Agnar Sverrisson, Texture, London

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The Staff Canteen

Editor 2nd August 2010

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This month's Featured Chef ...

Agnar Sverrisson

Agnar Sverrisson started training to become a chef in 1992, back in his native Iceland. With talent in abundance, Agnar was keen to develop his techniques and found employment at Gordon Ramsay’s London restaurant, Pétrus. From there he became head chef at Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons, the illustrious two-Michelin-starred restaurant owned by revered chef Raymond Blanc OBE. For Agnar, the only natural progression from there would be to open his own restaurant, which in 2007 is exactly what the Icelander did. Texture itself has been awarded numerous accolades such as the longed for Michelin star (in 2010), The Independent New Restaurant of the Year and Best Newcomer in the Caterer & Hotelkeeper Catey Awards. Bringing together Icelandic and Scandinavian flavours with the British produce available to the London restaurant, Agnar has created a unique menu that benefits enormously from the wealth of experience he gained working inthe renowned kitchens of his past.

 

Agi, first and foremost a huge thank you for your time today. It's lovely to come and meet you. Great to come and see Texture. How exciting is it for you being Chef/Patron of your own restaurant?

It's very exciting. It has been a dream since '92, when I started cooking "¦ and finally it is a dream come true.

Agi, tell us a bit about your early background. We know about your days in the UK but tell us a little bit about your early days in Iceland.

I started to cook in 1992.

How big of a profession is cooking in Iceland?

It's quite big. We work very differently over there - we work two days on; two days off - so it's a bit like a holiday!

You will have a lot of English Chefs wanting to work in Iceland now! (Laughter)

I realised quite early on, that if I wanted to get any where with my cooking I needed to move away from Iceland. But when I started cooking I didn't want to cook; I didn't know what I wanted to do with my life, so I took a position as a chef just to try to be something.

Is there a big food culture in Iceland?

Yes, well there is but at the same time there isn't. We are always learning. We are a very young nation so we are always learning; and we learn fast.

You said you wanted to leave Iceland. What made you decide to come to England?

Well, my idol was Marco Pierre White at that time. I mean, I saw White Heat in '92 and that blew me away.

I think he blew a lot of people away.

Yes, it was unbelievable, so I came to England. At first I came here a few times to eat.

Did you eat at Harvey's?

No, it was just after Harvey's; it was Marco's Restaurant - I ate there about 5 or 6 times, same amount in The Oak Room and that's when I realised I wanted to come and work here. I tried to get a job with Marco for two years and he was having none of it, so I came here and started at Mosimann's.

So you started at The Club; Mosimann's Club?

Yes, followed by Pied de Terre with Tom (Aikens). Back to Iceland; came back.

How long were you at Pied de Terre?

About eight months.

At the time, that place was rocking - wasn't it? It was doing some phenomenal food.

Yes, fantastic.

And by Tom's own admission it was pretty hardcore?

Yes, big time.

And was Shane (Osborn) there when you were there?

No, he wasn't there actually. He came later. Then I went back to Iceland for a few years as Head Chef. Then I came back to England, did a very short time at Petrus. Went to Luxemburg.

Who was at Petrus?

Umm, Marcus (Waring).

So following that, you say you went to Luxemburg?

Yes, Luxemburg for a year - Lea Linster, (the only female to win Bocuse D'or) 1 Michelin and then the lucky break came. I got a call from Le Manior.

But how did that come about? Had you written to Gary (Jones)?

No, actually it is quite funny because I was actually going to work for the former Executive Chef of Le Manior - 1he had a Restaurant in Oxford called - La Gousse D'Ail John Wright "

John Wright - La Gousse D'Ail.

Yes, I went there for a trial, he offered me a Sous Chef position.

He was quite a character, wasn't he?

Massive. I liked him. The two days I was there, I liked him. So he offered me the position, I went home to Iceland for a week and the day before I was supposed to fly I get a phone call and I was told that they closed! I had my flight and everything booked"¦ so I was just "What do I do now?" So basically, the agency said to me "I know they are looking for a Sous Chef, a Junior Sous Chef at Le Manior do you fancy going there?" So I said "Yes, why not!"

Did you know about Le Manior?

Yes, of course. I knew about Raymond Blanc I had seen many of his books, but I wasn't sure whether it was my style of food.

What was your perception of Le Manior before you went there?

Well, a massive, massive place; very classical; I was, maybe, looking for a little bit more modern but then when I came and saw "the beast" it changed my mind completely and it was fantastic.

So you arrived at Le Manior in what year?

Umm, good question "¦ 2001, maybe.

And you arrived as Junior Sous Chef?

Yes.

And where did they start you at Le Manior?

I basically needed to do all the sections. I don't remember what section I started on but it was bloody hard work. At the end of the day people looked at me like you don't deserve to be Junior Sous Chef "¦ blah, blah, blah because Le Manior don't usually take people in as Junior Sous.

That's right; you work your way up.

So it was a very hard time. My first two years there were extremely hard.

Because people were looking at you like that, Agi, does that make you work harder? Be more motivated?

Yes, but at the same time it's bloody hard because people try to f**k you over, basically. So it was a very hard time "¦a very hard time, but after two years - I knew the kitchen inside out and became extremely confident there. I was thinking about leaving after two years and Gary (Jones) offered me Head Chef position which I didn't need to think about a lot - if I take this position so many doors are going to open for me; I just couldn't say no. 2

And what was the rational behind Texture? You were at Le Manior for five years, as you have said, it totally changed who you were and as a chef also. At what point did you start to think that "I need to get out and create my own environment and create a name for myself"?

Well, that was always the idea since I started cooking - that I wanted to do my own thing. I knew, like I said, becoming Head Chef at Le Manoir would open a lot of doors for me, so I took that position and at the same time, in the back of my mind, I was thinking about my restaurant and investors and so on. So Le Manior was extremely helpful over the last two years while I was there to help me start thinking about setting up my own restaurant. Gary was very, very suppo rtive; Raymond was very supportive. I met Xavier (Rousset) my business partner over there; he was Chief Sommelier there. And we started on our days off to start to find investors; locations, ideas "¦ so it took us about two and a half years to actually get the premises; business plan and money so it was a long, long process "¦ it wasn't "Let's open a restaurant and 6 months later we did it!!"

I believe RB was quite influential in helping you with that?

Very much so, I mean RB introduced us to some investors and, like I say Gary was very supportive and understanding - sometimes I needed to go here or there to meet people; sometimes when I was supposed to be working - they were very understanding. Very helpful.

So tell us about the journey you have been on at Texture? Two and a half years?

Yes, it's been a long journey.

You got the Michelin star in January - congratulations to you and the team.

Thank you.

I think a lot of people tipped you for the star earlier.

Yes, well we were dreaming of it (to get it earlier) but obviously it didn't happen.

Was that a good thing?

Well, probably not. I was hoping we were going to get it earlier.

Everyone wants it earlier but

"At the end of the day, we know more now what we are doing. Obviously, businesswise it would have been nicer if we had got it earlier because at the end of the day we were charging Michelin star prices; the environment is Michelin but without the Michelin, basically, so it was always more difficult to justify the prices " but now we got the star and it has changed a lot.

How have the food critics perceived your style? We spoke earlier and you said you use a lot of ingredients from your native Iceland - a lot of elements come from Iceland, both in terms of cooking style and produce.

We got some unbelievably good reviews but then again we got one or two extremely bad ones.4

But do you not think, that sometimes, Critics feel they have to write something bad? That's their job?

Yes, I especially remember one Critic gave us one star out of five - his name was Christopher Reeve, he does theatres basically, and he filled in for AA Gill one weekend and he absolutely slated us. It was obviously to try and put his own name on the map and nothing else; he didn't have a clue what he was talking about. He was not even a Food Critic but put this horrible picture of Texture and when you see something like that people, obviously, read it because it's so bad.

It must be very de-motivating that? You are working very hard; investing money in it.

Well, he's still in my head and that was over two years ago! He nearly killed us.

Really?

Yes, we had so many clients who phoned us after they read it "¦ and it was around New Year as well, we had so many clients who phoned and said "Don't worry" etc but so many people saw it.

What about you as a Chef, Agi? How have you evolved in the last two and a half years?

Well, I think I have relaxed more. Got more simple and everything has got a little more relaxed. I feel more confident in what I w ant to do. I am sticking to what I know; what I believe in - it's not necessarily what everybody thinks is right but I think it's right. People seem to be happy with it so "¦ I'm sticking to that. Simple.

Agi, thank you very, very much for your time.

Thank you.

It's been great to meet you. One final thing, can you introduce to us what you are going to cook for us?

English asparagus with parmesan snow, pea shoots and hazelnuts.

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 2nd August 2010

Agnar Sverrisson, Texture, London

IN ASSOCIATION WITH