Phil Carmichael, head chef, Berners Tavern, The London EDITION Hotel

The Staff Canteen

Phil Carmichael is the head chef at Berners Tavern situated in The London EDITION Hotel, working under Jason Atherton, Phil has been responsible so far for six restaurant openings with Jason including Gordon Ramsay’s Maze in Prague. We spoke to him to find out how well the restaurant has been doing since opening in 2013 and if he and Jason plan to open any more restaurants together in the future. Describe your role at Berners Tavern, what are your daily responsibilities? Pretty much everything, I’m responsible for all the food in the entire hotel, room service, events and room amenities.

Dream restaurant A relaxed restaurant in Cape Town in the wine lands on a vineyard, growing our own produce with a lot of BBQ elements to it, using open wood burners; just a relaxing place in the sun. Dream brigade Sauce – Jason Atherton Fish – Michel roux Jr Garnish – Jonny and Rob (sous chefs at Berners tavern) Larder – Thomas Keller Pastry – Claire (pastry chef at Berners Tavern) On the pass with me – Albert Roux and a bottle of champagne!

We’ve got 42 cooks in the team overall, just over half of that concentrate solely on Berners Tavern and the restaurant and then I have separate teams for all the different areas and a pastry section which caters for the whole hotel. We all work together as one, we don’t have separate kitchens we all rotate the guys so they see a bit of everything.

How important is their training and development? It’s essential for any young chef for their development to see different things and work in all areas. Not just starters, mains, desserts which are the traditional areas but here we’ve got events, which is a different skillset to working in the restaurant, we’ve then got breakfast and room service. As a young chef it’s important to absorb as much information and experience as possible. That’s the mistake some chefs are making nowadays, they focus on a single style of food or restaurant and then they get stuck. They get to the top level and someone asks them to make a hollandaise and they can’t do it because they haven’t had the basics or grounding that they need.

How do you think you’ve developed as a chef under Jason Atherton? Jason is very good at letting us get on with things, my creativity has developed under him; he gives us a lot of freedom when writing menus and coming up with ideas. He doesn’t micro-manage us on a day to day level, we obviously run things past him and when he comes in he’ll check the dishes and have a look. But we’ll send him images and recipe descriptions but he lets us trust our own instincts and what is and isn’t good with food.

What is the food style in the restaurant? It’s very simple in the restaurant, we do big food covers and concentrate on getting the best products we can and not messing around with them too much. There’s a hint of nostalgia on the menu too, one of our best sellers is the prawn cocktail, we sell 120 of those a day; so it’s good tasty food that people want to eat.

What would you say is your favourite ingredient to cook with? Anything that is at the peak of its season; I don’t really have one favourite ingredient but for seasonal ingredients I would say asparagus. For Britain it’s one of those things that are around for four weeks at its peak, if you’re lucky, and then it’s gone. British rhubarb is another phenomenal seasonal produce that we’re coming in to in a few weeks’ time.

Is it important to use British produce? It’s hard to use local produce in London but I would say 90% of what we use is from Britain which is important to support the economy in the UK. We don’t really need to go too further afield as we produce some of the best beef, poultry and game which you can’t get like ours anywhere else in the world. But of course we’re a hotel so sometimes we do have to get things abroad for example we’ve always got to have tomatoes in house but again when British tomatoes are in season there is nothing better.

Going back through your career then, what’s been your career highlight to date? Winning the Michelin star in Prague in 2009, we won it and unfortunately the restaurant closed but it was something I was most proud of.

You headed to South Africa (to work as Executive Chef at Maze, Cape Town) how have you that taken experience and how was the style of cooking over there? The whole South African experience was brilliant again the produce is very seasonal, but they have the best avocados you can get; it was very fresh cooking. There is some wonderful seafood over there for example the tuna in South Africa is so good the majority of it gets sent to Japan. There is a massive foodie culture especially in Cape Town, then there are some mind-blowing restaurants. Luke Dale Roberts is doing some fantastic things down there, he’s one of the chefs knocking it out of the park. It’s just very relaxed, the whole eating out/dining experience is not about stiff service, there’s no airs and graces its informal great food.

Is that relaxed atmosphere something you then wanted to recreate with Berners Tavern? Absolutely, all of Jason’s restaurants, even back in the Maze days, we tried to get away from stiff service and that whole intimidating environment which some people have. When I go to a three star restaurant I feel intimidated as it’s not a natural environment for most people. When we starting Berners Tavern two-three years ago it was very important with everyone involved in the project that they knew it needed to be accessible. That anybody can walk in and feel comfortable in the room. It needed to be a restaurant that me and Jason said ‘yeah we’d go and spend time there’, that we’d pop in and have a burger and feel comfortable. There is still a place for fine dining and I do love that every now and again but for a big restaurant that we are, we need to be more accessible to the local community, to Londoners, to hotel guests; to everybody.

What do you think of the rise of gastro-pubs and the move away from this fine dining then? I went to a restaurant in Clapham and it was one of the best restaurants I’ve ever eaten in and it was bare wooden floors and bare tables, it was super-chilled out. The service was friendly, great service and great food that meant you could sit there all night. When you go to a super fine-dining restaurant you can sit there but you can sit there but you can’t relax and feel like you could have a real good time.

What do you think your biggest challenge has been in your career? Opening Maze. Coming in as Jason’s senior sous chef none of us had worked together before, it was a brand new concept and style of restaurant that we didn’t know whether it was going to work or not. That was a massive challenge, having done six openings since then it’s still the hardest restaurant we’ve ever opened.

What are you future plans, any new openings on the horizon? We’re happy doing what we’re doing at the moment, we’re still a young restaurant. Jason is opening new things but I’m here for the foreseeable future and Berners Tavern isn’t something that we think we can transfer to anywhere else so we just want to build on the success that we’ve so far had here.

Would you like a Michelin star? It’s something we would appreciate but it’s not our driving focus. Prague was a perfect example – we went out there, Gordon wanted us to get a Michelin star and we got it but the restaurant closed as nobody wanted to eat that style of food over there at the time. Successful to us is a full restaurant, great reviews and returning guests, we’ve achieved loads of awards already including AA Restaurant of the Year; we might not have got a star this year but it’s a big restaurant covering up to 500 people. We just want to maintain that as we’ve been phenomenally busy for the past year and we want to keep going and keep exciting people; making sure it’s full every day. If you like the sound of working in London and currently looking for a new positon then head over to our jobs board here - where you will find a whole host of London-based jobs. 

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The Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 21st January 2015

Phil Carmichael, head chef, Berners Tavern, The London EDITION Hotel