' to you because it's your birthday that's great and that's one of the reasons why I want the open kitchen when we refurbish so that the boys in the kitchen are very much a part of the action in the front and I really want it to be really atmospheric. In terms of the actual food itself I'm not going to be dropping any standards I obviously have got a very rigid background in terms of what I've been doing so I'm not going to be going too far away from what I was doing in terms of execution but the food that I want to cook is French based, best of British produce, but the way I like to cook these days is I don't use any fat. If you have a look at la repertoire, the original classic French gastronomy, butter, butter, butter, butter, butter and it's great, it's glorious, it's rich, it's full of flavour and I still enjoy it, but I think with the modern diet it's not really as applicable as it used to be.

I suppose if people are eating out a lot they don't want as much heavy food, rich food, like you said earlier when you were here first time round this was a place that people ate frequently.

We had some customers in three times a week. I think in the modern diet every day people eat so much carbohydrate that that kind of provides their body with the energy levels that they need for the day, so basically if you eat fat you store it because the body burns carbohydrate first. I don't use butter in the kitchen I don't use cream, obviously patisserie is different, I'm all about trying to use a natural flavour to just lightly cook things, not to fuss around with ingredients. I spent a lot of time between leaving the Ritz and coming here in sourcing some great products.. Products coming in from the best parts of the country and obviously some French and Italian imports as well.

Who inspires you?

Blimey, I've been lucky enough to have some absolutely fantastic mentors along my career, like Phil Howard and Rob Weston, were the first ones to really just basically gave me the skills that I needed to be able to do the job I wanted to do and I was in the kitchen there for just over two years and I worked every section and I loved every minute of The Square.

Did you work with Adam Byatt (Trinity Restaurant) ?

Adam had gone by the time I got there. I was part of the team with Brett (Graham, The Ledbury), Nathan, Chris, to name but a few, Regis who is pastry chef at the Ritz now he was pastry chef at The Square when I was there. John Williams has been a massive influence on my career, but where do I take inspiration from? I take it from products really I've got a great guy called Paulo who delivers my veg, he runs his company but he still goes to the veg market every day and picks everything out personally by hand and they turned up here a couple of weeks ago with some rainbow chard and he said, "I couldn't leave this at the market, nobody wants it, do you want it," and it was beautiful and I was like, "Of course I'll do something with it," so I braised it in some orange juice and a bit of smoked trout and some toasted almonds and sold it as a little side dish, a little starter and it flew out the door. I take a lot of inspiration from my peers and when I go and eat out, if I ever get the time.

Do you think that to a degree fine dining has, not had its day there will always be a place for the Ritz and le Manoir, but do you think now the public are looking for more operations such as this and we are wanting to eat good food but in jeans and a shirt as opposed to having to dress up for dinner?

Definitely. I think one of the biggest changes in eating out in London over the last ten years has been the customer, who now is really a lot more hard work. They're a lot more demanding and they know what they want and you've got to cater for that. Customers are a lot more clued up about the products and they have a basic, to good, wine knowledge. Customers won't be told, apart from the Ritz obviously, "You will wear a jacket, you will wear a tie," they simply say, "Excuse me he who pays the piper calls the tune," and if they want to go to their local pub on the corner, the days of, "Oh it's only the pub on the corner, the burger was a bit crap," have gone, they want it right and they know what's right and they want it for a decent price point, so you ignore that at your peril!

Absolutely last question then let's jump forward five years where are you and the company in five years' time?

Hopefully me and the company are just about to open our fifth site, your fifth micro hotel in London"¦

Gastro hotel. ((laughs))

Gastro hotel yeah another"¦

You could trademark that.

Yeah maybe I should yeah a ten to 12 room hotel with another great restaurant in there, hopefully we'll get a couple of rosettes or something like that.

Are accolades important are they part of the plan or if they come they come?

Oh I've been fortunate enough to win quite a few in my career but they're never anything I set out to do, I mean I would always cook from the heart, from the soul and if they come along that's great.

What do you see accolades as? Do you see accolades as a measurement against other chefs or do you see them as something that puts bums on seats in the restaurant?

Very much the latter, personally the way I see it an award is you can't really compare say one three rosette chef or one Michelin star chef against another, you really can't what they are they're individual testaments to that person's ability and creativity. I mean it's ludicrous to kind of say, "Well I ate at a one star and I ate at another one star and they didn't compare," because the"¦

But people do that all the time don't they?

I know but for me an award has always been about the individual restaurant and about their standards it's like the MCA for instance there were ten of us in the final, ten of us could have won the award, it's as simple as that and it's a really good example actually because we all worked together, we compared notes, we helped each other get their recipes right and that's very much like the fraternity of chefs at that level,

Chefs have become much more open now haven't they?

Yeah.

They're much more you share it, you know, 30 years ago no one would share recipes, now I think the internet has changed things like that, it's much more open the society we live in and I think the fact that you are sharing is basically you are putting something back in and hopefully that is nurturing what's below you and bringing better talent in and up, I hope.

Absolutely and I mean it's one thing which you kind of realise now and I try and say to my younger chefs, the people that you're working with in the kitchen next to you now are going to be your best friends through your life, like for instance when I was chef de partie at the Square I'd got Brett Graham on one side and Nathan on the other and now I'm still in contact with those guys and look at Brett he's probably had the most"¦and every bit deserved, great guy, amazing cook, always has been always will be but I mean he's a friend and that's great, what a great friend to have if I'm ever in a pickle and need some advice and Brett's a great example of the way chefs should operate. He's really open, very friendly. If you want something he'll write the recipe down and do you know what he'll probably give you the ingredients to take home. I mean his generosity knows no bounds and that's one of the reasons why he's where he is because that shines through in everything that he does in his restaurant and I think that's very important but yeah I think today's group of chefs they do communicate, they hang out together, they compare, they talk to one another and that's why the bar's been raised across the board for fraternal effort rather than, "That's mine, this is yours," and I think that's very important moving forward.

Well look I wish you every success with the company.

Thank you.

Hopefully in five years' time we can interview you again in your fifth opening?

Yeah it'll be good ((laughingly)).

But seriously thank you very much for your time I wish you every success and it was great to meet you again.

And you take care.

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