Chris Galvin, Galvin Bistrot de Luxe, London

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Chris Galvin opened his first restaurant, Galvin Bistrot De Luxe with his brother, Jeff Galvin in 2005. The restaurant was an overnight success and achieved accolades including 'Best French Restaurant' for two years running. As partners the Galvin brothers have also opened the restaurants: Galvin at Windows, La Chapelle and Café A Vin to much critical acclaim. La Chapelle gained a Michelin star in 2011 and Café à Vin was awarded a Bib Gourmand.

Chris started his career as a pot washer for Antony Worrall-Thompson, before joining the Ritz hotel in London as a young commis chef under the direction of Michael Quinn. He has also worked with Paul Gayler and Sir Terence Conran. In 2003 he was appointed by Jeremy King and Chris Corbin to open the Wolseley restaurant, where he established the Wolsely breakfast. Chris is inspired heavily by the British cuisine he grew up with but he also has a love of French fine dining. His eyes were opened to the country’s cuisine by a trip to France at the age of eight where the family would try France’s roadside restaurants.  In this interview, Chris Galvin shares his life and business secrets with The Staff Canteen.

Autumn salad by Chris Galvin, Galvin restaurants
Autumn salad

You didn’t open your first restaurant until you were 47. How important was it for you to wait until you were older – and perhaps wiser – until you put your name over the door? How do you feel about young chefs opening their own restaurants today with less experience?

There wasn’t any reason. I was like any other chef; I would have opened my own restaurant at 20 if I had the money and the opportunity. I come from a council estate background. Dad left when I was 15 and I had my first son at 24, so I didn’t have a penny for most of my life. But, I was lucky. I grew with the best that I could work with at any job I had – I never just did the job, I always did extra curricular activities.

I would work a night, a service, two weeks, a holiday somewhere to supplement my learning. I’m a great believer in life-long education. I did a degree when I was 40 and I would still go back to school now. Life is about learning as much as you can. A quality that is important in people if they are going to open their own business is to take ownership. One thing I did recognise within myself is that I cared about the business: if a plate broke that costs £4.00, it would upset me; if a restaurant shut at 2:30pm and a family of four come to the door at 2:35pm wanting to eat, I always took them in. It’s something my brother has within him too.

I’ve always ‘owned’ other peoples’ businesses. I couldn’t have done it before 47, but it was the right way to do it. By that age, I had the right experience to make sure the business balanced. Our partner, Ken, is integral to our success. He is the finance guy; he’s become a bit like a fourth brother or a Dad – he’s been brilliant. He has taught us lots of rules in business and helped us grow very quickly. All of that experience came to the fore. If I had done it before I would probably have gone bust – that’s the truth. But we had Jeff’s (Galvin) energy and our collective wisdom, which helped us make it a success.

You and your brother now run seven restaurants in London and Edinburgh; how is the process of working divided? Do you run the restaurants together, or have specific restaurants you each look after? How do you maintain the level of quality over so many sites?

We run in a bizarre way. We’ve never had a cross word ever. We will pick things up, put them down, cut and pass things to one another without talking. When we’re working closely here together, the kitchen must be really weird for everyone as we’re on this silent running, knowing instinctively what the other is doing. Once we opened Windows we were torn apart, which was a bit painful. When we opened La Chapelle; we both went over to open it, but that was Jeff’s and I ran the café. The plan was always that I would come back and look after the Bistrot and Galvin at Windows, and Jeff would look after La Chapelle and the café. We had to do that - there was a geographical pressure to do that and it had to happen. We’ll always meet up. We still meet on the market when we are buying our produce or flowers.

Pumpkin Ceps Soup, Chris Galvin, Galvin Restaurants
Pumpkin ceps soup

Why did you decide to go into business with your brother? What are the benefits of this relationship? Has it affected your personal relationship with your brother?

I was always going to do this and always wanted to do it with my brother. There were no two ways that I wouldn’t have worked with Jeff, ever. The benefits: blood is thicker than water. When one’s down, the other is there to pick you up. He’s an amazingly talented chef, technically. He was very close to Marco for many years and Nico – who still comes to the Bistrot. Jeff has an incredible technical ability, whereas I’m more of a dreamer. We definitely complement each other, our skills. We’ve helped each other through business. It’s lovely being with your family. Downsides – I can honestly not think of one.

You have cited Sir Terence Conran as your biggest influence (Caterer: 7/12/12). What influence does he have over your restaurants today?

Terence had a massive impact on me. I was so lucky working with him and to have so much of his time. At the beginning I thought: ‘what do you know, you are not a chef?’ He would cut bits out of magazines and scribble on it: ‘I’ve seen this, what do you think?’ He sent them to everyone - I’ve put just a couple on the wall of ideas that he had. ‘This would be delicious’. Or he would say ‘I’ve seen this great pigeon dish in the south of France and you should try it’ I thought no, I’m going to go there and work there.

So I wrote to the restaurateur, went down there for 2 weeks, had a look at the dish, thought about it, then recreated our own version of it at the Orrery. I had ten happy years being challenged by Terence to be better and better. I loved that. I loved the style; I loved the form that was all around us designed by him. I kept lots of his drawings. We would be talking and I might say, ‘I need something in this corner; I need to make it more enclosed’. He would get his 2B pencil and just draw something. 'You mean this? This small screen.' That was exactly it, and he would get it made. I just loved being near an amazing person. He was an incredible person.

What advice would you give to aspiring chefs or those still finding their feet in the industry?

Make sure the industry is for you – it’s a long, long life in this industry. It’s hard work and long, anti-social hours, but the benefits far outweigh that. You will have no money, you’re going to get cuts and burns and wounds. There is a mental pressure that not many other jobs bring, however, once you’ve decided this is something you love and want to do, then read and read to supplement your practical learning. Gather as much information as you possibly can. Go and work for the very best people out there and make that a priority. The internet is brilliant, so you can do lots of homework now on a chef or a kitchen. Go there - do as many trials as you possibly can, don’t ever do just one or two, do several. Picture yourself working there, make sure the back door goods-in is good; the ingredients are outstanding. Make sure the craftsmanship is evident. Make sure staff meals look good - see how much they care about feeding their staff. Commit yourself for a couple of years. I always think it’s important to see two lots of seasons: spring, summer, autumn, winter – twice with any chef. So you can see what they do with the different seasons. Talk to people, talk to the chef! I was crushingly shy until I left college. Shyness is a horrible thing: I had debilitating shyness, but ask questions. No question is stupid, but you must think about your questions before you ask it. Any great chef, any great front of house, maitre d’, they always want to teach. If they know someone wants to learn, then they will give all their knowledge back in spades.

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Editor 21st March 2013

Chris Galvin, Galvin Bistrot de Luxe, London