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Chef features and interviews

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Brett Graham, The Ledbury, London

This month's Featured Chef...

Brett Graham

Brett Graham from The Ledbury Restaurant in London, the UK's newest 2 Michelin starred chef

Brett thank you very much for your time today. No problem.

It's great to meet you. Let's start by saying congratulations on achieving the second star. A phenomenal achievement. It makes you one of ten or eleven in the UK. Yes. It certainly has put us in an elite group. It was a big surprise for me and an even bigger surprise when you open the Michelin Guide, a week or two later, and you see your name alongside people like Raymond Blanc and Shane Osborn and Philip Howard. People I read about when I was 18 or 19 years old; growing up and cooking in Sydney, thinking I wonder what these restaurants are like. At that point I didn't even know what the Michelin Guide was "¦ and that was only ten years ago!

Has the second star had a chance to impact on the business? It's hard to tell. The Ledbury has made a lot of progress in the last year. I think we have increased our number of customers by about 20% over the last 12 months, per week. So we have really just focused on improving the business as a whole rather than focusing on specific things like Michelin.

But that is probably a better way of doing it, isn't it? You can become too hell-bent on Michelin and forget what the business is actually about - serving good food to your customers. Yes, and I think you stop enjoying your job and you forget what you do it for. You become angry and all bent up about it. Of course, there is a lot of pressure in kitchens no matter which way you look at it.

Does two stars put more pressure on you? Two stars puts more pressure on me because people are walking through the door now saying "this better be as good as Le Manior or The Square." And you think hold on, a couple of weeks ago we were only a one star operation.

That is often the challenge. You are often at a level at one star and then people see that you have got two stars and they expect this monumental jump in terms of your food delivery. Yes. Well, it's a bit like opening the restaurant again! You get two stars and you start at the bottom of the tree and you have got to fight your way up. Four and a half years ago, when we opened, we started at the bottom of the tree; on a flat footing,

 

We had a beautiful restaurant but I didn't have the experience in the kitchen and it is very unfair that people made judgements in our first week. Well I think it was unfair. It took us a good couple of years to find our feet.

You are Australian; do you find the British critics quite ferocious? They have quite a tough reputation here in the UK. Yes, they can be. I think the general dining public is much more demanding here. There are so many guides here. The Michelin being one of the most thorough. They come so many times to check and see what you are doing. We have never known when they have been in for dinner. We don't try and search names on the internet or anything like that so they are, obviously, the leading light with the Guides because they are so thorough and they invest so much money in reviewing. Then there are other Guides in England, which I don't take as seriously as Michelin because you may only see them once a year and they make a judgement based on one meal. And then you have got some of the Food Critics, who quiet frankly are f****** clowns.

People shouldn't forget that restaurants open and people have put their houses on the line; this is their business and these critics have power - they can make or break a restaurant. Yes.

Brett, what made a lad from Newcastle, Australia come to the UK? Did you do that typical thing of "I'll go backpacking for a year?" No I didn't actually. I had a bit of a plan - or so I thought. Well, one place I thought I am definitely not going to go is England. All chefs go to England, why would I want to just follow in everybody else's footsteps.

OK. I was going to go somewhere different. I thought I might go somewhere like Spain, and the Spanish Food movement hadn't really started then so I guess I just liked the idea of Spain. It wasn't as if I was going there to cook, really. I thought I would just go there for a holiday. I thought I'll go to Spain; find a Spanish Princess and I'll bring her back to Australia"¦ but I won an award in Australia to come to England.

What was the award? It was called the Josephine Pignolet Award, in memory of a very good cook; a great chef, who tragically died in a car accident quite a few years ago and every year the Sydney Morning Herald put an Award together and the prize is to go and do a Stagé, I think, where ever you want or a trip to London. So I borrowed a couple of hundred dollars off my dad, so I could get through immigration and I landed in Victoria Station at 4 O'clock on a Friday afternoon - not knowing what I had done or where I was.

So you had nothing arranged, in terms of where you were going to work? No, nothing. I copied a name out of the Guide Book to complete the immigration forms; just made up an employers name and scribbled it down. Luckily they let me through. I went to the desk at Victoria Station and said "I need a hotel for the night or just somewhere to sleep." They sent me to a hotel in Cromwell Road, just outside of Earls Court and I stayed there - £35 a night. Which is a lot of money to a backpacker - if you do the conversion.

Yes. A mate of mine organised me to go to The Square for a day for a trial. So I went and did the trial; everything was OK and I started work there a week later. And you were at The Square three and a half years, something like that? Yes.

Obviously an incredibly high profile Chef there, Philip Howard, how big an influence was that on you? Huge, I think in this trade, particularly, there are not many chefs I have a desire to work for because I think it is important that you work for someone that you respect. It can be hard; it can be disciplined but it doesn't need to be a shit place to work. It doesn't have to be that you're scared to come in; you're scared to say hello to the chef "¦and what I thought about The Square was that Phil is a real gentleman at all times. He never raises his voice; he's very patient and he is just such a lovely guy. We formed a very good relationship hence we are in business together now here at The Ledbury.

GlassHow did that relationship evolve into business partners? Well, remember I was made Junior Sous Chef at The Square restaurant when I had just turned 22. It was so young because a lot of the guys on sections were 30 years old and I was having to get round them.

How did you cope with that? Was there any resentment to that? I took it two ways - the people that were going to recent me are the people that thought they should have got the position and there was obviously a reason why they hadn't got it. But I just thought I am there to do a job and I thought the best way to do my job is to try and get all the guys on my side because there was obviously Phil (Howard); Robert Western and then me. So I thought I have got to get these guys on my side so we can all do a better job for Phil and Rob. And that is how I went about it. We had a good relationship with a lot of the staff. I developed a relationship with Phil - we both understand food in a similar way; we both like the same sort of things; we were reading from the same sheet, really and I understood what he wanted without asking how he wanted it done. So we just clicked like that really well. And then he said to me one day "Are you interested in opening up your own restaurant?" and so I said "Yes, but I'll have a think about it." I thought for about it for quite a while because it is quite a big decision.

Yes, a massive decision. Yes, life changing decision.

Yes, because you are Australian and that in its self means commitment. It's not as if you can't go home but you have got to commit to the UK. Yes, and you have got your family to consider as well. So I thought about it long and hard and then we started looking for sites and Nigel (Platts-Martin), who is also a partner here (he owns Chez Bruce and The Square and The Glasshouse). Between them they are two great guys to be in business with - very fair; very supportive. I am really blessed to have two fantastic partners, who have stood by me the whole time and let The Ledbury grow and develop as we all see fit.

Absolutely. Brett, talk us through the food journey at The Ledbury? You were open, what, 7/8 months and you got a star? And what's that 4 or 5 years ago? Yes, 5 years in April.

Talk us through how your food has evolved? I am going to make an assumption here, that when you first came here your food was very influenced by Phil. Yes, the food was very influenced by The Square when we opened. There is still that classical base and that will never be forgotten. That's very important. I don't think there is any reason, just to be different; you want to serve some weird combination. I am not in to that. So yes in the early days we were heavily influenced by The Square but as the years have gone on we are working away from that and developing our own Ledbury style. But what I think is really important, as well, is that when you open your own restaurant you take your time; you slowly develop what you are doing and do not try and rush it. I've seen so many restaurants open and they go up really quick and the go down really quick.

Yes. So you have been incredibly successful. I am sure it has been very hard work but four years is not a very long time "¦ so what does the future hold? What are you aiming for now? Well, we have never been working towards anything. I know that sounds incredibly stupid, but we just did what we do and we are going to carry on doing that and where ever that takes us it takes us.

PicYes. You know, there is no thought in my mind about getting three stars; it's not even a conversation. Let's just keep doing what we do and see where it takes us. Let's try and find better produce; let's try and do this. We are not interested in trying to find out what Michelin want us to do; we are just going to keep doing what we do. I enjoy cooking the food but most importantly I enjoy cooking the food that people want to eat. You don't always get it right but I think people want to eat stuff that is delicious and seasonal but, also, there is a little twist on the end sometimes. This year we are going to concentrate on improving our relationship with all our customers; improving our connection with new customers and what I think is great about The Ledbury is that we have very slowly organically growing. We have just gone about our business. We don't have PR and we have never paid for advertising and we are probably one of the very few Michelin starred restaurants that don't do PR. I like that, we are a little bit under cover; it's not a normal restaurant you would come to; it's not on the map - it might be more so now, but I just want the restaurant to grow slowly at it's own pace and eventually we will reach somewhere that we are happy with.

How many to you have in the team here, at The Ledbury? Normally it fluctuates between 12 - 15.

What sort of shifts are you doing? We start at 8 O'clock in the morning and pretty much work straight through to about 12.30 at night but we try and get an hour out in the afternoons. The guys work incredibly hard but we turn out incredibly young good cooks. Because we are a busy restaurant we need chefs on all sections. If it was a 20 cover restaurant I would be cooking all the meat myself and making all the sauces; when you are doing 70 you just can't do it. I think for that reason the guys get really good experience on the sections and they leave here much, much stronger cooks than when they arrived.

OK, last question. Talk us through the dish you are going to cook for us. It's a nice simple dish, nice combinations. We have a Raviolo of potato and egg yolk with Bianchettii Truffles, which have just come into season, some little onion skins cooked in white beer and some grated Vacherin cheese. Fantastic. Thank you very much for your time. Let's go to the kitchen and see you in action. Thank you.

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