Paul Hood, Pollen Street Social, London

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 24th January 2012
Paul Hood is head chef of the highly acclaimed Pollen Street Social in Soho. He has now worked in Jason Atherton’s restaurant for just over a year and expanded his knowledge of the business whilst advancing his own creativity. After working alongside the likes of Jamie Oliver and Ben O’Donoghue, in 2005 he worked as sous chef at Gordon Ramsey’s Maze Restaurant and firmly became Jason Atherton’s right hand man. The Pollen Street Social opened to critical acclaim in 2011, winning a Michelin Star within a year. Paul has been instrumental in defining the Soho restaurant as one of London’s finest. Today he has been kind enough to share his thoughts with The Staff Canteen.  Images with kind permission of John Carey   So first and foremost Paul Hood thank you for inviting me in. No worries. Let’s start with give us a brief outline of your role here at Pollen Street Social. Well I pretty much run the kitchen on a day to day basis, when Jason’s here and when he's not here. He's here most of the time, but when he isn’t, when he has to do some filming or his days out of the kitchen, then there's a good team behind him and I head that up that team with my senior sous chef Matt, Alex the other sous chef and two other geniuses as well. So there are always four of us here in senior positions, running the kitchen. And how many boys have you got in the kitchen team Paul? Normally about 23 chefs. Talk us through an average day for you at Pollen Street Social. Bang straight in at 7:30 in the morning, jump on to some meat prep, most of the meat comes in daily. We can get almost ten kilos of ox cheeks every day, six lamb shoulders, 30 racks of lamb, three or four rib eyes, four venison saddles a day so there’s a lot of breaking it down, organising it. Jason normally does the fish so anything that hasn’t been done or if he's not around I'll generally do that. Scallops, we go through 100 scallops a day, all the prep takes up three or four hours every morning. After the kitchen’s cleaned down, down here, all inspected, upstairs, all the checks are made… And you said lunch, but it’s four o'clock in the afternoon at the moment and there's people in the restaurant, the private dining room’s  full. Exactly yeah. It’s almost 24/7 here isn’t it? It’s very much so. I say relentless, it is non-stop so at 11:30 am all the checks are done in the upstairs kitchen, all the testers are done, all the sauces, soups, purées, everything that needs to be checked is done and then we're pretty much ready to clean down and set up ready to go at 12 o'clock on the dot. Talk to us about your relationship with Jason, first and foremost how long have you known him and worked with him? I've known him since early 2006, nearly six years now I've worked with him. So you started in Maze. I started with Jason at Maze as sous chef, yes I went in there and then just got on really well and we started working together, built a great relationship, I understand what he wants and I  get it done really I guess. We have a great relationship in and out of the kitchen, we laugh and joke when we have to but then it’s serious when you get down to the food and cooking. You mentioned earlier that Jason can’t be here all the time, he's got lots of other commitments, overseas restaurants, TV, press, all of that type of thing, all promoting Pollen Street and bringing people in through the door, how important is it for you and Jason to have that relationship that he knows when he's away that Pollen Street Social is as he's here? It’s very important and he needs to know in himself that it can run as well with him here as well as when he's not here. How does that pressure sit with you? It’s massive. When he's here I can, not relax, but I know the kitchen will run smooth but when he's not here and I have to… The shit stops at you doesn’t it? Yeah exactly. I can feel him pretty much sitting on my shoulders when he's not here and I can pretty much see him looking at the back even though he's nowhere near us I can feel him sort of looking at me and saying, “You need to check everything, double check everything to make sure everything’s fine.” So it is big pressure. You've been open for seven or eight months? Seven or eight months now yes, seven and a half months something like that yeah. Okay what’s been the biggest challenge in that relatively short period of time? Is it staff, what is it? Staff has been a big challenge but many of the chefs came from Maze or were at Maze at one point, so that was probably a slightly easier side of opening. Working with a lot of chefs who worked with us before meant they know what Jason expects and what I expect A really big challenge, was getting used to working across two kitchens, one kitchen downstairs and one kitchen upstairs, breaking down that prep in the morning and everybody going upstairs for service is a big thing, especially how clean we leave it down here, it’s immaculate, nothing’s left out, everything’s cleaned down, just as you would leave it at the end of the night. That's probably the biggest challenge is just getting round working that and the setting up of the systems. How much have you changed? What’s changed in Paul Hood in seven months? My maturity I think, I've got more mature again, through the five years I was at Maze I grew up a hell of a lot and knowledge on food obviously improved but even more so now, my knowledge of running the restaurant now has grown big time. This is what I've wanted  to do. I did bits of it at Maze but never as much as this, all the back of house stuff that Jason does, he's been showing me the financial side of things, the setting up of everything down to every new supplier, every new…you know working with the buildings, working with everything virtually from scratch. So learning all that has been a massive thing for me. Do you find that people are still comparing Pollen Street to Maze and is that a good thing or is it a bad thing? I think they were initially. Which is natural isn’t it because Jason was Maze. But it’s a completely different concept now and people realise now and people seem to be coming back time and time again. I mean there was point in another Maze was there? No, no not at all. Maze was like a one off thing that some people tried to replicate and it never happened for them so I'm not saying we couldn’t have done it again but we wanted to get away from that and to aim at doing something different, not copying the same concept again. You've got 23 people in the team, you’re the head of that team, how important is it to train those people and what emphasis do you put on training? It’s  very important, because if you don’t train your team, then they’re not going to stay for long. They are here to learn and if they don’t learn there's no point in them being here they’ll go and work somewhere else and go and work with other chefs that are going to teach them and spend more time with them. So we do spend as much time as we can and we train them. When I do the meat and fish prep, I will show the younger guys how to prep the meat, how to prep the fish. It’s all about showing and sharing  we don’t want chefs to leave here in a year’s time not being able to fillet any halibut or fillet a bass and they can’t walk out of here not picking up any key skills really that it very important.. Pollen Street Social it’s Jason’s name above the door, you’re very much involved in the business but five years time where do you want to be? Where has this period of your career going to take you? Do you want it to lead to  ‘Paul Hood at…’ is that your aspiration? I don't know about a sole place I mean I'm very happy working with Jason and like I said we get on very well together. I'm not looking for a scoop by the way that you’re about to leave it’s just… No, no, no we're looking… What’s the career goal I guess? There is talks of us looking for another site maybe in a year’s time or eight months, a year’s time probably to lead off and to extend the company and make the company a little group really. I guess the concept of Pollen Street Social lends itself to being in another city? Yeah it does. I mean we offer so much here. We have the bar that you can sit at and just have tapas, or a dessert bar, just like New York, you can come in and have dessert at the dessert bar, or walk into the restaurant, sit down, have a glass of wine and a share a main for two and then bugger off. You don’t have to sit down and have a ten course tasting menu, but you can,  we offer that as well. Last week I spent some time in Barcelona to see how their tapas bars are run because that's something I like to get into is that modern sort of British style eating but smaller plates, maybe like Maze but maybe a bit more of a relaxed atmosphere like the tapas bars in Barcelona and Madrid. I went to Ferran’s Tickets which was amazing, absolutely amazing. Fantastic. Last two questions for you. What’s the biggest frustrating thing about working with Jason? I've got to be careful here. He knows himself and I think it’s his patience. He doesn’t have very much patience. Successful people don’t. No that’s it he wants it and he wants it before now. He wants it even before he's said it? Exactly And then when you've done it he wants more I've got to that point now where I know what he's going to say and I know it’s coming so I kind of beat him to it, not always but most of time I seem to beat him to it now. And on the flipside of that what’s the most rewarding thing about working with Jason? He's willing to teach, as I said early learning the back of house stuff the business side, as well as the cooking, the knowledge that he has, that he draws in from places like El Bulli, working for Marco,you draw a lot of that knowledge and a lot of even the stories he tells about how they ran things, it sort of embeds things in your head of how to do things and they’re all three star restaurants so you know they’ve done it as a successful and it’s great to learn from that. And the fact that he's giving you the business tools as well for the future it’s going to be massive for you. That's it and like I said working with Jason full time day in, day out here, I've just learned so much, which then I hope leads us to be able to go on to hopefully working with him again in another restaurant within the group. Well I think obviously Jason’s here a huge amount of the time but as we've said there are times when he can't be here and I think it’s a huge, huge testament to the faith and trust and the ability that you have that he can go away and leave you and like I say I wish you every success. Thank you. It’s great to come and see you, great to meet you again and have a chat with you and thank you very much for your time. No worries thank you very much. My pleasure.
The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 24th January 2012

Paul Hood, Pollen Street Social, London