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Chef features and interviews

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Richard Allen, Executive Head Chef, Grand Jersey

Richard first and foremost thank you very much for inviting me in great to come and see you. Give us a brief about your role here at the Grand Hotel in Jersey?

Well I was initially employed as head chef at Tassili which is a fine dining restaurant a stand alone restaurant in the property, when I came here the hotel was at four stars and in that time we’ve achieved five stars, three rosettes and a Michelin star.

So originally you were employed purely for Tassili?

Yeah Head Chef in Tassili, it’s the name of a mountain range apparently, and then I was promoted to executive head chef of the four food outlets and that's it, it was just trying to evolve it move the whole food offer forward but of course maintain the restaurant.

So talk us through a normal day, if there's such a thing as a normal day in a hotel.

Yeah there is I come in and I do my ironing downstairs, I always do my ironing, I always iron my chef whites as part of my day.

Really?

Yeah I had a nine to five which is a local feature not so long ago and it was the first thing I put in to that feature, and they phoned back and said, “Do you want to put in the ironing?” and I said, “Well it’s part of my day,” so every day I do my chef whites and it just like gets me ready at eight o'clock.

Do you find it therapeutic?

Yeah definitely. I come in, it chills me out, get the mindset, i know what I've got to do through the day.

Do you drive to work?

I get a lift in because we drop my nipper off at nursery and the missus needs the car

It’s just some people do that when they’re on their way into work.

Yeah I miss that, I miss the drive in because I only live up at first tower a very short drive away…

That's what made me wonder if the ironing substituted the drive in?

Probably I know it sounds a bit of a weird one.

No, no, no we've all got our ways of…

Yeah that's right.

So anyway you've ironed your jackets.

Yeah then come in…

Cup of tea?

Yeah well coffee, I'm a coffee man, got to be coffee. And then come in check through the orders, check all the invoices off, brief the boys, go and do the dash meeting, which is all the heads of departments looking through the days business, I am not keen on it but it has to be done

You prefer to be behind the stove would you?

Yeah that's it I'm a firm believer in that I'm a chef for a reason, I want to be in the kitchen but unfortunately nowadays you do get brought out into the hotel.

How have you made that transition then because you said you were brought in to do the fine dining, how have you gone from one relatively small outlet and I don’t mean that in a derogatory way to…

It is small.

…to four much bigger outlets in a much bigger hotel?

You've just got to be organised and what I did here was …well I call it vibrations, it’s a ripple effect, it’s like dropping a stone in a pond, once you get a core standard it’s about rolling it out acroos the other outlets and  maintaining, it doesn’t matter how big it is, of course you need a great team of people around you it can be done, I got offered the opportunity and my girlfriend was pregnant at the time, obviously it was more money and I just thought I'd go for it and it worked for me. It wasn't hard to shine here because at that time in the history of the hotel it needed a big clean up. It was four stars and I took it on as a challenge and I thought I was either going to make it or I'm going to break it and that was it.

Well you have been successful the Michelin Guide came out in October and it recognised your hard work were you one of those  people that was pushing for a star or…I mean everybody wants a star but maybe doesn’t want a star if that makes sense.

Yeah it’s true.

Were you striving for it?

In the early days without a doubt and I really don’t think striving for it, actually does you any good at all. Last year in January 2011, I thought we would get a star for Tassili when the guide came out I felt so sure, I don't know whether that sounds stupid or not but I really thought we would and it just never came.

But you just thought the food was at that level?

I thought it was and we were being told it was by Joe Public and industry professionals whatever, but this year I didn’t even think about it and I was on the phone to a friend of mine and he said, “You must be pleased with yourself?” and I said, “What for?” and he said, “The new Michelin star.” And I said, “Don’t fucking lie to me mate,” I said, “Don’t wind me up,” and he said, “No I'll read it out,” and I can’t remember anything after that for about 15 minutes.

Wow.

Yeah it was madness but we weren't expecting it at all.

But do you think that's part of the reason why maybe you got it because you weren't expecting it?

Probably. The mindset changed. When I left Dukes in Bath  I had in my head the influences from former chefs like Steve Shaw and Rob Clayton and places I had worked at, like the Gavroche it was Frankenstein food, or that’s I called it, it was just all the things that I had seen before…and I was chucking loads of stuff on the plate and now we take it off, I know it’s a bit of a cliché to say that, but we really do.

Have you become more confident in your cooking and your food then?

Definitely 100%. I mean Simon Numphud from the AA said that when he came here for first time four years ago and talked with me, he said I was this quiet kid sat across the table from him and now he says I’m so much more confident in my food the change in me was unbelievable and it probably is I guess you don’t see it yourself do you?. I know that we have changed, the food’s come on leaps and bounds so just keep grinding away

What’s been your biggest challenge since you've been here then Richard?

Staff, massively, because it’s hard to keep young kids here, we had one yesterday turn up the first day he was gone straight back on the plane because sometimes they’re terrified, they get here and they see how remote it seems but Jersey’s a beautiful place and I love it but it’s not for everyone you need to give it time

Especially this time of the year.

Exactly and you get a lovely summer, but obviously this summer wasn't too great, but you get a lovely summer and then come into the winter and it’s bleak here, it goes quiet and they go back to a staff room, they haven't got anything in there but a telly and there's only one or two places you can go out in town and you've really got to try and keep these kids, you have to give them things to do and nuture them get them involved

It’s very much like Cornwall isn’t it in the fact that it’s still seasonal?

It is and with that in mind staff can get bored, they get frustrated, you come to a big place like The Grand, and they’re intimidated by it all, they miss their family and it’s hard to keep them here. I've been lucky enough to have people like Marek jaskalowski my head pastry chef who’s been here with me for four years and he's evolved as much as I have and it’s nice to see him come on and he knows exactly what I want…and Elton Abela has been with me four years, he's been at Grand Jersey five years and they know what I want they don’t even have to ask any more. Although they are always getting told!

You talk about your food style evolving as well, you talk about maybe it simplifying and taking stuff off the plate, if you had to pigeonhole or genre your food style how would you sum it up?

It’s modern English and creative I'd say.

Give us a dish on your menu now that best sums up you.

The foie gras probably it’s a little parfait of foie gras marinated in different alcohols and it’s got 100% Columbian black chocolate, peanut butter, a Pedro Ximinez vinegar jelly and pain d’epice biscuit.

So there's some classical elements in there with the pain d’epice and things like that.

Definitely yeah.

And you put your own little touches in it?

Definitely and it’s got some smoked duck actually some ‘Creedy Carver’ duck which really, you know, they are classics but to see it, actually I'm going to do some pictures of it but it’s a nice little dish, so yeah modern, creative really.

So tell us how you…you said that you've kind of got this area, the fine dining boxed, how are you going to have to adapt then to look at the other areas and give those the same sort of focus as here? Are you going to have to get someone in to head this up?

No, no, no I wouldn’t.

This is still your baby?

Oh yeah I couldn’t that's why it works for me, because I'm able to do what I do based from where I am in the Tassili kitchen, and I have good people around me in other areas, you've got to do a lot of training with the team and a lot of talking to people and you've got to work with them and you might have to juggle your day around a little bit but it’s worth it in the end.

The Grand is a five star environment so we want a different offering in every outlet and if it’s  the foie gras dish in the restaurant or it’s a club sandwich it’s got to be as good anywhere, you can’t always get it right but you've got to try. So that's how I plan to tackle it, just talking to people, training people, and getting hands on with the team.

But I guess as well if you’re not doing that club sandwich and you’re not doing that breakfast it doesn’t allow you to make foie gras terrines, or parfaits for the fine dining, you need that spend in the rest of the business…

Yeah.

…because fine dining is very often a small part of the food operation isn’t it?

Definitely, yeah I mean the GP actually in Tassili is cracking but it’s just a drop in the ocean really for the food revenue, we like so many hotels make our money through C & B and corporate not fine dining.

And that's part and parcel of hotel life now isn’t it?

It is yeah and you need a cash cow like Victorias, or the champagne lounge, which does really well for us, we get people simply coming in for a drink, and of course what happens when you drink you want food.So yeah you can't do it without the rest of the outlets.

So you've been here four or five years?

Four now yeah.

Very successful, star, where are you going to be in four or five years time? What’s your goal, what’s your aspiration?

Well the cliché is to get my own restaurant but I've been saying that for ten or 15 years now I think.

That's a big financial risk as well isn’t it?

Oh yeah definitely nowadays I think it makes a massive difference now with the current climate. Me and my partner are saving so see what happens

In an ideal world if you had the money would it be a fine dining restaurant or what would it be?

I fancy doing a really good pub. I've got a friend who’s got a pub the Longs Arms in South Wraxall in Somerset and it’s awesome, it’s really awesome his product there is really good and something like that would be really good.

I was very fortunate the other day I went to the Hardwick to meet Stephen Terry and I think that concept is phenomenal.

Yeah I've heard about it.

You know phenomenal chef like Stephen but he's just cooking food that he likes.

That's it I think that's important.

And food that he likes to eat is on the menu and I think from a chef’s point of view I think it could be great in a pub, probably more commercially viable than a fine dining restaurant.

Definitely yeah it’s not necessarily fine dining but something that people want to eat.

Well listen I wish you every success for the future thank you very much for your time today.

Thanks for coming.

My pleasure.