Alex Aitken, Jetty Restaurant, Christchurch, Dorset

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 30th March 2012

Alex Aitken runs The Jetty, a restaurant in the grounds of the Christchurch Harbour Hotel in Mudeford, Dorset.Before Alan took over in 2010, changing its name and style, it was a Gary Rhodes restaurant called Rhodes South. Gary has worked in the New Forest and Dorset area for over 25 years, having started with his own highly-acclaimed restaurant Le Poussin in Brockenhurst, The New Forest. He bought it with his wife in 1983 and it won a Michelin star in 1995, which it retained for 14 years. The business went through a number of changes, but remained highly regarded, expanding into the Parkhill hotel, Lyndhurst in 1999 and transferring to the Whitley Ridge hotel, Brockenhurst in 2004. Before joining The Jetty he was director of cuisine at Lime Wood, which the Parkhill was redeveloped into in 2009. Before running his own restaurant, Alex was a trawler man, and this fishing experience means he has a passion for fresh, local ingredients. He also runs the King’s Arms, a hotel part of the same group as The Jetty.  

Alex thank you very much for inviting us in. If we can start can you give us an overview of the Jetty Restaurant?

I think first before the overview of the Jetty I'll tell you where I've come from.  Prior to the Jetty, I had my own restaurant called Le Poussin which we grew and grew on our own to begin with, we took on a wealthy backer in ’99 who bought 50% of the business and so became 50/50 partners and using his money I built Park Hill into an amazing hotel called Lime Wood, everyone’s heard of Lime Wood. That was a great journey and was amazing but very difficult at times and especially towards the end with the credit crunch and having spent so much money.

 How did you end up at The Jetty?

I was approached to come on-board, bringing my philosophy of seasonal, local and simple food, to what was to become the jetty, and have never looked back!

Did you change the food style?

Totally.

So have you made it a greater connection with what’s around you?

I've always been about what’s around me. I mean Gordon Ramsay when he put me in his 11 best restaurants said it’s like eating off the floor of the forest because I foraged. I mean here you can’t help but want to buy the fish.

Absolutely it’s a great selling tool isn’t it?

It is but fresh landed Dover sole we can’t sell it on the day you have got to wait two days because a Dover sole fresh out of the net are too stiff. When Gary (Rhodes) was here he bought a bit off one or two local fishermen but he just didn’t use the local resources. When you've got Christchurch bay and then you can go out south of the Isle of Wight and we're getting bass, pollock, pouting, whiting, skate, turbot, brill, red mullet, silver mullet, mackerel, and the occasional herring but also my menu isn’t written by somebody in London, sent down on a sheet with, “There's a recipe one to ten,” it’s not cooking by numbers it’s a philosophy of cooking. The boys are given this energy to buy great produce, don’t do too much with it. We don’t buy five cases of veal bones and five cases of chicken wings every week to make heavily reduced chicken and veal sauces, it’s a little bit of olive oil, a little bit of butter, lemon juice, it’s very simple, very simple compared with Gary’s Rhodes South.

Okay. So do you have flexibility on your menus then? If your fishmonger says, “Look we've got some absolutely wonderful line-caught bass today?”

The catch of the day menu is written every day and it can change between lunch and dinner. So it really is that fresh? It is constantly changing and it’s the bane probably of the restaurant because everyone wants it all on their Microsoft computer, then I come in and say, “Try this, try that,” The boys on the front floor they know it as well and they have this ‘can do’ attitude and see a customer that's having a nice bottle of wine to start they’ll come into the kitchen and say, “Can we get some Jetty bites for them?” and it’ll be some garlic mussels, tempura prawns and a bit of smoked cods roe, and then out it’ll go. And so there's this whole energy to make the customer happy here.

Talk us through the kitchen team then how many chefs have you got?

Kitchen team fluctuates between four and six and Craig McColm, “Waggy”, is the head chef. He was sous chef when I took over. I think he's probably, apart from the kitchen porters which we kept, the only member that stayed but that's normal in a kitchen it’s very transient. People want a year’s experience, and then they get out. Under Craig there's Lucas who started as a chef de partie, then senior chef de partie, this month we've made him sous chef, a cracking lad, there's Ben, Josh, Martin, those are the core boys in the kitchen at the moment.

In terms of aspirations for the business then what does success look like to you? Is it a full restaurant? Is it accolades?

Success is a full restaurant and a happy restaurant as well. It’s having the boys in the kitchen excited about the food they’re cooking. They should put the food on the plate in the kitchen and think, ‘Wow I want to eat that.’ And it’s happy customers and the atmosphere that the Jetty is about. As for accolades, one of the quotes we got from one of our wine merchants, he said, who knew me from my Michelin star days and Le Poussin, where we had a star for over 15 years in three different locations said, “How you doing Alex? Going for a star here at the Jetty?” “No,” I mean if they gave one I wouldn’t throw it away. I mean that's how the first star I got at Le Poussin came, “cooking my food, my way…”

Does Michelin add pressure to you as a chef?

Not to me but I'm fortunate I haven't got an owner that says, “I want a star,” and the owner doesn’t see the star as revenue. I mean I used to…

Well I guess if you've got 60 covers and you’re full you can't get any fuller can you?

Exactly. But also I've been through that. I used to get the Michelin form, fill it out, I used to have the Michelin inspector in and go through that trauma every year of have we, haven't we? And then I said, “I've had enough,” made my original Poussin restaurant much smaller, 26 cover, just cooked myself and one boy in the kitchen, my wife and son out front and 18 months later we got a star but we were cooking food that we wanted to eat and it became much more honest and I think boys aiming for Michelin stars should realise that. It’s not about pleasing Mr Michelin it’s about pleasing the customers, consistency and delivering quality at what ever level.

Talk us through your food style then Alex I mean obviously there's lots of fish on the menu but give us some typical dishes that people could expect if they came to the Jetty?

I can’t give a typical dish because it is so fluid.

What’s selling well at the moment?

Selling well at the moment? I mean the Mudeford crab, well they’re landed at Mudeford the day they are caught out in the bay or the Isle of Wight and it’s literally crab, ginger, garlic, spring onion, olive oil, cracked in a pan, lots of heat, cooked and then on to the plate. Then there's the turbot and doing a sort of bit tranche of turbot, seasoned, floured and cooked in olive oil and butter, deglazed a little bit of vinegar…

So cooked on the bone?

On the bone.

Wow.

Wherever possible cook it on the bone

It’s a shame you don’t see that much now do you everyone wants to fillet it and serve it with nice little…

Well hey that's what it was before everything was cut to a certain size it was in the picture, on the diagram, on the one to ten dish production. I mean I won't even let them cut the feather bones off the turbot because as it’s cooking they’re adding gelatine and we deglaze the pan, a little bit of chicken stock, a little bit of fish stock so it’s a chicken/fish stock on top of the turbot and it’s gorgeous but very simple, a few wild mushrooms with it because the wild mushrooms come a bit later in the year we won't be using them now because it’s cold and wet and miserable.

Going forward then you've been very successful, commercially you've turned the business around, lots of people coming in, lots of people saying nice things about you, you've just won various awards. Where do you want to be and where do you want the restaurant to be in two years time?

Where do I want the restaurant to be? Just continue like it is. Continue cooking food people want to eat and having it busy. I suppose I'd like to get even more sustainable, even more local and I just love that, I've always loved that and I nurture it.

Do you think it’s important for people like yourself to have restaurants such as this to set an example of using a sustainable sourced product,

Yes but I don’t like that. I'm not a drum beater I mean the guys that are fishing here they’re not…

So you do it because it’s right rather than because it’s politically correct to do so?

Yes. The guys fishing here are either long lining or they’re trammel nets not trawling and it’s a much better way. I spent two years on a fishing trawler, I've trawled but I'm also a scuba diver so I've seen the mess they make on the bottom of the ocean and I just like to do it right and I like to be honest. We won the tourism award south west of England joint gold along with the Bath Priory, great and silver was Michael Caines at Gidleigh a fantastic achievement for all the team here in our first year.

Absolutely it’s a great success.

It’s a great success but the Taste of Dorset we were finalists for, didn’t quite win that one, we were runner up and they said, “Well you haven't got everything on the menu from Dorset,” I said, “Well it is,” and they said, “But you don’t say it.” They think you have to say it and I just think why on menus do we have to say it’s from Dorset, homemade ice cream I mean who’s…it should be. I look at restaurants around, I mean my big thing on restaurants is bread if you can’t make your own bread then get out of the kitchen.

Well look on that note thank you very much for your time.

Pleasure.

Thank you very much, fantastic.  

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 30th March 2012

Alex Aitken, Jetty Restaurant, Christchurch, Dorset