Ashley Palmer-Watts' sous chefs, Dinner by Heston Blumenthal, London

The  Staff Canteen

Tom Allen, Jonny Glass and Allan Herrick make up the team of senior sous chefs at Ashley Palmer-Watts' two-Michelin-starred Dinner by Heston Blumenthal. 

Tom Allen, senior sous / development chef

Tom Allen   What does your role as development chef involve and how do you divide your time between doing that and being a senior sous? I’m usually at Dinner on Mondays and Tuesdays and in the development kitchen in Bray Wednesday to Friday and I get the weekends off to be with my family which is fantastic. In terms of development work I might be writing recipes, writing costings for dishes or maybe going through notes. We have a food historian working for us; she goes through old cookbooks so we’ve got this big database where you can type in ‘pork’ or ‘beef’ and it searches all the historical dishes from the 13th century to the late 18th or early 19th century. To be able to work in a development kitchen outside of the restaurant is essential, giving enough time to read through historical research and applying this to dishes that will fit into the menu at Dinner. Ashley Palmer Watts How does the process work from having an idea to the dish appearing on the menu at Dinner? It differs; you might come up with a dish that takes four weeks to work on or you might get something that takes six months. We can take a dish and cook it maybe 10, 15 times over, analysing it to see if the meat is cooked to what we consider to be perfect; are we using the best technique? Is it brined or unbrined? What’s the temperature that gets the best out of the ingredient? We write everything down with the date we tried it, so if you think, “why not cook it at this temperature?” you can look at the chart and say, “well we already tried that and we scored it six out of ten,” then you can either alter the time or the temperature to get it where you want it to be. We’re also looking at textures of dishes, at the balance, at freshness and acidity and we’re cooking a dish 15 to 20 times over to get it to what we consider perfect. Once we are happy with a dish and it's been through numerous tastings, the next part of the process is writing the recipes, costing it plus getting all the supply lines set up; we need to be looking at what’s going to be in season as well. If we do miss a season that recipe goes in the bank and we can use it next time around. And it’s your job to write the recipes for the staff to follow? Sambocade   “Yes, we work to a very strict set of recipes so if you’re making a chicken stock or purée or some salsify to go on a starter, there’s always a recipe for everything. So for the chicken stock you weigh the same amount of chicken bones to the same spec from the butcher every time. Everything is done by weight. The recipe makes it the same consistency every time no matter if the cook’s been working one year or 15 years.        

Jonny Glass, senior sous chef

At Dinner you have a big team and a busy schedule yet also a good staff retention; how do you manage that? We have 46-48 chefs but people tend to stay with us for a good couple of years. It’s really important to us that, once we’ve taken the decision to employ someone, we keep them. We’ll give them a one or two working day trial and give them as much as possible in that time so we can assess them. Jonny Glass We also have a thorough checklist that we go through for each potential employee so that we can really assess them as close as possible just because it’s difficult to find out exactly where someone’s skill set is in just one day and how they’d fit in with the rest of the team. Regardless of where they’ve worked before, for us it’s more of a personality thing; we need to feel that they’re going to fit in with the mentality of the kitchen. We want them to make an informed decision as well. Once they’ve come to us we want them to commit for a minimum of a year or ideally two or three so they get the full benefit of working here. How do you ensure consistency with such a large brigade? We’re doing around 280 covers a day, seven days a week; that’s a lot of people coming through the door and the standard has to be as high for each single person. We try to instil a certain mentality with regards the importance of consistency and attention to detail. The recipes we have are also extremely accurate and constantly updated so they have all the information they need to complete the task every day, plus there’s senior guys around all the time constantly checking and training and working alongside the younger guys just checking they’ve got everything they need to do their jobs properly. Likewise what about discipline?Spring tart We try to address every single person the way we’d like to be addressed. We treat everyone with respect; we try to be as polite as possible, but it’s a bit more than that as well; it’s about keeping calm especially in a really high pressure situation like in service perhaps. We don’t want to get to into a situation where we lose our cool because if we get to that stage it probably means we’ve failed somewhere down the line beforehand – maybe we haven’t trained them properly or given the support they need. Is the four-day week system part of that? We do work hard and they’re not short days; we start at eight and finish at 12 or 12.30 but we do insist that everyone gets their three days off so you get time to recuperate fully and also we’re super strict that everyone has to take two 30-minute breaks each day to get some food and have a sit down.  

Allan Herrick, senior sous chef

What first attracted you to The Fat Duck group? I did a stage at The Fat Duck in 2003/ 2004 when Ashley was head chef and of course, Heston. I remember the first time I went in and Ash was showing me round. We went into the kitchen for a staff meal. This was back in the day when chefs just didn’t eat. I remember some of the meals we used to do where I was working before would just be bones from the chicken stock with cheese over it and gratinated or we’d just drink milk because we didn’t have time to eat. It’s still like that in some modern kitchens. It blows my mind because it’s like saying you’re too busy to breathe. Allan HerrickBut at The Fat Duck everybody stopped for the staff meal. I remember Ash getting up because the juice drink the sommeliers had made, wasn’t good enough, and he said, “guys, this has to be better; there’s no fresh juice in here and not enough ice.” It just shocked me. I didn’t realise that people actually cared about their staff in this industry. Before that all I’d seen was shouting and things like someone getting a red cabbage thrown at them so hard it broke their rib. What was it like working with Heston? When I was there he used to always work every Sunday without fail and run service, which was pretty full on for me. He’s a guy with so much presence. Even if you were in the kitchen – if he walked into the front of the restaurant, you’d just know he was there without even seeing him, just by the way everyone straightened up a little bit. In my opinion he’s a genius at what he does. He used to taste things and say things like, with the snail porridge for example, “it needs to taste like the smell of a freshly cut lawn.” But to this day I’ve never met anyone so approachable. He’d never look down on anybody and he’d sit down with us at staff meals and eat ribs and chicken wings with the rest of us. How do you guys go about maintaining that special atmosphere at a much bigger operation like Dinner? Roast turbotAt The Fat Duck we had 45 staff cooking 42 covers in a small kitchen; at Dinner we’ve got up to 48 chefs cooking for 170 covers and that’s over lots of kitchens – a prep kitchen, the main show kitchen, the fish prep kitchen and meat prep area so it’s a very different set up. I just try and recreate everything I’ve seen Ash do over the years; everything I’ve learnt from Jorge [Arango Herrera], from Tom [Allen] and Heston and try to recreate that. I’m lucky in that it comes across so easily because I totally believe in what we do; I could talk to you for hours about it purely because I believe in it so much.
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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 18th June 2014

Ashley Palmer-Watts' sous chefs, Dinner by Heston Blumenthal, London