Alan Murchison, Alan Murchison Restaurants

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 1st February 2010

IN ASSOCIATION WITH

This month's Featured Chef...

Alan Murchison

Alan Murchison is nothing if not ambitious but, loaded with a wealth of experience in Michelin-starred kitchens, his ambitions might not be far out of reach for the hard-working chef. Through his early career, Alan spent time working at Claridges, Inverlochy Castle, Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons, L’Ortolan and Nobu where he honed his culinary techniques to the highest standard. His return to L’Ortolan, in Berkshire, saw him promoted to head chef, where he earned the commendation of the Michelin star guide within two years. He later became director-executive of L’Ortolan, before buying the restaurant outright. He now owns L’Ortolan along with La Becasse in Ludlow and Paris House in Woburn, as part of his “10 in 8” plan to build ten sustainable, Michelin-worthy restaurants within eight years. The fine dining restaurants under Alan’s expert leadership have so far enjoyed a similar level of excellence as L’Ortolan, with innovative and seasonal dishes on the menus and the highest quality of service available. As a result, the Alan Murchison restaurants have become some of the most popular in the UK.  Alan, first and foremost thank you for your time today. It has been great to see both you and your team in action. You have been at L'Ortolan since 2001? Yes, I came here in 2001 from Le Manior. I worked for Raymond (Blanc) for a number of years, but I had previously worked at L'Ortolan for John Burton-Race in the mid-nineties and moved from there to Le Manoir aux Quat Saisons. I came to L'Ortolan in 2001 with a backer and we did that for a couple of years and then set up our own company. And we have been running it under our own company now for 5 years. How have you found that, in this current climate? The big economic downturn that everybody has been talking about - have you had to adapt what you do, here at L'Ortolan? Yes, very much so. We reduced the amount of covers we were doing in the restaurant and we made a conscious decision to do less guests and to drive the average spend up. I think you have two options, you can either discount your product, and then ram more people in; or you can do like we did - we actually recognised that there were less people about but they were spending more money (they were going out less often). The corporate side did hit us dramatically; that disappeared literally over night and we are now seeing a little bit of recovery in that area. But we are almost maintaining the amount of money we've got coming through the business due to the fact that people are actually spending a lot more than they were 12 months ago. Was it, therefore, a very brave decision, on your part, to take on what was formerly Claude Bosi's Hibiscus in Ludlow? Hibiscus was a natural progression for us, because we'd kept the same senior team in the kitchen and we had such an amount of strength here at L'Ortolan, it was unbelievable. We had so many good chefs and at the end of day we were ready for a new challenge. L'Ortolan was working well, it was busy and the food was progressive but we had too many good chefs. And then the opportunity came up with Hibiscus; I went and had a look at it and made an immediate decision that this was a good thing to do. It was just based on gut feelings; there were no facts to it. I just thought "Yes, we can get this to work." And by the time I had driven back from Ludlow to Reading we had the name in our head and I had thought about Will Holland going up there; I had planned the whole thing. Will Holland seems to be very much the rising star, at the moment? Yes, Will is on the crest of the wave. He's making the most of every opportunity. He is a bloody good cook. But then again, he has worked with me for a number of years, so he's going to be! (Laughter). He is a brilliant cook but he is also a very intelligent chap too. He is very good at promoting himself and the business; he is a first class guy. He is a very balanced chef because he's got financial acumen; some great PR skills - you can put him in front of a journalist; a food critic or a chef and he can adapt himself very, very well but first and foremost he is a great craftsman. His food is brilliant and it is progressive and he is doing very, very well. It is important to recognise other people's skills and to utilise them? It expands them but also allows you to expand too. Exactly, and having taken on Hibiscus it was the best thing I ever did because you build your business around your own invincibility. You think it won't work unless you are there. I think by doing a second restaurant it meant we had to develop the team at L'Ortolan and the team at Le Becasse to do the food, whether I was there or not. And from my point of view that was brilliant because that meant that I could allow both teams to develop and I could move into an overseeing role. I had been cooking for 22 years, and about 20 of those have been spent in Michelin starred kitchens. So peeling potatoes and gutting Red Mullet, as much as I love to do it, is now not a role I have within the business. I spend most of my time at L'Ortolan and I'm at Le Becasse in Ludlow one/two days a week, giving them as much or as little support that they need at that time. Alan, you mentioned there that you had been in Michelin starred kitchens for over 20 years - where did it all begin for you? Was it Inverlochy Castle Hotel? Yes, I worked at Inverlochy Castle in 1987/88 with the Chef Graham Newbold and at that time there was only 2 Michelin starred properties in Scotland and there must have been less than 30 in the whole of Britain. And the food we were doing was just awesome, it was amazing; our competitors would have been restaurants like The Waterside in Bray; La Gavroche London; Le Manior in Oxford; L'Ortolan (under John Burton-Race). Graham (Newbold) just taught me the attention to detail and the absolute lack of compromise he had was just phenomenal. He had come from The Connaught, which in those days was run by Michel Bourdain. A hugely classical up bringing?. Yes, and a very structured chef, using only the finest ingredients. We'd be using Truffles, Lobster and Foie Gras etc it was just outrageous the stuff we were using but you couldn't do an a la carte menu unless you had Truffles and Foie Gras on it. Was Inverlochy Castle the point in your career that you said "I want to be a Michelin starred Chef"? I think I saw, with Graham (Newbold), an alternative to compromise. And Graham and his food was simply not based on compromise at all. But I also saw that it had to go before everything, you had no quality of life; you basically worked and that was what you did. Yes. And that was all there was to it. I think, you either get that standard or you don't. I quite often compare food and football because at the end of the day there are so many different levels but if you want to be in the Premier League you have got to sacrifice yourself for your craft. You must absolutely commit everything to it. You look at David Beckham, he is now in the twilight of his career; he's in his early thirties; career wise he should be dead, but because he adapted himself and focused on his craft during his formative years between 18 and 25, he wasn't falling out of Nightclubs in the early hours of the morning, he was on a training pitch practising free kicks. And he has got such a high level of craft and technique that he can still play; he can play Mickey Mouse football in American; he can play in the Italian League and he can play for England. He has got that craft and it is the same with food, if you just concentrate on your craft between the ages of 18 and 25; you can go up and down the ladder - there is nothing wrong with playing Sunday League Football or there is nothing wrong with cooking in a pub or a two star hotel, that's fine but you have to balance it out. If you want to play in the Premier League you have to give everything to your craft and that it the way I look upon it with food. With Graham, I was working 16, 17, 18 hours a day. I was 18 years old but you could see the end goals were worth it. Following Inverlochy Castle, Alan, where did your career path take you next?Alan-Woodcock-with-Foie-Gras I did Inverlochy and then I went to France and kind of bummed around for a while and then I went back to Inverlochy for a second tour of duty. I guess at that stage it was under Chef Simon Hague? Yes, and Simon had a completely different style from Graham. Simon had come to Inverlochy from Raymond Blanc's Le Manoir. So, is that where your connection with Raymond Blanc and Le Manoir began? Yes, it was actually. Because I remember saying to Simon "What is the difference between one star and two star food?" and he showed me photos of what he had been doing at Le Manoir. He talked to me a lot about Raymond Blanc and he talked about the guys that were there and that challenge was something that really excited me. I asked Simon's advice about moving South because I had done Scotland and I realised that if I wanted to get on I needed to move away from Scotland. Was Le Manoir aux Quat Saisons the only place you wanted to go? Well, at that point I wanted to go to Le Manoir with Raymond Blanc, but Simon actually advised me to go and work for John Burton-Race because he believed that at the stage I was at; Le Manior would, maybe, be too much of a shock to my system. It was too big. Simon felt that I needed a little bit more experience to get on in the kitchen at Le Manoir. Simon felt that you needed to progress into Le Manoir ? Yes, so I moved from Inverlochy Castle, under Simon Hague who had worked for Raymond Blanc to work for John Burton-Race, who had worked for Raymond Blanc and there was a lot of similarities, so when I went to work with John I knew how to make the basic sauces; I knew how to make Parfaits - I could do all the basics, so my repertoire, of which Simon fed off and John Burton-Race fed off, was the same so I worked for John and got on really, really well with him. John was a challenge in many ways because he got bored really easily so he changed things constantly. He was an absolute "nutter", in respect that we would do 100 different a la carte dishes in 12 months - starters. He would just get bored and want to change everything. But from a chefs point of view it was great because it was a creative pool. Were you here at L'Ortolan during the infamous "Fly on the Wall" documentary? No, I wasn't. I saw that and then said I want to go and work there. Right. (Laughter). That was your motivation to come and work here at L'Ortolan? Yes. I think that kind of had an opposite effect on most people! Well, it's quite laughable really, because John was villainised for behaving in a way that was the norm in kitchens but if you go back 15 or 20 years no one had ever seen inside a kitchen. They had no idea what went on and they simply didn't understand the culture. No, absolutely I think it opened many people eyes. Foie-GrasWhen I worked for John, Rupert Rowley, who's at Fischers Baslow Hall now, he'd started working for us while I was there. Dan Smith, who's at the Peacock at Rowsley as there, who's a brilliant Chef and Martin Burge from Whatley Manor. Some are tipping the Peacock for a star. Oh, really. Yes, as an outside bet. Well, Dan is a very, very good cook. I have known him since he was 16. Myself and Martin (Burge) started working the same week and had a really, really strong team then. So it was a great time and I really enjoyed it; we were there two Januarys in a row and we thought we were going to get three stars and it was a bit of a race off between John Burton-Race, Nico Ladenis and Marco Pierre White. And it actually saddens me, greatly "¦ because John was tipped for three stars and a lot of people see what John is doing now and just think "Well, that's John Burton-Race!" Those were some very big names to compete with. Yes, and what people forget is that John Burton-Race was a bloody good cook in the 90's; he was as good as anybody. We had 5 AA Rosettes; 2 Michelin stars; we had some brilliant chefs and John was an ex-2 star chef. And by a roll of the dice, he is now not cooking at that level. In my view, John, in his day, was as good as Raymond Blanc and should be held up there with the Roux Brothers and Koffman. That is a very big statement? It is. But 15 years ago he deserved to be there. He was a genius. He was so driven by the food. OK. Alan, one name you mentioned then was Raymond Blanc. Almost 4 years with Raymond Blanc at Le Manior. Yes. Now I often think Raymond Blanc doesn't receive all the credit he deserves"¦ I mean, just look at all the names he has turned out in the last 25 years. You mentioned some earlier: yourself; Martin Burge; John Burton-Race; Marco "¦ the list goes on "¦ Michael Caines. Yes. How important was Le Manior to you? Le Manior was where it all came together for me because Raymond looks at everything in absolute detail. He is his own hardest critic. But it is not until you have your own business that you realise that he is right. Because what is a restaurant about? It is about a 100 different experiences and you have to get them all right and exceed peoples expectations. And that is what Raymond does across so many different levels. You know, you are not a customer at Le Manior you are a guest of the house. That is his belief and you are treated like a king, whether you only go there once every ten years or every week - he treats everybody so, so well. And if you get Raymond and he gets you; you have a friend and a supporter for life. I actually get on with him much better now than when I worked with him. RB did a forward for your book "Food for Thought" as well, didn't he? Yes, he did and he is a great support. And I think if you ask any of the guys that have been through there (Le Manior) there is not one of them that wouldn't say Raymond has not been a huge, huge influence on their career. Marco Pierre White put it on record saying that he would have never got 3 stars if it hadn't have been for Raymond Blanc. What makes Le Manior so special? Is it RB himself?Mallard Well, the driving force behind it is him. He is Le Manior, as far as I am concerned. Raymond is a great leader of men; he knows how to inspire them and motivate them. And he surrounds himself by brilliant people and they are great managers. He has got Benoit Blin in the pastry and Gary Jones in the main kitchen. He has key people in each department, who are very good at managing and motivating people but it all comes from RB. Back to L'Ortolan, Alan. You are doing an incredibly well with regards to accolades here. You have expanded with Le Becasse and the book. Where do you go now? Well, we are going to open another restaurant early 2010. And we are going to be doing modern interpretation. So we are planning to open another restaurant in the middle of a recession. Brave move. Confident in the product. "¦ Or insane!? (Laughter) There is a fine line. Yes, braveness or insanity. But at the end of the day we have an opportunity and our long term strategy is to have 10 Michelin stars. Really? Yes, over the next 8 years. Do you have a business partner? Well, we have got a Board of Directors. Of which, I have got Anja Jezusek, who has been with me for 6 years, who is my Operations Director and looks after the Front of House for us. A Finance Director, Paul Cox and I have a Chairman called Richard Percy and between us we have all the skill sets to do everything. And what I would like to do is develop the young guns that I have working for me, and we genuinely believe we have enough talent within the company that we could have 10 Michelin stars. That doesn't necessary mean 10 restaurants, ultimately we are not chasing 2 stars in any of the properties because 2 stars will come by default and consistency. Alan-Murchinson-Salmon Are you 2 stars here? No, one. But we have been doing what we have been doing for 5 years, consistently and it will come. I think you almost have to forget about chasing the 2nd star because what is the difference between 1 and 2 stars? It's consistency and minute details with it. And I think we are as consistent in our cooking and I believe Will Holland is capable of cooking 2 star food. I think he is cooking 2 star food, in fact I know he is but it's consistency. I get just as much, or maybe even more satisfaction out of seeing Will getting credit for what he is doing because I would like to develop in other areas. I mean, I have my next Head Chef lined up for the next property and can now work on the next two or three things that we have got lined up. We want to grow in an organic and financial sound way. But we are aiming to have 10 Michelin stars for the company and we are making no secret about that and everyone that works with us understands what that long term strategy is. Fantastic. Yes, all the properties will be different. They will all be period properties; beautifully designed. They will all be independent and have their own distinctive style. Alan, thank you very much for today and good luck with your plans for the future. Pleasure.

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 1st February 2010

Alan Murchison, Alan Murchison Restaurants

IN ASSOCIATION WITH