'You can work long hours and be happy, you just have to really like cooking. And I really, really like it'

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Deputy Editor

Sofian Msetfi is living out his dream. The beaming chef supresses a yawn when he greets me, but It's no surprise that he is tired: for the past five weeks, his name has adorned the door at the Flemings Hotel Mayfair restaurant, Ormer, and he and his brand new team have been working hard to blow their long-awaited guests' socks off.

Quick-fire Questions

If you were to have a superpower, what would it be? 

If I could be invisible I probably would, to see what's going on in certain places - nothing weird though.

Desert Island Object: if you could only take one possession to a desert island what would you take? 

My vape. I quit smoking but I vape instead - I think it's a little bit better than smoking. 

What did you binge/watch/read and/or listen to in lockdown?

In the most recent one - or maybe the second one - I watched the whole of Game of Thrones. I'd never seen it before, so it was quite good, I did it in a month. I was devastated when it ended, there was just a massive gap in my life, I didn't know what to do with myself. 

Are you a cat person/dog person/no pet person? 

Dog person. I don't have one anymore - I don't have time for a dog but I would get one if I had the time. I’m not a massive fan of cats. 

Favourite brand/model of trainers? 

Easy '90 Air Force 1. Whenever they start to look a bit old, I just buy a new pair. It's the only trainer I wear everywhere, I've had them for years. White. It's safe as well, no-one is going to take the mick out of Air Force 1s so I stick with them. 

Drink of choice

Camomile tea. I drink loads of it, like six or seven cups a day. I just love it. I get an orange one, it's really really nice. I stopped drinking coffee six or seven months ago - it's not the greatest for you - and I just never went back. So now I absolutely cane camomile tea, I drink it like it's going out of fashion.

Kitchen dream team - three chefs you'd want in your kitchen, whatever rank, the best team, the best food, loads of fun. 

Marco and Gordon - I think there would be a few issues but it would probably be quite fun to watch. And I'd say Daniel Clifford. He's a good guy to have in the kitchen. 

To Sofian, it feels like he is finally reaping the rewards of every day of hard work he has put in since the first time he entered a kitchen. 

"This has been my goal since I first worked with Paul [Heathcote]," he said. "This is what I wanted to do and I knew I was going to do it at some point, I just didn't know when." 

'There was a togetherness about it'

The son of a chef, Luton-born Sofian spent his childhood in the Hertfordshire area before moving to Preston.

Never overly fond of school, something clicked when he stepped into a kitchen.

"I just loved the environment. I wasn't working anywhere special, and even though it was a bit rubbish washing pots, you had a laugh, there was a togetherness about it." 

He soon realised that where he chose to work and how much graft he put in would open doors for him.

As he progressed, this allowed him to learn from some of the best: with Paul Heathcote MBE at Longridge Restaurant, Tom Kerridge at The Hand and Flowers, Daniel Clifford and Mark Abott at Midsummer House, and with Mike Tweedie at The Oak Room at Adare Manor.

The chef worked in several restaurants in the Preston area, but knew he could do better. 

"I was watching Boiling Point videos on YouTube, starting to notice that where I was working wasn't great."

After working at Longridge Restaurant, he joined The Hand and Flowers as a demi chef de partie, which he describes as something of a shock to the system. 

"I loved my time there but when I first got there I was not used to working those hours.

"The pressure - it was so busy, I was only nineteen or twenty at the time - but I stuck it out for two and a half years, did all the sections and learned loads."

"It's a bit different to other two-star environments," he explained, as although they have very high standards, "it's probably one of the nicer two stars you can work at.

"And it was at a time when Tom was there all the time, in the kitchen, so it was a massive learning curve. I really loved being there." 

Next, he moved onto Midsummer House, where, once again, he was completely thrown by what he saw.

"It was the most mind-blowing style I've ever seen in my life. Everything was levelled up. I'd never worked like that or seen anything like it.

"It took a while to settle in - about six months before I found my feet - because they do things a certain way, the way you carry yourself has to be a certain way. You have to make big changes if you want to work there." 

To this day, he said, "the most influential person in my career has been Daniel. I spent four years with him - and if you work there for that long, you don't just learn how to cook.

"He teaches you about GPs, how to cost stuff, he teaches you about how he creates dishes, how his thought process works. There, and throughout my career, I've always tried to soak up as much as I could." 

When the time came for him to move on, the chef headed for Adare Manor in Ireland, his first experience working at a hotel.

Poached Native Lobster
Isle of Wight tomato, pine nut, basil
Recipe here

"The attention to detail as an establishment - I've never seen anything like it." 

Sofian was there working with Mike Tweedie when The Oak Room won its star, and was subsequently promoted to the head chef position. 

"Mike's man management is really, really good and that's something I took with me," he said.

'I wouldn't have taken this job or any job if I didn't think I was ready for it'

But, as it dawned on him whilst dealing with successive lockdowns, "It was on my mind that I wanted to go and cook my own food."

"I just knew that I wanted to do something for myself."

As it turns out, when he secured the role at Ormer and took the leap he was perfectly at ease creating his own food.

"I base everything around the produce. I get the best produce I possibly can within the seasons and treat it with the utmost respect - whether it's a turnip, tomatoes, lobster, carrots - doesn't matter." 

"That's the foundation of what we're trying to do." 

"We don't load the plate up with a million things, we do two or three components, two or three flavour profiles, try and make them sing as best we can together. It's very clean, all white plates, we have tablecloths in the restaurant now.

"Every dish that you give to the customer, if you can make it as good as you can, that's a journey in itself. I want them to finish and say, 'woah, I loved everything that I ate.'"

Abinao and tapioca tart
Pedro Ximénez Sherry, salted milk sorbet

Reward your teams with a good work environment and good pay

Sofian is of the school of thought that reaching excellence does require hard work and long hours, but that it is possible to do those things and be happy, ecstatic even. 

"People say 'well, you can't be happy doing all of those hours, I would rather work less and enjoy my life' but you can be happy doing both. It's not just, 'if you're a chef, you're miserable because you work long hours and might get shouted at the odd time.' You can do both, you just have to really like cooking I guess."

"And I really, really like it." 

"You can't get away from the fact that if you want to cook at the highest level and in the best places, you're going to have to work long hours. I think it's part of it. No-one forced me to do it all those years ago, to work in all of those places and to work really long hours, but I wanted to do it and I enjoyed doing it.

"Getting people to enjoy doing it is half of the battle and making a nice environment for them to work in is probably eighty percent of that. And paying them enough." 

He strives to provide such an environment for his team, who work a four-day week.

"There is pressure on the people in high places in restaurants. They have standards to deliver, and I believe you shouldn't drop your standards for anyone. But at the same time, there's a way of putting your standards into practice, and there are certain things you don't need to do."

So far so good

Opening in such a context - with the pandemic still looming, the staffing crisis and the challenge of taking over a team from another chef -  was never going to be easy. But so far, Sofian has been pleasantly surprised.

"Every week has been a better week, the food is getting better every week and everyone is getting more comfortable in what they're doing, we're more organised in what we're doing, so it's all falling into place." 

Embracing a fresh start for his team and for the industry after a year of stops and starts, he knows to expect the unexpected. 

"We've only been open for five weeks, it's all so raw and fresh, it's all new."

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Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Deputy Editor 23rd June 2021

'You can work long hours and be happy, you just have to really like cooking. And I really, really like it'