10 Minutes With: Julian O’Neil, The Perfectionists’ Café

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 9th December 2016

Julian O’Neil is head chef at The Perfectionists’ Café based in Terminal two of Heathrow airport. Created by chef and TV personality, Heston Blumenthal whose restaurant, The Fat Duck, recently regained its third star in this year’s Michelin Guide UK, the café was inspired from Heston’s ‘In Search of Perfection’ TV series and books.

It's been two years since Heston Blumenthal took on a new culinary challenge- opening a restaurant in an airport, specifically London Heathrow’s terminal two, also known as The Queen’s Terminal. The aptly named Perfectionists’ Café, was inspired by Heston’s ‘In search of perfection’ TV series and cooking books. The running theme is that classic dishes are taken and the best methods and ingredients are used to cook them to perfection.

So, has the restaurant risen to the challenge of finding perfection? The Staff Canteen spoke to head chef Julian O’Neill to find out.

The Perfectionists Cafe
The Perfectionists Cafe

He found the job by accident when a chat with the Perfectionists’ Cafe kitchen designer unveiled that The Fat Duck Group were looking for someone for the project. Julian was quickly attracted to the role after having already worked for The Fat Duck and having a taste of the fun, the sense of questioning everything, trying to always succeed and do better. “That’s an ethos I really like,” he said. “And I thought, well I’m never going to get tired or bored at the café am I?”

Julian wants people to remember that the café is just that – a café. “We’re not The Fat Duck, we’re not 3 Michelin star, we’re a café that does 1,500 covers a day,” explained Julian. “It’s not fine dining, it’s got the ethos and attitude but it’s all about fun.” He says that the restaurant is a 60’s theme diner based on the original terminal two that was built in the early 60’s which is reflected by the vibrant colour scheme of oranges, turquoises and browns.

The café is about simple food delivered quickly for passengers on the go but using the finest ingredients. The real test is making sure the food is delivered to the exact same quality every single time. The terminal two café has accrued a surprising amount of regulars during the time it has been open and many of these customers expect to eat the same meal each time they visit. “It gets repetitious but repetitious can be challenging to make sure you can deliver it consistently”said Julian.

The Perfectionists Cafe
The Perfectionists Cafe

The menu has grown since the opening of the restaurant and continues to grow. But what does the café look for when coming up with new recipe ideas? For Julian, first and foremost, inspiration is drawn from the 'In Search of Perfection' books and TV show. Although, the restaurant stands firm in its identity as a café, Heston Blumenthal’s signature scientific gastronomy can still be seen throughout the menu. Julian said: “There are elements of [Heston’s] cooking and elements of the research that went into the two books and the series in each and every dish from the nitrogen ice cream to the siphoned batter we use for the fish and chips that we charge up with CO2.” But it’s also about what the public wants. He added: “There’s a huge drive these days for healthier food, so we’re looking for various other options for the future that will make it healthier and more attractive.” 

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When asked whether he is a perfectionist Julian pauses and firmly replies: “Yeah, I’m afraid I am.” He is constantly looking for improvements, whether it’s how to get the pizza dough lighter and more aerated, how to improve the burger bun or how to keep the ice cream consistent. “Once you start to stand still you go backwards,” he said. “It’s just constantly challenging yourself and challenging the guys. The guys challenge back and it’s great, that means they are improving and they want to improve.”

However, running the restaurant is not always easy. First of all, it’s about having the right staff. For Julian, experience isn’t necessary- it’s all about having the right attitude. He looks for people that are willing to learn, have a happy disposition and fit in well with the team. He said: “If the other guys don’t like them there’s no greater equaliser than colleagues whinging and saying he’s a pain in the arse.”  And then there’s the constant vetting, checking and assessment by the airport to ensure that it is safe for the passengers. He said: “In the show kitchen every knife has to be tethered to a lanyard so a crazy passenger can’t go round stabbing people. From a health and safety aspect we have to change out the thermostats every 3 months, because there was a fire in one of the terminals about 10 years ago.”

The Perfectionists Cafe
The Perfectionists Cafe

But through all of the demands of the job Julian still thoroughly loves it. Julian said: “Every day is different, there’s never a dull day, it’s always exciting.”

In terms of his vision for the future of The Perfectionist Café, he wants to keep progressing and be as successful as possible. He also has hopes to see the café on the high street in the future. His dream location would be somewhere “busy and vibrant with  a whole other set of exciting challenges.”

By Melo Ruswa

>>> Related: Three stars for the Fat Duck plus two stars for Raby Hunt in the Michelin Guide UK 2017

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 9th December 2016

10 Minutes With: Julian O’Neil, The Perfectionists’ Café