Alan Barrins, head chef, Corrigan's Mayfair

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 18th March 2015
Alan Barrins became interested in cooking age 10 when he was growing up in Sligo, in the west of Ireland. Now the head chef of Corrigan’s Mayfair he has previously worked at Arbutus, the Lanesborough Hotel and Le Deux Salons. The Staff Canteen spoke to him about travelling around South America, Great British Menu and working for Richard Corrigan. How did you get into the industry?Corrigans2014037 My dad had a small café doing lunches and stuff, as a child I was brought in for the weekends, summer holidays and I helped out – I got into cooking then. I started working in a local restaurant and when I finished school I went to a catering college. I had to do a placement and I asked if I could do it in London, I started at the Lanesborough Hotel in Hyde Park in 2004, I was about 20 at the time. I started there as a commis and I worked my way up to a chef de partie. I was there for about two and a half years then I went to Arbutus in Soho and joined Anthony Demetre’s team as a demi chef. What was it like working with Anthony? It was intense! It was very, very intense! Arbutus was only just opening at that time and it was extremely busy. So yeah, that was a bit insane, I spent over two years there.
Where would you like to own a restaurant, what kind of establishment would it be? I would love to have one in the West of Ireland, the scenery down where I am from is stunning, if you had even a small little restaurant there where you are buying everything local off local producers and literally just turning out really simple affordable food, and again making the people happy, that would be my ideal restaurant. Dream Team: Michael Anthony (Gramercy Tavern) - hot larder Daniel Clifford (Midsummer House) - cold larder Marcus Wareing (Marcus) - garnish Nathan Outlaw (Outlaws) - fish Tom Kitchin (Kitchin) - meat Peter Gilmore (Quay) - dessert Richard Corrigan - chef/patron overseeing
Did you learn a lot there? Absolutely, while I worked there we opened Wild Honey so we were stretched to the limit. When you cook with Anthony you learn to cook on a budget, because when you are charging what Arbutus did at the time for the food that came out of it, you had to make things happen out of nothing really. Is that quite rewarding as a chef, to cook without waste and on a budget? Absolutely, I think a lot of chefs in the big restaurants and hotels can waste a lot of food, whereas with Anthony nothing went in the bin, we made dishes out of nothing half the time. I loved it, to this day, that’s still the way we cook here in Mayfair. You left Arbutus and moved to Sydney. What made you want to go over there? It was something I’d always wanted to do, when I worked at the Lanesborough I trained with a guy from Sydney, he moved back to Sydney after I went to Arbutus, and he started working for Neil Perry at the Rock Pool, he worked his way up to a sous chef and told me they were looking for a junior sous, so I packed up my bags and went over. Neil is renowned for his French food, with Italian, Chinese and Asian themes running throughout, so he really does the fusion thing well. There was a huge team of chefs, there were 20 to 25 which was very different to where I’d come from at Arbutus where we were doing massive covers but with only 6 to 7 chefs. Going from a one star in Soho to a three hat restaurant in Sydney, I picked up a lot of ideas and different ways of cooking things over there. From there I travelled through South America for six months -  it was really good, when you go to the likes of Bolivia and Peru and they are literally just taking the fish out of the water in front of you, it was stunning to eat that way. DSC_0158V2Did you pick up some good techniques over there?   Yeah, I used to go into the restaurants and sit there and eat everything, it was so cheap you could just eat everything off the menu. They would bring you into the kitchen and show you what they were doing. The fish that we were getting was unbelievable, everything we were served was simple but had so much flavour in it. It was an amazing thing to do for six months. Did you head back to London after that? I went back to Ireland for a few weeks but decided to come back to London. Anthony Demetri at the time was just after opening Les Deux Salons in Covent Garden, they were short staffed and I ended up starting work there as a sous chef, and again a huge restaurant, doing massive covers. We were doing hundreds and hundreds a day, I ended up working there for maybe two years, I had a great time there before moving to Chiswick in 2012 as head chef at a place called Charlotte’s Bistro in Turnham Green. While I was working there Richard Corrigan approached me. I was already leaving there but he got in contact with me and sussed me out, to see if I would take the job in Mayfair. I took over here in February of last year. What is Richard like to work for? Since I’ve gotten to know him, he is really good to work for. We did a couple of menu tastings where I just put up some dishes for him and the managing director to try, and he loved them, loved the simplicity of it, I think it reminds him of the way he likes to cook.RCNrep-17 We are very generous here, we buy the best fish and the best meat going, and again we treat it as simply as we can, if you order a piece of fish or a piece of meat here that is what you get. The garnish is second, it is all about the protein or whatever the main dish is. Richard lets me run everything now, but whenever he comes into the kitchen he is tasting everything, he will always give you input into a dish, what he thinks, what you could tweak, whether he likes it as it is, and again at different times of the year what he would like to see coming. Richard has done Great British Menu, is that something you would be interested in doing? I’m not so sure if it is for me - we’ll let Richard do that for a little while longer!  I’ve done bits and pieces here with photo shoots and a little bit of camera work but I like to have a wall between me and everyone else. We do have private rooms though and it’s something I had to get used to very quickly. Have you learnt to enjoy it? Oh it’s brilliant now, I love it, sometimes you get some great people in and you could spend an hour in the room just talking to them. When people are interested in food it makes it much easier. How important is training and development in your kitchen? 2012_07_19_Corrigans 18It is essential really to train the guys. We buy most of our meat on bone so we can dry age it ourselves, but it needs to be broken down, and I think a lot of places don’t necessarily do it anymore, it is easier to buy it portioned and vacuum packed, and a lot of the lads when they come here they haven’t really seen a whole lamb before. You have to train them in all the ways, it is interesting for them, people get bored very easily I find so for young chefs we need to keep them interested. For young chefs when they see a whole lamb coming in the door, I think they enjoy figuring out and learning how to break it down, the different bits and pieces and where they come from, the different cuts of meat, so they all know what cut is what. Again with fish it is the same, to fillet a fish properly and portion it properly so they are not wasting any of the fish itself, they need to maximise as much portions as they can out of each fish because it all costs money at the end of the day. You have had a lot of different experiences, is it nice for you to give that back to the young chefs who are coming in today? It is yeah, we get to bring in a lot of fusion so what I’ve learnt in Sydney and over in South America. We have a lot of different dishes, it is a mixture of everything, these guys haven’t seen some of the stuff and for them to make simple little dressings which they would never usually see in London, unless they went to a specific Thai restaurant or a Cantonese, whatever it may be, is great. Richard is very into it and he has travelled the world himself, he loves that kind of food, so it works for us here - we can have a traditional English pie on the menu beside a beautiful Thai crab salad or a nice Asian broth. The menu suggests game is a speciality for you?Game Pie (1) Once game season hits we go heavy on game here. We have a few different birds on the menu, venison, game pies and we might run a roasted grouse. One of Richard’s signature dishes is grouse pie, for two people carved in the room - it is nice to be able to do dishes that Richard used to do in different restaurants, when he was at Lindsay House he used to have these grouse pies on the menu, and people still know him for that; they are big sellers. It is Richard’s name on the door but he showed me what to do, he taught me how to make it, and people just keep coming. Whilst you have been there, have there been any particularly big challenges that you have had to get over? I would say getting used to dealing with the private rooms, private dining is a massive part of what we do here, we have four private rooms and for me that was one of the main things to get used to. In November and December the rooms are fully booked every day, for me it was hard work but I loved it, it was really good. It took time to get used to doing private rooms on top of a full restaurant, it was very challenging, but it was very rewarding, we had a great year. We run the cookery school here in Mayfair which was another challenge that I had never done before. We are not open for Saturday lunches, but once a month we have the cookery school. It’s another challenge, people coming into the kitchen and you actually have to teach them from scratch what to do and try to entertain them for three or four hours on your own. The first one I was a bit nervous I won’t lie. exteriorWhat are looking to gain from the operation, in terms of yourself and the business? For me, it is more about running the business now. Richard very much wants everyone involved, so myself and the general manager, we have to know our figures and know what is going on. Richard loves teaching you and making sure you know what is going on, so in the future if we ever did get our own restaurants we would know what to expect, we would know what to do. What about the guides, such as Michelin, would you like a star? Everybody says no and I do too, it’s a nice recognition but it wouldn’t be something that I would be hunting down you know, I like the fact that here we get to serve very good, rustic food in a lovely setting at the restaurant, but again it is all about making the people happy and that they are enjoying themselves, and if we are not then we are doing something wrong. If you are thinking about becoming a head chef like Alan then head over to our jobs board where you will find a whole host of head chef jobs on offer.
The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 18th March 2015

Alan Barrins, head chef, Corrigan's Mayfair