Member Feature:: Alex Wood, St Stephen Club

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 17th March 2011

The Staff Canteen recently met up with member, Alex Wood Head Chef of St Stephen Club in London.

  First and foremost Alex thank you very much for your time today. You're welcome thanks for coming in. My pleasure, great to come and see you. If we can start by if you can introduce yourself, tell us about your role here, the number of covers you do, number of boys in the team, food style, that type of thing. Okay so my name's Alex Wood, full name from my mummy is Alexander but, you know, I only use that when I'm in trouble. Well you know you're in trouble. I know when I'm in trouble when my full name's used. But my role here I'm the head chef at St Stephens Club. It's a tiny little club in St James' in London. It's home to St Stephens Club itself which has got a small membership of 200. We're also home to the Danish Club of London which has about 600 members"¦ How would you describe your food style? No one likes to be pigeonholed, but I suppose really traditional progressive is how I've kind of label myself in the past. Where I view myself is I believe that proper cooking should be proper cooking but you shouldn't limit yourself to any new style, culinary technique that's available to you, as long as it's appropriate to the plate. So yeah traditional progressive in the fact that I use chemicals, I use hydrocolloids but my backbone of my cooking is proper grounded French style cooking. Okay how long have you been here? I've been here 18 months now. And what's the journey been like in that last 18 months? How has the food changed? How have you changed? How have you developed? I've learnt a lot. I've taught myself a lot. I've stolen from other people and kind of taken my own little path. I tend to be inspired by an element of a plate and then I'll take it off in my own direction. So in the last 18 months I suppose for me I've refined what I did. I've always had the ideas, I've always had a bit of a mad imagination but now I can actually translate those to things that work on the plate. I won't say I haven't made some mistakes on the way but"¦ But that's part of the learning process isn't it making the mistake? Oh completely yeah I mean I run my kitchen the same way my father used to run me, he who never made a mistake never made anything, just be somewhere else if you make the same mistake twice. ((laughs)) A great philosophy. Absolutely yeah. Okay and does the fact that you're  in a club give you that sort of element to play, to create, be creative because you haven't got so much of the humdrum that's maybe going on in a hotel? We're quite similar to a hotel but I'm quite thankful that a lot of my members, all be they well beyond retirement, are very open to what I produce, the style of food that I put in front of them. I try not to scare them off with too random menu descriptions etc. Being part of a club does give you a certain element of safety in the fact that they've paid their membership and if you fluff it there's a good chance that they will come back. They'll tell you all about it at the time but they do come back. I don't have to worry about my customers voting with their feet. So there is that element of safety but also professional pride I try and make sure that the mistakes we do make we correct them as if we were dealing with a member of the public who's getting the right hump. Often in clubs it is quite a traditional membership and I'm being very general now, it's often a sort of older clientele"¦ Yeah like ours. "¦no it is and that is a general statement I appreciate that, are they receptive to the sort of modern cooking techniques that you do? Do you have to have some of the classics on the menu as well? I do have some of the mainstays, you know, I've got a basic good lamb stew that's on there. We've got a gravadlax on there. We've got calf's liver and bacon, the dishes that I just can't shift. Which is what you kind of would expect from a club. Yeah which gives them a comfort blanket if they don't understand a couple of things that come up but generally what I've found over, certainly the last 12 months since we've had some mainstays on there, the members will play across the menu, they will go for the new dishes. I'm quite lucky here in the fact that I don't have set dates to change my menus, I change dishes when I get bored. I'm constantly tweaking, constantly playing but if a certain set of dishes are working really well and they're selling at an even spread I don't change the menu I just take a bit more time in prepping the next ones that are coming along. Who inspires you as a chef? Who inspires me as a chef? First and foremost Mark Gregory for basically teaching me who I am today and moulding me into what I've become today and thanks to a three day stage in 2004, just as they hit their third Michelin star, while the shit was hitting the fan, Heston managed to give me quite a lot of his time that I demanded when I was there and even after just three days I walked away, not really wanting to play any differently, not wanting it but certainly with a different outlook to how you approach each ingredient, not about how you approach the plate but make sure that you deal with each ingredient with the maximum of your imagination and the maximum of your understanding which then led me off to start a chemistry degree with the Open University. Do you think there's a danger with, again a generalised statement but under the molecular banner, is there a danger that we're going to end up with people, who simply by-pass the foundation and basics of cooking in a quest for a molecular approach Classically self-taught isn't he? Well yeah. One week at Le Manoir and falling in the right pocket of Marco was pretty much it for him wasn't it? Yeah exactly but I guess what I was driving at is, is there a danger that with the Hestons and the Ferrans  of this world that people look at them and they see it's very rock and roll and that the next generation of chefs are going to want to emulate that before they understand the basics of cooking? Oh completely and you see it every day.. I got there in the end ((laughs)). So yeah so many people walk through the door and it's getting more now that they want to be the next Heston now that he's got more of a TV profile but we've had it for years with everyone, every Tom, Dick and Harry wants to be Jamie Oliver and what everybody needs to remember and I've gone to print with this one before, what everybody has to remember is there is one Jamie Oliver. There is one Heston Blumenthal and thank Christ in this world there's one Alex Wood because at the end of the day we are all who we want to be, , if you want to be bouncing around TV etc. then go to RADA, learn drama for fuck sake. Yeah. There will always be room for a certain amount of cooks on our television screens especially as channels are expanding exponentially giving more and more chefs and actors much greater scope for unemployment and so whilst the increased profile does make the industry more appealing and I think that's fantastic"¦ Yeah absolutely. "¦what every chef that walks through the door of my kitchens, anybody's kitchens who I know, needs to remember that you start on the bottom rung, you climb, it's down to your skills, your talent, your passion, your drive, how quickly you climb that ladder but don't think that by donning a set of whites you're Jamie Oliver, you're not, you're another guy who's going to get thrown in pot wash. You're going to be in the shit in service whether you like it or not. No fair comment. Now I know you've got your own blog. You use Twitter obviously you use The Staff Canteen, how important is modern media now to the chef? Oh completely. It's huge. Look at my follower list 361 followers as of this interview, just following some random Welshman in a club and it's fantastic. I thank everybody, because I don't know what you see in what I'm doing"¦  ((laughs)) Yeah but it's quite amazing how if it's treated correctly social media can boost and benefit everybody, even if it's just a case of getting one or two extra contacts out in the real world, too many of us are stuck in basement kitchens, , as Nathan (Outlaw) said on Twitter the other day, "They don't let us out much," and used well, I started the blog because I wanted to express my thoughts to a wider audience. I didn't want to be playing with fire and water or ideas in food because I'm not that organised to update it but again the thoughts through my head if I can chuck them out there, then it also gives me a good point of reference to what I was thinking at that time which helps, you know, funnily enough the blog is a good archive for me personally but as social media's a great tool just be careful. Certainly things like Twitter just remember they're just instant and very difficult to retract if you push it too far. I've been lucky I've pushed it with a couple of people a couple of times but I've walked away unscathed but that was more luck than judgement. Okay and last but by no means least where can you see yourself in five years? In five years I'd like to be out of the clubs. I'd like to be cooking for the public again in one way, shape or form. Why because the guides recognise you or"¦ I think it's a little bit of that I'm also in a very cushy job that's Monday to Friday, lunchtimes only. You realise everyone's reading this thinking, "˜I want that job'? Yeah well good luck it'll be available in a couple of years. ((laughs)) When it's frantic it's frantic but I do, for the first time in my career, have time to stop and think. I hope I'm delivering the guest expectation that I want to deliver my ethos and just carry that through but it's also a playground for me to hone my skills so that when I go back to the public I've got a good repertoire behind me, using the social media to drive that a bit forward as well hopefully I'll have a little bit of my self-driven PR into whatever I go into beyond this and so that I can hit the ground running and take it somewhere. Clubs are a little bit too safe, but use it for what it is. It's a playground at the moment. Absolutely. Well listen thank you very much first and foremost for today. Thank you for your wonderful content and your input on The Staff Canteen"¦ Pleasure. "¦it generally is very, very well received and enjoy"¦ You can't please all the people all the time.
The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 17th March 2011

Member Feature:: Alex Wood, St Stephen Club