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John is a passionate hands on chef who has developed and expanded the food offer within his current role at De-Vere rolling out new concepts across the De-Vere estate. John is responsible for the food concept strategy and food development across the Village hotels and De-Vere Venues.
John's CV offers a diverse career, beginning by working for acclaimed Chefs such as Pierre Koffman, he travelled and worked in Australia before returning to the contract sector for Everston Hewitt as a director, before its merger with Baxter Storey.
So, John, if you could just give us an outline of your current role with De-Vere; tell us a little bit about your day to day responsibility - the number of units, number of people you manage?
Yeah, sure. Well, the role's slightly changed since I've been here which was"¦ I think, I've been here now 18 months. I came into the business as the Executive Chef for Village, De-Vere Venues and Heritage. We then decided to stop people working across various brands within the estate. It was important to place key people at the head of each brand, so every brand's has now got an individual Head Chef, or Marketing guy, or HR person"¦
So ownership for one part of the business?
Yeah. So my role now within De-Vere Venues, we have 28 properties. One concept is "?steam, bake and grill' this concept is basically a Chef's Theatre, so we have like duck ovens, we have tandoori ovens, we have grills, we have steamers there. You know there's a lot of theatre involved, the chef is the main player and he's there; he's the talking menu. The guests arrive at the menu point and the chef talks through the menu " today we've got some belly of pork, we've got some grilled rib-eye steaks, with béarnaise" and that sort of thing. We've got great salad bars, but we're not calling them salad bars we're calling them anti-pasta bars.
I just call them rows of colour, so it's just like really fresh, seasonal products.
Healthy slant on that as well?
Yeah massively healthy. A lot of what we do is conference centre's, so, at lunchtime they don't really want big, heavy cottage pie with extra mash or chips then a great slab of chocolate cake "?cause they're gonna fall asleep in the afternoon, so what we're trying to do is give them healthy, grilled items that have been cooked quite quickly, light salads, you know, there's not a great deal of starch in what we do.
We offer desserts but I'm also looking at what we're gonna do in afternoon break times, we're looking at brain cocktails, and bringing super foods and dried super foods into our snacks rather than having coffee and a biscuit and that sort of thing. We're also looking at our leisure market, I think De-Vere in the last 4/5 years has been known as conference centre's"¦
We're now trying to turn those into hotels and there's a big drive"¦ I mean I call it a big drive on a food culture.
Yes. Which De Vere didn't have historically"¦?
No they didn't, I mean, I've only really known about De-Vere for the couple of year, and I thought it had a lot better reputation than it did within it's Food and Beverage but you know, that's what we're aiming to deliver, we're pushing this food culture, we're looking at everything we're doing, we're standardising our breakfasts.
We're putting a big push down on their Food and Beverage, we're doing generic costed menus on intranets for the chefs to download recipes and to keep up their GP. Once again, going on with the theme, it's not just a case of putting out two different types of stew, because then people would just pay the conference delegate rates, we've got to think about what we're doing, if we do a roast we also offer it as a salad or as a hot baguette.
During the winter months we might put a stew on every day but that won't just be a stew, that'll come with the dumplings and the baguette and the nuts and seeds and bits of bacon"¦ All the sorts of add-ons"¦ So really trying to get them to think about add-ons, soup bars as well, same sort of thing, rather than just putting out a great big thing of soup, they can have chopped herbs with it or bacon bits or with croutons or crÃ¨me fresh, or urm"¦ everyone's into these pumpkin seeds and that, and that's what we want to push as well, you know, the super foods, the healthy foods"¦
So it's a big responsibility 28 units. How do you sort of spread your time across that, I mean you've obviously got Head Chefs in all of those units.
Yeah, they've all got Head Chefs; there's been quite a lot of movement in the first year though this has stabilized"¦
I guess this always happens with any new ownership"¦ Change of culture"¦
Yeah, that true in the beginning when ever there's change, I think you either love the culture or you hate it and some people didn't make it. Some people don't really want a change, so you know, I think "?Steam, Bake and Grill' has been a great eye-opener for everyone, we're trying to get as many job-swops as possible going. It's been, I think De Vere past, that it never happened , you know, you went on your own site and you run your site, there's no like chef's meetings, there's been no development team, we've been working hard to get the chefs together four times a year, working with suppliers and doing trips to pig farms and to Rungis market and things like that, you know, I'm talking to some guys that are based in Italy that do all the Heston Blumenthal sort of stuff, not that that'll fit into the business at all but it's just something for chefs to look at and to understand. You know, I'll go to those sorts of places and it's not really for me but I totally appreciate what they're doing and I think it's just as another skill. So you know, we're working close with other suppliers that do that sort of thing, getting the chefs into other sites, get them talking amongst each other, and yeah it is a big responsibility. I've got someone helping me now, a guy called Martin Thomson"¦
Oh right, okay.
Essentially Martin came on just to really help the "?Steam, Bake and Grill'. "?Steam, Bake and Grill' is a totally different animal to what a lot of chefs have experienced in the past, it's all customer facing, all front facing"¦
Which sometimes chefs aren't comfortable with, are they? Because they're often tucked away in the kitchen?
Exactly. And that's where they're happy you know, ten years ago chefs never really came out the front, it was only like the three Michelin starred restaurants that had that image/ style and the chef would come out and actually talk to the customers.
But Martin is very good at that sort of thing, he's like a big bear behind there.
It's good development for the chefs as well.
John, where you are now is a very big contrast to where you first started your career and I mean, looking at your CV you started at Westminster College. Is that right?
You did the two years at that time, what was it an apprenticeship or a chef's school or..?
Yeah, I'm showing my age now, it's a City & Guilds 706/1 and 2 which I know now is the NVQ.
We were at college at the same time, they have never really replaced the 706/1 and 2, though have they?
No, I thought that was a brilliant course, and Westminster at the time, well I think it still is, but it was one of the top college back then, and urm"¦
Yeah I think Bournemouth and somewhere in West London as well were the only like, competitors, but Westminster was supposed to be up there. I was in the first group through the refurbished Westminster College, with its new kitchens, which was great. I mean most colleges you just did two years but in Westminster you had the chance to stay on for a third year and do a diploma, which was run by a great guy actually, Bev Puxley, who I still see around sometimes. He was the Head of the College, at the time, and you basically worked for him, and you're whole year was designing a restaurant and looking at the pitfalls, and doing the staffing, working out your GP, that sort of thing.
All that stuff at the time you thought why am I doing this? And now you think, oh it's really worthwhile doing it.
Yes, I thought to myself why am I sitting here? Why am I doing this when I could be hanging out with my mates.
"I just want to cook!"
Yeah. But, I spent three years there, three good years.
Fast forwarding 20 years then, if you were coming into the industry now would a full-time college course still be the way for you, as a chef, or would you look to do it part industry based supported by a college or..?
Personally, looking back, Westminster was great for me and it taught me the basics but to be quite honest with you, if you look at my CV, I actually from the age of 16 worked in a bar/restaurant in a pub, basically a pub, called the Bell Inn and Horn on the Hill, which still has a great reputation for food and you know, I was just a 16 year old school-kid really, going there and I think I probably learnt more working part-time in that three years from a guy called Jonas Bates, who was the Head Chef, who's sadly died now, died quite young at 44.
That's a shame.
Urm, you know, I probably learnt more about the service and about the industry as a whole than I did at Westminster, although the grounding was great at Westminster. They used to bring in whole hindquarters of beef and the chef would say "come on John, get a knife and help me do this", whereas at college you would be working much smaller joints, you know, you get, well I don't know if it still happens what with HACCP and things these days, but you get farmers just coming up to the backdoor with pheasants or rabbits and the chef would say "come on, we'll skin these" and it'd be on the menu the next day. I think I probably learnt more in the three years by doing my part-time work, it had a great reputation as well, locally and still does.
I think now, more people I talk to are saying exactly that - use the colleges for learning the administration side; the HACCP's and all that sort of stuff but there's nothing really like the day-to-day grounding of being at the coalface so to speak. Okay, two great operations, you've got the Gavroche, Tante Claire, both without stating the obvious three Michelin Stars.
At the time, yeah.
And then after that, you go into Sutcliffe Catering? Why the change? What was your sort of rationale behind that?
Well, basically I spent three years doing that sort of work, you know, the long hours, and the good grounding and that and I had a couple of friends that I worked with, a guy called Lloyd Hardwick, Andrew Frith, Ricardo Andelsio, that went into that sort of catering, and I'd always thought it was serving boiled up mince and crap in .. you know, out of the Bratt Pan.
Big long lines of steaming Bain Maries with Chilli and rice in "¦
Yeah, and I looked at some of these, you know, I went and saw them and they were actually running like directors restaurants. The food they were doing was the same food they were doing when they worked for Albert Roux.
Someone needs to come up with a different name, because contract catering still sounds absolutely awful doesn't it?
Yeah, it sounds like driving around in a van handing sandwiches out.
It's like gastro pubs always sounds like a disease.
Ah yeah, that's one of my big hate words at the moment - Gastro Pub.
Yeah, "I can't come in today, I've got Gastro Pub." (laughter)
Yeah. I was quite amazed at going into Swiss Bank and at the time Cameron McKenna, Klienwort Benson, they've all changed names now, but it's a proper brigade in there. I personally think they were doing no different to what we're doing at Roux, and one of the GM said to me, he said you know, do you fancy earning three or four grand more coming here as a Sous Chef, and I thought well yeah, as long as I'm doing decent food, and I was working with people that I'd worked with before.
I think the thing is, in that environment is the people that you're cooking for in Directors Dining are the same people that are eating in the Gavroche or the Tante Claire anyway so it's just mirroring what you do but in a slightly different environment.
Exactly, yeah. And I thoroughly enjoyed it and got the right feel for it, and of course then you get your weekends and your evenings off, and you got paid overtime if you needed to work over your 9 hours a day.
I think as well, nowadays, I'm finding that, rightly or wrongly, young people, and this not a criticism, are not prepared to start work at 7 o'clock in the morning, and finish work at 10 o'clock at night anymore, you know? And as I said, that's not a criticism, I think it's right that the industry is looking at changing that and I think the likes of Directors Dining and that is a very, very attractive proposition for people now, because they can do great food in a good work environment.
What I would say on top of that, is I think I would never change the way I did it, I would always say to anyone coming into the industry, get yourself a good 2/3 years experience, don't worry that you're not getting your weekends off, don't worry time you are finishing.
Exactly, I mean, at the time the Roux Brothers were up there.
Three Michelin Stars, there was only Raymond Blanc, Nico and Marco Pierre-White that I've been to.. I think there was only five - four or five three Michelin Star restaurants. I mean, now you can go to Gordon Ramsay or Marcus Waring, you know, maybe go to Roubouchen or Alain Ducasse at the Dorchester. And you know, put in a good 2/3 years, put yourself out, get that grounding and then move on. I personally probably wouldn't go into Directors Dining straightaway, although a lot of the chefs have but you need to see that high class, that Michelin Star, "?cause no guy at Directors Dining's gonna be given Michelin Stars.
No, no. and again, there's no shortcut to success is there?
You have to do the groundwork. Okay, so from there then you moved across to Salamon Brothers"¦
That's right, yeah. And that was once again Directors Dining.
Okay. Same sort of environment?
Same environment, yes.
Obviously slightly bigger numbers by the look of it?
Yeah, some very big numbers , Salamon Brothers in now City Group in Canary Wharf, and they had paintings in there worth like a million pounds, so these were like grand dining rooms and.. There was no food costs, whatever they wanted they had, and you always had to keep your 20 fillet steaks in the fridge and 10 Dover Soles, in case they didn't want any of that fancy stuff so they called it and they just wanted a grilled Dover Soles. Whatever they wanted they could have. But once again, we made all our own pastry, all our own breads, all our own petit-fours, we basically made everything in house.
It was great, once again you build on brigades and when I first left Roux Brothers and went to be Sous Chef or very small sites Head Chef, I had like a brigade behind me and we ran that like a normal, conventional kitchen.
And then a bit of a sabbatical in Australia?
Yeah exactly. Around about that time if you look at, it was round about "?97, I mean it's been and gone now, but everyone was talking about Pacific rim, and what they call "?fusion food', and that sort of thing"¦
I was in Hong Kong at that time.
Yeah, exactly the same time I was in Hong Kong. You did some nice Stage's there - Rockpool and Tetsuya?
Well, I was going round and there was a few restaurants that were doing that sort of thing, the Sugar Club I think had just started, not where it is now it was up in Notting Hill Gate, and I was thinking to myself there's gotta be more than chucking a bit of chilli and a bit of bok choi in and calling it "?fusion' so..
Confusion more like.
Yeah. Yeah, it's been said a few times. So I thought you know, I'm gonna see how this goes and I had a friend that moved to Australia so I went out there and I got a job straightaway in Sydney Harbour Casino working for a guy called Paul Fletcher, a bit of a Geordie guy, and spent some time there. But then, you know, going around the restaurants, I ate at Rockpool and Tetsuya, I think"¦ well I know Tetsuya's got a place over here now, so I just phoned these guys up, "?can I do a few stage's with you?' and I was going like a couple of days a week on my days off and working with guys, and I realised it's not just chucking a bit of lemon grass in, it is the whole method of cookery and I think with "Fusion", to me it was always like the Nouvelle Cuisine scene.
Nouvelle Cuisine in it's essence, if done properly, was a great concept, you know, it's healthy cooking at the end of the day. And the same with Fusion, you've got these guys that are doing really, really good food but then unfortunately you get all those people that want to jump on the bandwagon who don't"¦ it'll be like molecular cookery"¦ With Heston. You can admire what they do but unfortunately people will try and copy it, not have the understanding.
Yeah it's the same if you don't have the understanding, not have the concept, not understand the ingredients and just chuck 14 different things together, mango, papaya, lion chilli, coriander, coconut milk and go hey presto.
Exactly. And to a certain extent that's what they were doing at the casino as well. I looked, and I did a bit of work as well with a guy called Matt Moran who had like an Italian sort of fusion place out there and a Tony Mann, who's a good chef as well, but yeah you do learn it's more about the cooking methods and the ingredients you're using and not just chucking things together. When I go back to Australia now, they're still doing that sort of food, and it's like a national food of Australia. Obviously you've got a lot of influx, the Lebanese and the Italians and obviously"¦
A large Greek community there, as well.
Yeah, so I actually do like that food but in Australia. Well San Francisco is very much the same - I did some time in San Francisco, only on holidays - but that was very similar to Sydney I thought, in the way that they were cooking and it was good but it was done quite badly over here, obviously getting the word confusion"¦ it was a great experience and I only came because you know, I didn't have a girlfriend for about 2 years beforehand and what happens about a month before I go I meet someone and then its like ah god. Couldn't have come at a worse time.
So you came back to the UK?
Yes the guys um, before when I was working at Sutcliffes, I had two great guys as my area managers, Stuart Everson and John Hewitt who, as I left to go to Australia left to set up their own little contract catering company. I came back, gave them a call and they said "yeah, yeah we've got a couple of sites - new openings, do you want to come and help us with them?" Came back, and I was doing all my fusion stuff and that blew them away, and they had an Executive Chef that left after about 6 months and they said "Look, we want you to come and take on the role." And it was a very, very small company, as I said, when I went there we had about 5/6 contracts, small ones, but we'd built that up to 40 over the next 6 or 7 years.
Is it a very competitive market?
Massively competitive. Especially at that small level, you know now you've got Harber Jones, Lexington, and you've got companies being bought out every month, but it is very, very competitive and I think what the small companies do is they get all the stuff the big ones don't want, all the Compass and that, so it's massively. Everyone's trying to undercut everyone, I don't think there's a lot of money in it, but what I learnt as I was saying to you before, is it wasn't just the cooking it was running the business and I think that's really helped me, I was getting involved in accounts.
Looking after 90 chefs?
Yeah, and new openings. And were quite quirky, people liked is because we're quite quirky, quite customer focused so we got on quite well with our clients, a good thing was our relationship with our clients, so you learn.
I guess as a smaller company you can be more hands on?
Yeah, and more personal. So you used to going out and meeting people. I learnt like presentation skills.
Did you find that alien? With your chef background, was it something you had to work at?
I don't think so because you started off small, I think you can either do that sort of thing, or you can't and all of a sudden you're there standing in front of, I dunno, PWC or Deutscha Bank , some of the top clients in the world and your presenting to them, telling them about your passion for food and a lot of the time they like that sort of thing. We never had a sales team at Everson Hewitt and like the bigger companies, the first thing we said was "We're just really cooks not sales people."
But do you not think that's the best way? You know, from talking to you today, talking about San Francisco, Australia"¦ You are very passionate, and I think you're absolutely right, you don't need to be a salesman if you believe in a product.
Yes, all you've gotta do is just believe in what you're doing.
You know, if you take an old crappy car and you don't believe in it you'll never sell it, but if you take something you're very, very passionate about it's like.. with chefs etc, I mean, I'm not a salesman but I'm very passionate about what we do and I never prepare for any meetings, or anything like that, but it's just.. It's about enthusiasm.
Yeah I know, I mean I can't do powerpoint, I just start pressing the wrong buttons and the computer goes all wrong. I'd rather just stand there and say this is what I believe in, this is what I'm passionate about and talk about foods, talk about chefs, talk about service"¦
But I think people will buy into that as well, because you're not selling a pitch, it's actually coming from the heart.
And what I try and do in presentations is have a lot of interaction, why not get the GM's carving some meet, or do a ready steady cook, or start your presentation with "?here's a brainfood cocktail, here's a muffin using a polenta or something like that.
Okay. So you're there best part of ten years, you then move across to"¦
Well no actually what happened was we sold, we actually sold, I was a director at Everston Hewitt which was great, as I say I learnt so much more in those 8/9 years about business and running a business, and it's really, really valuable I think, the lessons I've learnt.. I was getting involved in as I said, in accounts, in payroll, actually in sales, suppliers, I totally understand now why companies go with compliant suppliers, but I also see the need for having local suppliers too.
A bit of flexibility.
Yes. So part of the deal when we sold to Compass, for a nice little bit of money, was I had to stay on for a couple of years.
That was part of the deal, was it?
Yeah I actually ended up staying on for 3 years.
They've gotten a bit of bad press recently, haven't they Compass?
Yeah. Um, Compass always get bad press, they change their top office quite a lot, some of it I think is unwarranted, some of it I think is warranted. Compass is the biggest food company in the world they are going to get stick, like Man United are the biggest football team in the world - they get stick, and I think it's the same sort of thing.
I think we have a great love of knocking successful things in this country don't we?
Yeah, I think the whole ethos we had in Everson Hewitt probably didn't work in Compass, which is why the name's now gone. They don't focus on quality... Although that's unfair actually, they have focused on quality but Everson Hewitt focused on client and basically anything that the client wants they get, and it's not alien to Compass.
So then they merged us with Baxter and Platts, which was an established company, very established, Compass had had that for about 10 years and they had some great, great contracts, some great clients.
I mean, this is staggeringly big, I mean, 120 kitchens, 120 contracts, 60 million food turnover, 400 chefs... I mean.
And Baxter and Platts, was classed as a small partner company as well.
Yeah at the top of that you had RA, Restaurant Associates Eurest, then obviously you had all the Stadia, I mean, that was a small part of Compass, and it just shows how big the beast was. But, you know, they were doing some great stuff in there, some real, real good contracts, as I said before, Deutscha, City Group, I mean that place was turning over I think, it was taking over £60,000 a week or something, urm, just through the staff restaurant.
And that's not even hospitality. And that's why I got a lot more involved, you know, from my restaurant background, in staff restaurants, and once again that's a horrible word, but we tend to call them food courts and the chefs were out there and you'd have some at a wood-fire oven cooking pizza, you'll have a Ceaser salad section, which you could have salmon, or grilled asparagus or whatever was in season, you'll have like your normal, traditional section, you'll have someone doing wok cookery"¦
I've been into a few of them in Canary Wharf, Credit Swiss, Barclay's Capital, Lehman Brothers.
Well, Lehman Brothers I knew the chefs there very well.
I know Dean, I know Dean.
He did Directors Dining. Yeah, Dean did what you did for us as well.
Oh did he?
Yeah Dean's a really good guy.
Dean, had a kitchen to die for. I have never seen a kitchen like it. When I went up there to have a look with Dean, it was the first time he showed me the Packajet, you know, the ice-cream things..
Um yeah yeah He's a bit spoilt isn't he, you can put that on the thing as well, he's a bit spoilt.
(Laughter) Yes, I will. I mean the first time I ever met Dean I remember going into his office and it's just this massive, glass-fronted office, that looks out over Canary Wharf, I mean, I'd never come out, I'd just be sat there going oh look, there's that, there's that, you know. But, I guess the difference is in that type of environment is that these guys are in business to make money. And the money they generate is just un comprehendible, for a hotel group.
You know, it's a different league. And therefore, they're not fighting over spatulas or whisks or anything like that like your average hotel is. It's a different environment although of course it has been a drastic change in that market in the last few months.
What I found out with this last year is contract catering is quite a way ahead of hotels, and I really believe that. I mean, I've been in New York as well, we were lucky with Baxter and Platts, we did a contract with Virgin and Singapore Airlines, so I spent time in Singapore, and I was in New York quite a lot, so I got to see some of the sites in New York which, I mean they're probably no better than London sites, and I'd say they're well ahead, and for that reason, there's money being spent on them, you know the staff restaurants, they are like food courts, better than you'd find anywhere else or in any hotel.
Any shopping mall. I mean, the calibre chef... And they're paying good salaries for them as well, the chefs.
So John, what are you looking for now out of chefs? What do you want to see in a chef?
All I wanna see is a bit of passion. If a guy can't pick a knife up, I can teach that, what I can't teach is the fact that you want to be there, you don't want to be out the door at 3 o'clock and you can't really be arsed and you're a chef because you weren't really brainy enough at school or couldn't be bothered"¦ all I want is a bit of passion, a bit of love for what you're doing, and the rest we can teach, it's really, really simple. You know it's like the old story - David Beckham staying behind after training taking free kicks, same sort of thing.
Johnny Wilkinson, same sort of thing.
Yeah. It's chefs that might stick themselves in a corner and start trying out some new sauces or even going in and doing some competition stuff, or just playing around with desserts if they feel they're weak on desserts, you know, that's all I'm asking for, just a bit of passion.
One thing I've also noticed from talking to you today as well, you've kind of used a network of people to progress your career. When you came back from Australia you gave some people a call, and do you think that's important as well?
Yeah, massively, some of the guys I talk to on a daily basis I've known since I worked with them at Roux. And it is such a small industry and people just keep popping up all the time names pop up. You mentioned Dean, I mean, I don't know Dean that well but I've spent some time with him on the catering forum, I've been up to Lehman Brothers before it all went wrong and you get to know who's good in the industry, and who's well thought of.
Thank you very much for taking the time to talk to us.
I enjoyed talking to you.