Alyn Williams Restaurant Alyn Williams The Westbury London

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 11th October 2011
Alyn Williams is the chef-patron of Alyn Williams at the Westbury, a restaurant located in the Westbury hotel in London’s Mayfair. He opened his eponymous restaurant in November 2011, after a career working with top chefs such as Marcus Wareing and Gordon Ramsay. Born in London, Alyn was influenced to be a chef by his dad, who was a passionate cook and grew his own vegetables. He studied at Waltham College, also doing a placement at Claridges. His first proper restaurant job was at Fredericks in Camden, which followed Michel Guerrard’s cuisine minceur style. After this he moved on to Les Alouettes in Claygate, which gained a Michelin star after two years, and David Everitt-Matthias’s Le Champignon Sauvage. He took a break to teach snowboarding in France and Colorado before returning to work in restaurants like The Greenhouse, Zafferano, Chez Bruce and Petrus, where he first worked with Marcus Wareing. After this he worked at Claridges, followed by the three star Restaurant Gordon Ramsay at Royal Hospital Road. He was head chef of the two star Marcus Wareing at the Berkeley before finally getting his own name on the door of Alyn Williams at The Westbury.   First and foremost, Alyn thanks for inviting me in today, wonderful to come and see you. Give us a brief of your forthcoming role, and why you made the transition, from a great career under Marcus? It was a great career I worked for Marcus for eight years in total, started off with him in the original Pétrus in St James, in fact I started off with him originally in L'Oranger. I had just finished a series of ski seasons working as a chalet rep/snowboard guide. I'd come back to London to settle down and establish my career so I went to L'Oranger. I'd started my career in Michelin star restaurants, I'd done a few ski seasons, I'd taught snowboarding and I loved that but I could never make a living of it so I focused on my other love which is cooking. I saw Stuart Gillies who was opening Teatro in Shaftsbury avenue and he gave me a job, but before we opened, I worked for a couple of months at L'Oranger with Marcus (Wareing) where I also met Angela Hartnett and a few other chefs, Shane Osborn was there. I did a year and half at Teatro with Stuart before I decided to leave, I wanted to progress, move up a notch up, Angela approached me, she was Marcus' sous chef at the time, and was about to open Petrus,. I spent the next two and a half years there, went in as a chef de partie and got promoted to sous chef after about six months, Angela left, went to Dubai and me and Darren Velvick were the two sous chefs. I then went on to help open Gordon Ramsay at Claridge's. Was Mark (Sergeant) head chef then? Mark was head chef. Josh Emett who went on to run the London in New York for Gordon was also there. It was a good experience and a real eye-opener, they were all good chefs to work with but it didn't really suit me. So Gordon took me out of there and moved me to Royal Hospital Road where I spent a year as sous chef, which was exactly what I wanted. Who's in the brigade at Royal Hospital Road at this time? There was myself and Rusty (Richard Wood), who was a sous chef too. Mark Askew was heading the brigade and then we had Paul Ainsworth, Richard Davies, those two stood out, they shone. Clare Smyth was there too. We had a fantastic kitchen in regards of talent and discipline, there and Pétrus I think were instrumental in developing self-discipline, which I had in me, but it just needed to be brought out because ever since then it's been second nature "¦you develop a self-alarm, you develop a sense of absolute right and wrong. But when you're cooking at that level its paramount isn't it? You need a deep a sense of professionalism I suppose, if something's not right, if it's not in a line, if it's not cooked perfectly, if it's not cut properly or whatever an alarm bell goes off in your head that won't let you carry on, Mark Askew set that reaction and was tough in enforcing it. Marcus always strikes me as being very, very analytical, very, very regimented, very, very disciplined to running a kitchen? In a way yes, Marcus is exceptionally precise and runs a very disciplined kitchen but he is also a bit more emotional than Mark and I think that's the difference. Marcus' temperament moves whereas Mark's never did. Mark was straight down the line, constantly and he gets criticised for the way he is but he's a really nice man and if you know him personally he's not always like that, he's a good character, he's got a good sense of humour but in the kitchen its all about the kitchen, every single element of every single dish was checked so you knew that even if the skin of a pea was slightly split it would go back, there were an awful lot of cooks that never made it through because they couldn't cope with that level of scrutiny. So how do you make the transition from there then to Pétrus at the Berkeley? I spent my year at Royal Hospital Road, and I was then approached by two people who heard that I was leaving, one of them was John Wood, executive chef at the Burj Al Arab in Dubai, to head up one of their kitchens and also by Joel Cadbury who owned the Groucho Club. My wife was six months pregnant at the time with our first son and she thought that Dubai might be a bit hot, sticky and too uncomfortable to bring up a baby. It's also a long way from her family. So I went to the Groucho Club where I was executive chef of Longshot Estates, they owned the Groucho Club, a place called Vingt Quatre on Fulham Road, The Admiral Codrington which is in Mossop Street and The Salisbury Tavern in Fulham. I had a brigade of nine chefs at the Groucho Club, we had a brasserie, a fine dining restaurant a busy bar and three big, busy function rooms. I had to try and make a good margin out of very little revenue, bloody hell that was hard work, but it was good, it was great fun, I met loads of great people. I mean if you can sit down after work and have a drink and a chat with people like Tom Jones, Chris Evans and Giles Coren! It was a great life experience. But you can learn from all experiences can't you? Absolutely and I'm pragmatic about that. I that life's not all about food and cooking there's a lot more to it. I mean conversations with some of these people it was incredible, it was great. So you return to Petrus, how big an impact did that have on your career? Massive, the most fundamental part of my career was spent with Marcus, he taught me an awful lot without necessarily saying a lot. I followed what he did and I saw the way that he operated and the attention that he gave to everything from the business side through to the culinary side as well, he's a fantastic chef and he can still jump up to a stove and cook as well as anybody. He taught me a lot about dedication as much as anything, but the attention to detail and my palate obviously developed, which I consider to be a chef's most important piece of equipment. I don't think a lot of chefs appreciate that. They think that technique and new fashions, all the chemicals are what a chef needs but what a chef really needs is to know how to taste, absolutely the most important thing. So here we are at the Westbury then talk us through how it's evolved? I was 43 when I left Marcus in January. About a year ago I started to think about doing something on my own. Because it's always going to be Marcus' name above the door isn't it? Yeah and I appreciate that. Again you have to be pragmatic about where you are, your position, who's involved and who's going to take the plaudits. He always would and why shouldn't he, he's the chef patron and that's his prerogative. But there comes a point that you need to stand on your own two feet. Not everybody does and there are a lot of chefs who manage to carve their own way underneath someone. I mean André Garrett Galvin at Windows is a prime example of someone who's made a great career and he's well regarded in his own right, the Galvins allow him to do that and I think it's commendable of them that they can but not everybody wants to do that and not everybody wants to give up and Marcus worked bloody hard to create what he created. Absolutely. And make no bones about it Petrus and Marcus Wareing at The Berkeley would have never been anything like as successful without Marcus. He created the restaurant in his own style and was at the front of the ship every single day, certainly throughout the formative years he never left the stove. So he created what he had and we all streamlined with him and I followed his direction, I drove his way and fortunately grew along. I was his head chef at Petrus and Marcus Wareing at The Berkeley for almost five years, together we made it what it became but then there came a time when I thought right I'm ambitious enough to want to do something on my own. I also wanted to establish a secure future for my wife and sons. So I started looking around for investors to go out and open a stand alone restaurant. I was looking for some sites around London and that's a bloody hard thing to do to, find a suitable site. And equally I guess you're doing it at a very, very difficult time because we're right in the height of one of the worst recessions known to man. Exactly which is a double-edged sword really because if you look hard enough you can find some good properties where you can negotiate deals on the rent and get refurbs, so it can be a shrewd time to buy. But they're not always in the best locations.  I had two people approach me about investing who subsequently fell through. They both went into it with the right intentions but as you say the recession was biting, one of them had just set up his own company that needed an awful lot of its own investment so I couldn't blame him, he's going to look after himself before he looks after me. I just thought that I could stay with Marcus and just keep going, I was in a very comfortable position and I could probably keep going for the next eight years, but there was this thing at the back of my brain saying, "Well no, that's the easy thing to do let's do something that will put you in the driving seat rather than always being in the shadow," and so I took the decision to give my notice. My wife nearly throttled me when I told her because I didn't have anything lined up but I just thought well if I don't, nothing will change and I needed that impetus to get me going. By chance I bumped into Mike West who is Jason Atherton's restaurant manager I've known Mike for years, he's a good friend of the general manager at The Westbury, he said, "I might just have something that may interest you," so he put me in touch with Stass who's the general manager, I'd met him at Claridges all those years ago in 2001 we got together and it was an instant click. I knew the hotel, I'm a Londoner I've lived here all my life and so I know the West End well and I've always seen the Westbury but I'd never considered it as one of the big hotels. One of the elite I guess? Exactly, it was always a bit anonymous in its way. But when I came in I was surprised at how nice it is. I looked around and I met some people and we developed a relationship. There was no agreement immediately, we just sat and chatted and I'd spend my Saturday mornings here with Stass and he'd take me around and we'd talk about opportunities, my vision for what I wanted to create and what was going on next door with the Gallery. The owners were looking for somebody to take over the space and to rent the space out or"¦ Sort of do a Marcus Wareing? Yeah to do a Marcus Wareing they wanted to bring someone in that would raise the profile of the hotel and put it on the dining map. They've invested an awful lot of money, it achieved a five star rating three years ago and they've kept pushing forward with their plans. They bought the space next door which is enormous the owners have put the Gallery restaurant in there. They bought the offices next door to it and turned that into a banqueting space and then they wanted to close Artisan and turn that into a fine dining room because at the time it was the only dining room in the hotel so it had to accommodate everything, breakfast, lunch, dinner, afternoon tea"¦ The typical hotel restaurant? Yeah the whole thing. But it never really lived up to the experience that they wanted. Everybody's here is very accommodating, very friendly and it just seemed like a nice place to work. I then met the designer of the dining room, who showed me what he had planned, there were three or four different plans but there was one in particular that struck us all as being a really great look which is the one that we've more or less gone with, it's changed around a little bit but the essence of the dining room is the same. They asked me what I thought about a name for the restaurant and I suggested one but they said, "We want to put your name above the door so call it Alyn Williams at the Westbury," put a personality behind it and so I was very happy to do that. I am contracted as the sole operator of my restaurant, so I'm not just the chef but responsible for the running of the whole operation. Fantastic. Well it's a great opportunity isn't it? It's an amazing opportunity and if you dropped a pin in a map as where the best place or the best area would be right now to open a restaurant in London, bang, a five star hotel in the middle of Mayfair. And whilst it doesn't have a culinary history, I think that was one of the other things that attracted me to this. You're not going in after Gordon or Marcus. Exactly I'm not following anybody"¦no boots to fill So you can only go up can't you really in the nicest possible way. You can only make your own mark. There's no one turning round saying, "Well"¦" Not as good as when Gordon was here or not as good as when so and so was here. Exactly yeah so that was a great draw for me. To build my own reputation. So what do you hope to create then food style? This is probably the most difficult thing for me to explain because I find my food"¦ Does Alyn Williams have his own food style? Not yet exactly, I do and I don't I suppose initially it's going to have roots in my past with Marcus because I was developing menus there for the last five years I've worked with him for so long and with Gordon Ramsay of course"¦ But it's going to be fine dining I take it? Absolutely yeah it is fine dining, although there's a bit of a stigma attached to fine dining now I think and especially French. A lot of chefs are talking about, and emulating the Scandinavian movement, the whole Nordic thing. Also the type of style  that Simon Rogan L'Enclume and Ben Spalding at Roganic are doing, along with some other chefs around the country which I think is fantastic but that's not exactly what comes naturally to me. The whole thing is really beautiful but it's not my style. I'm after my own angle on flavours and combinations. What I enjoy is a modern approach to French haute cuisine but drawing inspiration from home using great British produce. I've spent a lot of time this year finding and building relationships with suppliers around Britain who are passionate about their produce. But I also buy some things from Rungis market in Paris through Oakleaf European who are a fantastic company. They took me over there earlier this year, it's a fantastic market. It's more like a town, it's the size of Monaco for God sake it's enormous and it's got everything you could imagine but not just that, everything at an absolutely supreme level of quality. The fish market, the poultry hall, the butchers, the growers' market, the fruit and veg is phenomenal, it's brilliant and the cheese hall bloody hell! I could have stayed at Rungis for days and days and never got bored. I'm constantly in contact with suppliers, talking about what's coming in and very importantly what's going out of season. But not just about what's going to be in next week, I'm always looking for the first. When are the first strawberries, when are the first broad beans? But also where are the best ones? And when is it at its best? When are we going to hit that vegetable or that animal or that fish or whatever at its peak? The lamb season, the beef season for example, it all changes and it all evolves. And it's different for a reason as well isn't it? So you have to keep track of it and it's like having a little food radar going all the time. What's in, what's out, what's on the cusp? And the most important thing for me is when is it at its best. So I'll get the produce when it's absolutely at its peak and if it's only at its peak for two weeks it's only on the menu for two weeks. What are your aspirations then? What are your goals for the business? Success. And what is success? Success obviously has different facets doesn't it? Yes. Success to one man is different than it is to another. What is it for you? Success to me is a full restaurant, with happy customers that come back. But you must with your background, my guestimation is to be looking at the little red book or"¦honestly? Michelin is a benchmark and I think the accolades are important and they show your standing in the industry. So it's a way for chefs to measure themselves against other chefs? It is yes and it flatters as well. It's always nice to be in, I'm not very good at taking praise I'm a bit embarrassed at these things. Well we're British we're very reserved. I think success for me I think is stability. So success is having a full dining room with people who want to come and try and guests who want to come back. Success is also a kitchen brigade and front of house team that stay with me. Having consistency in the kitchen is very, very important for me. I think a successful kitchen is one where everybody can develop, learn and interchange between stations, it is vital to have a stable brigade. That is a mark of success. How many are you going to have in your team when you're up and running? We're looking at about 15. We're open Monday to Friday, lunch and dinner and Saturday dinner, it's a nice size of brigade for a 60 seater restaurant it seems large but you need that at the level that we want to reach and I won't lie I'd like to win the stars, there's lots of awards that I'd like to win but that's up to me, it's not something that you can take for granted and it's not something that I can say, "Well I've worked here and there and I've got a great restaurant so it's all bound to come," I have to work hard to get whatever comes. But what I don't want is for people to come here"¦ And say it's just the same as Pétrus. yes"¦ and compare me to that. It's sure to happen, people will say well is he as good as Marcus? Time will tell. I'm a bit old fashioned in my ways and my views and it's not all here and now, it doesn't all have to be instant, I'm going to be here for a least five years and I'll make all of those five years count and I'll make sure that each one of those five years I improve on the last. I think that you just try and constantly improve and constantly go forward with your brigade, with the front of house and with your customers. I guess that kind of rounds it up quite nicely to my last question but let's jump forward five years, crystal ball, time machine whatever you want where are you in five years' time, personally and professionally? Personally I'll have a new car. ((laughs)) Any particular car? Instead of my beaten up Citroën Picasso. What's your ideal car? My ideal car?  what I've always wanted is a Mercedes Sport but about 1985 two litre SL, I always say gold but my wife would never let me get a gold car. That's a bit bling isn't it? Yeah it is a bit yeah. I remember back to when I was at school one of my mate's brothers had one, he was probably a scrap metal merchant or something in Barking. he pulled up with this gold Mercedes Sport, two litre SL,  it had a phone in it and this in the days before mobiles. This phone was enormous with a great lead and I bet he had to wind it up! And I remember thinking, "˜One day I'll get one of those'"¦You never know. Okay so you've got the car. The Merc. Okay let me think I haven't really thought much about this I'm thinking too much about the next six months too much to worry about what's going to happen in five years' time. I will put a plan into place though. In an ideal world? In an ideal world? I'd like to be considered within the top five or ten restaurants in London. I'd like to have the"¦ I think that's a good goal to have. "¦accolades that comes with it. They're not the most important thing to me but I do realise and I do understand that with success they should follow, because it's all part and parcel of what sets you apart from your peers"¦fame, celebrity doesn't bother me at all, it's not what"¦ So we won't see you doing Dancing on Ice or something like that then? Probably not but you never know. Again going back to what success is I'd like, in five years' time to just have a constantly busy restaurant. Also to be able to spend some quality time with my family, be a proper part of my boys growing up. I think that will drive so many other things won't it? Yeah and we're fully booked and this is something that I saw as a great success after we won our second star at the Berkeley, was that it was more or less from that day we never had an empty seat and I think that obviously goes to show that the stars and the rosettes play their part. Well look on that note I wish you every success. Thank you very much. And thank you very much for your time. Not at all.  

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 11th October 2011

Alyn Williams Restaurant Alyn Williams The Westbury London