Dan Birk, head chef, Social Eating House, London

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 19th August 2015
Dan Birk is the head chef at Jason Atherton’s Social Eating House. He works alongside chef patron Paul Hood at the Michelin-starred restaurant in Poland Street. With a keen interest in cooking as a youngster, Dan has worked with a number of top chefs including Germain Schwab at Winteringham Fields when it held two stars and five rosettes. The Staff Canteen caught up with Dan to talk about being a part of Jason’s restaurant empire, working with Paul and how he had never planned to work in London. What’s it like to be a part of one of Jason’s restaurants?Raw swordfish, cucumber juice, ginger, lime syrup, pickled onion, sorrel, soy To see Social Eating House progress and evolve and to see how busy it has got – you feel a real sense of achievement. My background was very much fine dining restaurants so the old school white table clothes, a bit tight, a bit stuffy – so coming in here which is a really cool place, I knew it was what I wanted to be doing. I could have very easily carried on doing my own thing, taken another job working by myself but I wanted to learn new styles and the way Jason’s restaurant empire was growing, he was very much the man of the moment, it was too good an opportunity to turn down. It’s great to be part of Jason’s team. He’s been a big name chef for quite a few years now and everything he opens is very successful. The good thing is that each restaurant has its own unique style and that’s great. Even having the contact with so many great chefs from each restaurant, that’s a privilege on its own.
Dream restaurant: Take the Social Eating House chef counter to a vineyard in Napa Valley, California and serve local and our own grown produce matched with all the local wine. Dream brigade:
  • Jason Atherton + Paul Hood - PASS
  • Lee Brandon (sous chef @ SEH) - MEAT
  • Thomas Keller- LARDER
  • MPW- FISH
  • James Brown (sous chef @SEH) - GARNISH
  • Robert Thompson – HOT LARDER
  • Jordi Roca- PASTRY
When did your interest in food start? From a young age, I always enjoyed being in the kitchen and would help my mum out cooking. Throughout school I knew I wanted to be a chef but my dad tried to persuade me to do something else so I went to college and studied engineering for a few years. I had a part time job in a kitchen and when I finished college I just went full time there – sitting in an office just wasn’t for me. My love was working with food - I just couldn’t resist the buzz of the kitchen. You trained at Rudding Park Hotel in Harrogate but was London always the plan? No never! Throughout my whole career I never wanted to be in London, it never interested me. I always honed into the small, quiet village restaurants in the countryside. I was at Rudding Park for a few years and left there as a sous chef and I got a wide range of experience during my time there. I did a few competitions while I was there and off the back of winning one of those I got a two week stage at Winteringham Fields in Lincolnshire and at the end they offered me a job. It was a two star and five rosette establishment and the chef at the time was Germain Schwab. That was really the start of my career at that point. Was that a completely new experience, being in a two star kitchen?English Strawberry parfait, wild strawberry, verbena meringue, black curry, yuzu Yeah I went from a two rosette restaurant to a two Michelin star restaurant so at quite a young age it was massive eye opener. I worked with head chef Robert Thompson and I stuck with him for a good four or five years after that. As soon as I saw the standard of food I knew that was the environment I would end up in. It was the buzz of the kitchen, the busyness, the adrenaline, the competiveness, the banter – all the guys around you want the same thing. And pushing hard to progress. What really stands out when you move into a Michelin environment? Precision. Everything is finely tuned and has to be perfect – it’s very regimental. It was that experience which turned me into the chef I am today. Robert was like my mentor and I took a lot on board from working with him and Germain. You moved back up to Yorkshire and you ended up as head chef at The Box Tree, so what made you move to London? I was bored of doing the small, fine dining restaurants. I wanted something fresh and different in my career. I was actually looking at going to Dubai, it fell through so I applied to work at Jason’s restaurant in Singapore and at the same time Social Eating House was opening. Paul invited me down. Paul HoodWas it daunting coming into this environment which was out of your comfort zone? For me coming into a group like this with the standard of chefs here it was definitely daunting. I said to Paul I would start as a senior sous so I could get settled in before moving into the head chef role. I had been so used to my own style of cooking for five years as I hadn’t been working with anyone else, so to come in and pick up someone else’s style of food and the way someone else expects the kitchen to be run, I needed to find my feet. I came down a month after it opened and Paul put me in the head chef role six months later. When I first moved down here it was a shock to see how much work has to be done throughout the day. I might be prepping two or three fish a day at The Box Tree, here it’s 10 or 12 or I’d do 10 pigeons a week up there and here it’s 10 a day. So the work load was a bit of a shock to the system but I was coming from a small restaurant to one that was doing the same amount of covers I used to do a week in a day. Does Jason get involved, is he in the kitchen or does he leave it up to Paul? He does obviously pop in but it’s all down to Paul. They talk everyday but it’s Paul and myself who come up with the food. We bounce ideas off each other and it might take a couple of weeks before something is put down on a plate but we work from there and it’s trial and error. Paul does a lot of the menu planning but he always asks for my input.Smoked sea trout tartare, miso creme fraiche, mouli, black sesame, sourdough. What is Paul like to work with? I always say to people he can be quite full on and I’m a little bit more on the calm side. That’s why we have such a good balance. It’s obviously his restaurant, his rules, his decisions – he can be quite fast and furious. I like to keep things ticking over behind him, keeping everything flowing for him. I have an understanding of how he wants things to happen so I make sure things are done before he notices they need doing. I’m there to pick up issues and problems before they get to him. What have you learned from him? The style of food, you could almost say I wiped my slate clean and came in with a completely fresh and open mind. Everything is different but one chef making a sauce and a stock is always going to be different to how another chef would do it. I had to take all this on board and I obviously have my own dishes but if it’s Paul’s dish and he says ‘this is how it’s done’ then that’s how it’s done. Saying that, he is very open minded so if something can be done better or improved he’s always willing to do what’s best for the food. So how would you describe the style of food at Social Eating House? Social Eating HouseIt’s modern British, we’ve recently changed a lot of the menu but for a long time we had a lot of the signatures, the classics;  so the ham, duck egg and chips, the beef tartare and the cured smoked salmon miso truffle crème fresh. They are dishes we were recognised for when we opened and we’ve given them a break and we’ve been having a play with different styles of dishes. Is it good to have a change? Yeah, we change the menu quite regularly as it’s seasonal,it’s good to be able to teach the guys new recipes, dishes etc. It keeps them interested and on their toes. Otherwise it can get a little tedious constantly doing the same dishes. That’s when people get bored. So change is always good. You got a star here after five months. It’s coming up to the release of the new Michelin guide, is there a lot of pressure to maintain it? It’s the worst time of the year and it does get a bit tense. To maintain a star is a lot more difficult than gaining it, well it always used to be. Any style of restaurant can get a Michelin star these days they are so varied and it’s not all about your fine dining restaurants. It’s always good to see the new styles of food and cooking highlighted by the guide. The pressure to retain the star is always very high as nobody wants to ever lose it.Braised veal sweetbread, confit veal belly, artichoke, roasted pistachio, chickweed You started young, what’s it like having young chefs in the kitchen now you’re a head chef? It’s different, it’s hard to find a really good, keen chef these days. When we do we try our best to keep hold of them because they are like gold dust. We really nurture them and show them everything we can but you can tell straight away if someone is interested or not. It’s a real shame when work trials come in and all they ask about is the hours and the salary. You rarely seem to find a chef these days who asks about the food, the menu, the restaurant, service, all the important things in a kitchen. They are the chefs who you know will be keen to learn and you want to spend time teaching them.

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 19th August 2015

Dan Birk, head chef, Social Eating House, London