Martin Burge, Whatley Manor, Wiltshire

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 1st May 2008

IN ASSOCIATION WITH

Martin Burge, executive chef of Whatley Manor has worked in some of the best restaurants the country has to offer, from Mirabelle and Pied A Terre to the revered Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons and The Landmark Hotel.

At Whatley Manor, Wiltshire, he oversees both the fine dining restaurant – ‘The Dining Room’ and the brasserie, ‘Le Mazot’. Martin has worked as head chef and later executive chef, since Whatley Manor opened in 2003 and in that time has secured its reputation as one of the best restaurants in the country – confirmed by accolades such as one Michelin star and four AA rosettes. 

"Good morning Martin and thank you for giving up your time today. Martin, where are you from originally?"

Bristol.

"And where was your first job?"

My first job was the Royal Crescent, in Bath. Firstly I left school and went to college full time which was Brunel Technical College. I stumbled upon that from doing a work experience from school, I loved my work experience and then went to college full time for two years. And then my first job was with the Royal Crescent where I worked with Michael Croft. "

Michael Croft - who is now at Calcot Manor in Tetbury?

" Yes, and whilst I was there I did one day a week on an advanced pastry course.

"Was Pastry something that you were always interested in?"

Yeap, it's a bit more creative than the main kitchen. When you are younger you see it as more creative than the main course food - it's not but at the time you think it is. So I was really influenced in creating these really nice desserts; I kind of swung that way.

"Did you always want to be a Chef?"

Pretty much so yes. I started cooking with my mum, to be honest. Simple foods such as baking cakes and stuff like that. And my Grandad was in the Army. He was a cook in the Army, so it was kind of "I think that would be good for you "¦" and I enjoyed doing it, so that was it. That made my mind up.

"How would you describe your role here in your current operation?"

It's a funny one. I find it frustrating but on the other hand it's very rewarding. My role tends to be, I hate to use the word, but it tends to be quite executive - a lot of paperwork and a lot of organising to do to make sure the structure is in place to make sure it runs properly. We have two restaurants here and we have corporate business too. One of the restaurants is going for two stars, which we would love to achieve and there is a lot of effort which is going in to orchestrate that, but I don't miss a service. I stand at the pass check the food; taste the food and make sure it's the standard that I want but I don't spend as much time on a day to day basis in the kitchen as I would like to as a Chef.

"As a cook?"

Yes, as a cook. It doesn't work like that here. The dynamics wouldn't work if I just went into the kitchen and started making a red wine sauce "¦ you know something would suffer at the other end. I would miss information and then we would have an unhappy guest somewhere else, so I just have to get a balance between the two. "Is that possible?" After being here for 5 years, you do finally find the balance.

"You went to London after Bath?"

Yes.

"Why did you choose London?"

At the time everybody said it is the place to go, which I still agree with today. I think everyone should do a stint there. It toughens you up because it's a life style change from these country houses, and it makes you tougher around the edges I think it's a good place to go. You know, even if you only do a year or two. (I didn't spend huge amounts of time in London, only about two and a half years), I think it is enough to allow you to make the decision that you want to move away from London, it did for me. I actually did more than two and a half years because I did a second stint: I did five years in total. But it was good to do.

"You went to the Mirabelle as a Commis Chef? How was that? I imagine that it was a huge culture shock going from Bath to London when you were a Commis!"

Yes, it was a big team. It was quite funny actually. Marco Pierre White bought it later on. It had a reputation for years "The Mirabelle" very prestigious. Michael Croft, moved from The Royal Crescent to there, so I followed him. It was owned by some Japanese person at the time, and unfortunately we didn't manage to achieve what we could have or perhaps should have - we did good food, but financially it wasn't making the money so it was closed down. So I made a decision, before it was closing down, to move on to a real crazy restaurant.

"Was that Pied a Terre with Richard Neat?"

Yes that's right.

"What a fantastic place to learn to cook!"

Yes it was. Basically when I was at the Mirabelle, a Chef de Partie said "Look this is the guy, he's really on it. Richard Neat is really the one that is pushing forward. Very innovative in the food he is doing and the place to go. And so I went. And to be honest it was like to zoo! (Laughter). It was a huge shock from being somewhere that was driven as a team into a restaurant where it was driven through one person - it was very strange set up. So Richard Neat would call every single shot; he would do the entire decision making. It was very, very strange the way it was run. But luckily I was out of the firing line because I was running the pastry for him: which wasn't so bad, but he did keep yelling at me to come over and help him. But I think it's good, to do a place like that, so you can see the good and the bad in every place, and again it builds you up, and makes you stronger, and so you are worldly wise. I was very pleased I did it and no regrets. It was 19 hour days, huge commitments, 6 days a week - it took over my life for 14 months but no regrets.

"You left Pied a Terre to go to Le Manior aux Quat' Saisons, which is obviously the starting point of many great chefs. What do you think that added to your career?"

Well actually, it was quite funny. At first I actually turned it down whilst working for Richard. He was very good friends with Raymond (Blanc). He actually phoned up Raymond and said "Look I have got a great guy who wants to come and work for you. What can you offer him?" They offered me a 2nd Commis position and bearing in mind I was almost a Sous Chef at Pied a Terre, I was doing the ordering for Richard, I was running the pastry and to go somewhere as a 2nd Commis was not a positive move in my mind. I refused the job as 2nd Commis, then they came back to me and said "no, no you can come as a 1st Commis" with a promotion shortly after if you can prove yourself. So I said "OK I'll go". I mean it was a drop in level, but a prestigious place; working the way I like to work: I thought it was the perfect place to go and I went there. And it was perfect. It was all formatted out; running how a kitchen should run. It was run in sections and it wasn't all combined like in a restaurant, so you got to do the butchery, fishmongery, the garnish section, larder - and you spent a good amount of time on each section: 6 months; sometimes upto a year on a section to learn it properly and that was the structure that really attracted me to it.

"It sounds like a fantastic place to develop your career?"

Absolutely, I would recommend it, or to come here to Whatley as we have the same training and development format. "

If you were leaving college today would you take the same route? What advice would you give to young chefs coming out of college today?"

To me this NVQ is not great. I've got a lad here, who has been with me for three years. He's doing his NVQ 1 and 2 and to be honest they are not great - they tick a load of boxes. In the years of the 706/1 and 2 I would have advised college full time. Now I would recommend workplace experience with a day release to college to gain the piece of paper. You never know when you might need it, travelling to Australia for example.

"Really, would that be your advice?"

Yes, so I do recommend you get the qualifications but do it in a place that has got great structure and will teach you correctly. Like I said earlier in the interview don't go to a little restaurant like Richard Neat's because he wants to do it all himself, come to a place like Whatley Manor or go to Le Manior where the structure is in place to teach you each section correctly. I would recommend that you find a place like that, then you can progress and to do a good stint of time there. You know, three or four years.

"To learn the basics on each section thoroughly?"

Yes, all these kids that do a year here and a year there, it's really detrimental; because guess what you end up doing the garnish section in every place you go.

"So you feel it's important to stay for a good period of time to learn the sections thoroughly"

Where ever you go to you will start on the garnish. After that you'll move on to the other sections and if you stay for three to four years with a good knowledge base when the time comes to leave you will be a good Chef de Partie - if it's a good place.

"I think there is a major difference now to when you or I were at college and starting out in the industry. For example I was still a Sous Chef at 30 years old; Chef de Partie at 27. I think people start now at 16 as a Commis and want to be Head Chef by the time they are 21. What do you think about that?"

Yes, I think that is exactly how it's going - and I think it's disappointing. But the thing is they do that, and when they finally end up becoming a Head Chef, and are probably earning anything between £20 and 30K. You know you can call yourself a Head Chef at 25 but what kind of Head Chef will you be? If you take your time and when you finally get to the correct age for a Head Chef you can earn £50, 60, 70K. You do notice the difference if you do it properly and don't cut corners. Unfortunately a lot of people like to take the fast-track but long term it's not the way to do it.

"Yes, as a Head Chef you have got to be able to cook; you have got to be able to manage people; manage your department; manage the paperwork - I don't think you can learn that by the time you are 25 years old."

I"˜ll be honest with you, I took on the job of Head Chef for John Burton-Race at L'Ortolan. I was 26 years old and I was the Head Chef, and was I ready for it?..... No is the honest answer. No question - I could cook but was I a good manager? No. Could I manage a team properly and get the best out of them? - No. Could I teach and develop my team? - No. Could I scream and shout? - Yes. Was I an Idiot? - Yes. I wasn't really ready for it. And it took me a good two to three years when I went to the Landmark to become a manager. Not just a chef but a manager. I could then actually motivate people correctly and manage people in a way that you're happy with and they are happy with and you're achieving the standards set by yourself. I think age is important. And I think I maybe made a mistake as I think I was too young at 25/26 to take on such a big job. I think so anyway

"You should get a good grounding first, a good foundation?"

Yes, take your time.

"What do you look for when people apply to you for a position?"

They have to be keen, willing and someone who really really loves food. I don't want people who feel it's just a job, where they go in, they're constantly looking at the clock, they go home, and they get paid! It's so easy to spot them to be honest; you can really notice someone who has got the passion. But there is a fine line, you can still get people who are passionate about food but still aren't really Chefs. There has to be passion there, openness, willingness to learn and not shy of hard work.

"OK Martin. You are Head Chef of a beautiful establishment, Whatley Manor, with two Michelin stars and three Rosettes. Some people would be more than happy with that. You have worked in some of the country's best kitchens. What motivates you to get up in the morning? What's the driving force behind you?"

My career is like a book and it's not finished yet. This is just a chapter and there are many chapters to a book. I believe, I think it would be unjust. You can go out there and you can do your comparisons. For example, why do we have 3 rosettes and the place down the road is a better 3 rosettes. But at the end of the day, a lot of chefs purely cook for the guides. I mean, I don't but I do feel that. The guides are a kind of a bench mark within the industry and people use them to make comparisons. So I would be lying if I said I don't look at the guides and want to be better in the guides, but for me the rosettes and the Michelin stars - I think its justice. If you look at what effort we put into the food I think it's why I want to get up in the morning and why I want to carry on "¦ and to better it. It's in my makeup.

"You still appear very driven?!"

Yes I have that drive, that drive for perfection and at the same time, you have to be realistic in what you do and what you can achieve in a place.

"Martin, do you still enjoy it all? Do you still enjoy cooking as much today, as the first day you started?"

Yes, and you know, and I am certainly not bored of it. Yes, I do still enjoy it. Unfortunately for me I don't have as much time (on the stoves) as I would like. You know, as soon as a holiday comes and you have a little break I make all these silly little creations at home for the family. It's in your blood; you know, you either love it or hate it "¦ and I actually love it.

"How would you describe your cooking style?"

It's modern French.

"Who do you draw your cooking influences from?"

I can honestly say that my cooking style has its own individual mark. A lot of people couldn't say that. A lot of people do copy. But if you came in here 5 years ago, you would could see influences from John Burton-Race and especially Raymond Blanc, as John Burton-Race's food was a spin off from Raymond's, although he had this amazing talent of his own. A lot of chefs dishes are spin offs and I can honestly say that if you looked at the food at Whatley Manor the same cannot be said. It's not a spin off from anyone. It's got its own style.

"That's the same with Gordon Ramsay, when he left Marco (Pierre White), wasn't it? His food was a spin off of Marco's but I think as you grow and develop in the role you achieve your own individuality."

Yes, and I believe it is. It's got its own individual mark and we're very pleased with it. But we have followed some people's basic ideas. We are very modern offering lots of extra little courses. A lot of chefs like to offer a little bit more interest through out the meal. We've followed that format. Where that originated from - you could say Spain. But the cuisine has its own identity. It stands on its own.

"Do you try to eat out as often as possible?"

Yes, I mean all the places I want to eat are too expensive (Laughter). When you've got two kids, a wife and a mortgage to pay it's quite hard to go out as often as you'd like to. I have been very lucky through work here; I've been to places like Per Se in New York and Danielle's. I've pretty much eaten in all the places over here that I want to, like Le Champignon Sauvage, Le Manior, Gordon Ramsey's, Marco Pierre White's when he was cooking and Pierre Koffman's. I've been to pretty much all of them.

"Some fantastic places?"

Waterside, Le Gavroche, Fat Duck and I think it's good to eat out too. Especially if you do it when you're younger, you don't realise how much money you have when you're younger! (Laughter)

"Until kids the come along!!"

Yes, you know I say to them that's when you should go and eat in these places, because you haven't bought the cars, houses etc. When you start getting proper bills and everything you never have so much money.

"What do you think of the influence of Celebrity Chefs? They're all over the TV at the moment. Is it promoting the industry? Is it doing a disservice to the industry? Is it a true reflection of the industry?"

To be honest, it's a really interesting question. There are a lot of people out there I don't think it harms. It doesn't bother me if a Celebrity Chef wants to do what he wants to do; I do what I want to do. I've got no problems about it, you know. I can remember the old Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsey thing - I'm not a Celebrity Chef, old Ainsley Harriett is! To be honest, I think you do what you do. I do have a little issue with people going and making comparisons between me and Ainsley Harriet: "Oh, Ainsley does what you do" and it's like "No he doesn't!!" You know how Joe public are

"Of a "Well a Chef is a Chef" belief?"

Yes, they don't really understand the divide of the two. I do get irritated with that one "¦ and hang on a minute we are VERY different. But that's probably not the guy, that's the Celebrity Chefs fault; that's the actual Joe public not really understanding the difference between the two. That's probably my only gripe!

"Well Martin, thank you very much. It was great to talk to you. You are a busy man. Good luck with the launch of the newly refurbished restaurant "˜The Dining Room' and thank you for giving up your time to do the interview today."

A Pleasure.

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 1st May 2008

Martin Burge, Whatley Manor, Wiltshire

IN ASSOCIATION WITH