Barry Vera, chef director, ONE Group

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 20th October 2014
Barry Vera, is an accomplished chef who has worked throughout the UK, France, Canada, the USA, South Africa and Australia. He has worked with some of the finest chefs in the industry and has perfected his craft in establishments such as Conran Restaurants' (now D&D London) Le Pont de la Tour, Quaglino's and Cantina del Ponte, and for Marco Pierre White at the Waldorf. Barry-Vera-2 The 44-year-old has experienced both the highs and lows of the culinary world and he is now sharing his knowledge as chef director at the ONE Group. Barry now keeps a watchful eye on a number of restaurants including STK, Asellina and ME in London and Milan. It’s been three years since he took on the role and The Staff Canteen caught up with Barry to find out why he’s loving this new chapter in his career. Why did you decide to make the move to The ONE Group? I was looking for a role within an organisation which dealt in five star properties in one way or another. Be it restaurants, bars, lounges etc. A head hunter put me in touch with The ONE Group, told me to have a look at their website, told me they were big in America and coming to London and they seemed like a good match. I had to do two tastings for the owner, one here in London and one in New York and from that I took the job as executive chef. Mid last year I became chef director with the company. As chef director what are you responsible for?
Your top five restaurant meals:
  1. Calves liver Veneziana in Venice, I cannot remember the restaurant name but food was amazing.
  2. The tasting menu at The Fat Duck
  3. Chilean sea bass yasai zuke - Nobu
  4. Grilled bayonne ham, caremelised onions & garlic, aged beef rib - La Tupina, Bordeaux
  5. Baked sea urchin - Vue de Monde, Melbourne
Five most influential chefs:
  1. Marco Pierre White
  2. David Burke
  3. Rick Stein
  4. Heston Blumenthal
  5. Thomas Keller
Your top 5 comfort foods:
  1. Chinese take away on those nights when I don’t want to cook
  2. Sunday Roast
  3. A good chicken soup with crusty bread
  4. Apple pie & custard by my mum
  5. Jaffa cakes
I’m responsible for all the back of house teams in the properties – with my main view at the moment being Europe, as we are about to open in Milan in the next 6 months. Menus can be written by head chefs but they have to come through me and then we do a tasting. We do one or two tastings depending on how they go and then they deliver food costs to me along with menu descriptions and then we go live with the menu. It’s important that we are on brand here in the UK and globally. The great thing for me now is I get to meet the guests and share their experiences. Downstairs in the kitchen it could have been hell but for the customers upstairs they’ve had a great night. It makes it all worthwhile. How do you keep menus personal across such a large company? Every menu has to be personal. It needs input and personality from the head chefs because I don’t want them just becoming a machine. I don’t want them just writing something that gets rolled out - they’ve got to believe in what they are cooking as well. How does being chef director differ to just looking after one kitchen? It’s a challenge. I’m in my mid 40’s now and I’ve experienced things on all levels – both good and bad. I know it’s important to deliver the attention to detail and we treat each location individually, not just as a site. For example with a new hotel, we have everything from afternoon tea to STK – everything has to be treated individually. Ultimately for me I think it allows me to be more creative, rather than just being stuck in one kitchen day in, day out. Kitchens and food are evolving so much that I’m always learning – I don’t think any chef would disagree. You were working for Shaka Zulu in London when that opened. What was that experience like? I’d worked in South Africa and that’s how I came to be working on that project and I took that job believing it was going to be a five star, South African restaurant.  It was a big opening and building that team and kitchen and the volume of food we were able to produce was extreme. It was a challenge and it was exciting. You spent eight years in Australia, how does it compare to working in London? Australia has an amazing food culture. I learnt a lot from when I was there and the Australian way of life is so laid back. Barry-Vera-3 One of the restaurants you had in Melbourne was Vera. Its closure caused a lot of criticism on line but what actually happened and what would you say to those critics? It was hard. I took it very personally when the restaurant closed and it was a really dark time in my career and my life. A lot of people believed that because my name was above the door that I was the main owner. In fact, I was only a minority shareholder – I only owned ten percent of it. I put my heart and soul into it but the mistake I made was that I didn’t know enough about the business and that side of operating a restaurant. I could cook, I could deliver the food and look after the team in the kitchen. If I knew then what I know now about business then that place would still be open and it would be a huge success. I put a lot of trust in people to look after me and the business and unfortunately that didn’t happen. I knew at the time it may close but I didn’t know they had actually closed it until my restaurant manager texted me to tell me. I was in London as I had moved away to give the business breathing space, so it didn’t have to pay me a wage. It was sad when it closed and when I moved back to London people said to me ‘you have to get over it, restaurants close – these things happen and you can’t always control it’. I feel for the people who were all involved, particularly the staff, who did get let down, because you never intend to go out and do any of that and I did try and make amends to the best of my ability. I read the stuff on the internet about it and these people don’t know the full story, it wasn’t all that it seemed and unfortunately it’s easy to throw mud when you are 12,000 miles away. Barry-Vera-1 You’re part Italian, has food always been part of your life? Yes, we’re a family with an Italian background but I was born and raised in Sheffield. I grew up around pub style food and I always wanted to be a chef. I did three years at college for both cheffing and restaurant management, as I believe a good chef has to understand what’s going on front of house. Chefs can be very insular and shout from the kitchen but they have no idea what’s going on front of house. You’ve worked with some great chefs, have they influenced your style or do you have a style of your own? I’d like to say I have my own style but I also believe chefs are always watching each other, looking at new trends, new openings. That’s how we learn new techniques for ourselves. It’s different with STK as that’s a brand I have to work with and follow. The days of working at Conran’s Le Pont de la Tour was all about simplicity. I was there in its heyday and it was three or four components on a plate. It was really simple but done really well – the flavours spoke for themselves. Barry-Vera-5-cropped Then I was with Marco Pierre White and obviously that was the other end of the spectrum. It was Michelin star dining, it was about technique right to the finish. Michelin star dining then to what it is now is almost two extremes. What you see in the old books of Marco when I was with him was four or five components max, very simply done on a plate but the sauce and all of those pieces – they were perfect. Finesse is what I learnt from Marco and the fine points needed to make the dish perfect and at Conran I learnt simplicity and I found that somewhere between the two worked for me. You talk about chefs you’ve worked with and the experiences you gained but do you have a kitchen which was your favourite to work in? I think there are two. Le Pont de la Tour under David Burke and Les Saveurs where I was working alongside Gary Hollihead. At Les Saveurs we were doing 40 to 50 covers on a Friday and a Saturday night but it was Michelin star dining so it was a stressful night but I loved that. I was young and energetic enough to enjoy the pressure – at that time for me it was all about work, still is to a degree. You thrive off the pressure – yeah sometimes you have really shit days, and nothing seems to go right, even now, but you get up the next morning and walk into the kitchen and think today is going to be a good day. What are your plans for the future and The ONE Group? Opportunities arise all the time and it’s got to be the right opportunity for me. I’ve got no urge right now to leave The ONE Group. We’ve got a rapid growth plan over the next year and eight openings so there’s going to be a lot on with lots of interesting challenges.ME Hotel They are a fun company, with a great vision and they understand the industry. There is travel involved with my job being a global company, we have some fantastic people working with us and that is what makes it so great, the people! Do you have a favourite dish you’ve brought into the group or is that an impossible question? It is a difficult one but I will say I’ve always been a massive advocate of British beef, and it’s not because I’m now working for an American company as I would use it if I didn’t, but I now buy USDA beef. It’s tender, it’s flavoursome – it’s just a whole new level of beef. You have to try it!

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 20th October 2014

Barry Vera, chef director, ONE Group