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A protégé of Alan Murchison, Holland has the potential to become a restaurant owner himself in the future, with a remarkable proficiency in his field that could also earn him further Michelin and AA recognition.
Will, first of all thank you very much for today - it's great to come back and see you at La Becasse again. Let's start from the beginning, you are from Bristol originally? How did you get into cooking?
Yes, Bristol born and bred and proud. For as long as I can remember I have never ever wanted to be anything else other than a chef.
No Grandma stories, please! (Laughter)
No, there is no Grandma stories or 'dad that was a chef and sat me at the end of their work top from the age of 3 peeling potatoes' stories - there is none of that! Both my parents are very academic, they are both teachers or in the world of teaching. I think where it comes from is a real love of food and a great appreciation of food from an early age. Me and my sister were never allowed to sit in front of the telly while we were eating. We were never allowed sweets or fizzy drinks. Cooking was a family event. We would always all do the shopping, or always all be in the kitchen getting involved. I mean, my mum used to bake bread and make yoghurt every day when I was a baby! - developing my palette from an early age! We always sat down as a family and a meal was an occasion.
So where did your career begin for you, then?
I did 2 weeks work experience with Michael Kitts at the Swallow Royal when I was at school.
The Bristol Swallow was a fantastic hotel, wasn't it?
Yes incredible. Funnily enough, Simon Hulstone was the Senior Sous Chef under Michael Kitts. He's doing amazing things now. Back then I was a 14 year old lad who wanted to be a chef and I remember walking into the kitchens and the sound of the kitchen extraction - just that noise all day long. And I couldn't get over the size of things; like the pans ...and the size of the spatulas because I was just a little lad who had been thrown into this environment... but I got hooked. I remember on my first day being given a chef's jacket to wear and looking in the mirror in the staff changing room and thinking that it just looked right!
At that point did you know you wanted to go down the Michelin route? Or did that come later?
No, I hadn't decided aged 14 about Michelin then! But what I did know then was that I wanted to be the best. I wanted to aim for the top. It stems from when I used to do a lot of sport - I wanted to do as much as I could; I wanted to be the best; I wanted to win. I am competitive and that is in my nature. So when I decided I wanted to cook as a profession, I knew I wanted to be part of the elite; I wanted to be the best I could possibly be.
I imagine the Swallow Bristol is quite a big hotel? And traditionally run? When was your first exposure to a Michelin starred kitchen?
Well, I left school as soon as I had done my GCSE's - much to my mum and dad's annoyance ... they had an A level and University route all planned out! Anyway, I went to college and my lecturer got in contact with Gary Jones at Homewood Park. It was Gary's first Head Chef job. He was obsessed and wired. He had earned himself a Michelin Star and four Rosettes there - he was a man on a mission. And my lecturer phoned Gary and said "I have got someone who is quite good, do you want to see him?" Gary said "Yes." So I went over, and because I was good by college standards, I walked into the kitchen with a little spring in my step and a bit of a cocky attitude and shall we say Gary soon addressed that! But I was hooked. I remember turning up and breakfast service was still running and the boys were doing fruit plates and every plate leaving the kitchen was just spot on. I was mesmorised by the attention to detail. Gary offered me a job when I left college. So I started in a Michelin Starred kitchen when I was 18.
I guess you came onto most people's radar when you joined Alan (Murchison) at L'Ortolan. How did you progress into working for Alan?
Yes, although after Homewood Park I went to Gravetye Manor. I was there nearly four years.
It's a real shame what has happened down at Gravetye, isn't it?
It is terrible. I am really good friends with Mark Raffan. It's very sad what has happened there. Especially as I have such fond memories of Gravetye and also I owe a lot to Mark for how he really developed me as a chef. When I was there I worked my way up to a Sous Chef level and I was 24 years old. Meeting Alan was a turning point in my career - definitely. I met him and saw this inspirational, driven, dedicated man who would not sit still; a man who travels at a million miles an hour; wants to have a million things on his to-do list and I just thought this is the sort of guy I want to work for. He was setting up his own company - Alan Murchison Restaurants Ltd and in the process of getting back into L'Ortolan. Alan gave me a job as part of his opening brigade at L'Ortolan - he had never seen me work and never tasted my cooking; he just offered me the job purely on our conversation in the interview. We just clicked - totally. I've been with him over six years now; starting as Sous Chef at L'Ortolan. Within 6 months of opening, his Head Chef left and Alan offered me his Head Chef position at L'Ortolan, which was a huge shock.
How old were you at this stage?
25, so it was a massive compliment and I was extremely respectful but I couldn't help but think I wasn't ready for it. And he said "No, you are." So at 25, I was running his kitchen; responsible day in day out for all the ordering; all the organising; everything. So it was a true Head Chef position but I had Alan by my side or in the building. Then one day we sat down and had a discussion where I said "Next year, I think I need to do something else." And Alan said "you're right - next year, you do need to do something else, but I don't want to lose you, so I am going to buy another restaurant and you are going to run it." And I said "Really!" And that's what happened. So this was end of 2006/beginning of 2007, we heard on the jungle telegraph that Hibiscus was for sale and it was all done top secret. It was Alan, myself and his General Manager of the company at the time - us three were the only people in the whole of L'Ortolan that knew about it. We came up to Hibiscus on numerous occasions; did the deal with Claude (Bosi) and Claire; bought it and then told the staff.
When we acquired Hibiscus, we shut for three months and did a full refurb. We really wanted to put our stamp on it. I was fully incorporated in every single detail about La Becasse - as if it were my own. Choosing the plates; the cutlery; the glasses; even the carpet! Designing my kitchen; choosing my equipment. I remember going round the shell of the kitchen with an electrician choosing exactly where I wanted lights and plug sockets!
How important is it for you to run La Becasse, as if it was your own restaurant?
It's really, really important. A lot of people think that Alan is the Executive Chef here and that he writes the menus and I'm just a radio controlled chef that cooks what he has told me to! Alan is very much my boss. I have a huge amount of respect for him and owe him everything for the opportunities he has given me in my career. I report to him; He pays my wages; He is the owner of the restaurant; He has the final say but this restaurant is mine and I think that is really important that it has that identity. Alan is not running a chain of restaurants. He is the main man of very unique; top end, original restaurants and he is a man on a mission (with his 10 in 8 goal).
So the strategy is very much building the restaurant around the Chef?
Definitely. It's great working for a boss who is a chef because he understands. Alan is very much of the essence that without a great chef there is not a great restaurant. And I am totally of that way of thinking as well and I think that is what you really have to embrace. When guests walk through the front door of the restaurant, they need to know who the chef is. It's not a case of "Oh, it's an Alan Murchison Restaurant. He might be cooking but he might not!" Guests should be aware he owns the restaurant and his reputation but they should also be aware he does not cook here. It's my food, my star; I run the kitchen; they are my menus. La Becasse is a different restaurant to L'Ortolan or Paris House - I have nothing to do with the other restaurants - not because I am not interested in what's going on there but because it's what happens in this restaurant that is important to me.
Will, how have you developed as a Chef since you have been at La Becasse?
It has been massive learning curve. At L'Ortolan it was very nice having that safety blanket of Alan always being there by my side and if the s**t hit the fan it would be him that dealt with it.
There was a buffer?
Yes, if there was a big decision to be made it would be Alan that would make it. Now, all of a sudden I am in charge and I have to make those decisions. Alan is still only a phone call away - I speak to him near enough every day. And it is great to have, a kind of big brother at the end of the phone.
Do you go to the same hairdressers? (Laughter)
You f***ing what?! No, but seriously it's good to have him there. At the end of the day he has given me a huge amount of trust; he's got a lot of faith in me; a huge amount of respect ... and with all that comes an enormous amount of pressure - he has essentially bought me a restaurant and I have got to get this restaurant to work as a business otherwise I haven't got a job, Alan looks stupid, we all loose our reputation and all the staff in the company are in the s**t. I take that responsibility very f****ing seriously and that is more important to me than anything.
It's a lot of pressure. I was only 27 when I got this restaurant and 29 when I got my Michelin star - it's about a lot more than just putting food on a plate.
OK, Will in terms of food - how would you describe Will Holland's food?
I would describe my food as a modern British interpretation of Classic cuisine. That can sound a bit over complicated but what it basically means is it is my take on classic cuisine. The Chefs that I worked with when I was young, impressionable and a total sponge absorbing everything they were teaching me were Blanc trained; Roux Brother trained - they were teaching me classic cooking. And we get a lot of our cooking from France and the rest of Europe - we can't forget that. For me it's about really thinking about what i put on every single plate; cooking intelligently.
In terms of you, Will, where do you see your future?
I am completely happy here. For me the set up is 110% what I want. I am totally happy with it. Essentially I have got a restaurant which I haven't had to pay a penny for. I'm employed in a chef patron role. I have total control over what happens in this building, not just in the kitchen and I can be as artistic as I like.
Is that always going to be enough?
It's always going to be enough if I push myself. I am very good at motivating myself, telling myself to get on and do something and pushing myself forward. And in turn that means I motivate and push my team forward. I think that is really important. I am a "mini Alan"! A true Murchison protégé! I don't want to stand still; I don't want a stagnant menu; I don't want a stale atmosphere in my kitchen. I want my guys in my kitchen to be inspired and on their toes and I want them all to be great chefs one day. So I think it will be enough if I push myself forward and of course with the phenomenal support of Alan and his company behind me. I have a lot of confidence in the ability of myself and my team here that we can achieve more. Whether that is a second Michelin Star or whether that is moving the business forward - it can be in a lot of different ways.
OK. Will, tell us about the dish you are going to cook for us today?
The dish is Parmesan crusted Halibut with curried cauliflower, lime emulsion, coconut and coriander. It was a dish that I first came up with 18 months ago using Scallops. I wanted to add some texture to pan fried scallops so we played around with Parmesan to make a crust. The dish has evolved since then and been on and off the menu (in seasons) with different fish and garnishes but today we are doing it with halibut and cauliflower. Curry and fish works brilliantly. The lime emulsion just adds this citrusy, zingy burst and the coconut for a lovely creaminess and sweetness. For me it is a complete dish.
Fantastic. Will, thank you once again.