Gary Lee, Executive Chef, The Ivy

The Staff Canteen

Gary Lee took his first step into the industry working at a carvery in Kingsford, he is now executive chef of the iconic The Ivy.

He has worked with some of the best names in the business climbing through the ranks at the Dorchester, The Orpheus & Tower Bridge Club, Andre Forzani, Le Caprice and Bam-Bou; where he explored Thai, Vietnamese and Chinese food. He has been head chef at The Ivy restaurant since 2007, promoted to executive chef in 2011. His tenure at The Ivy has also seen the introduction of private members’ club, The Club at The Ivy in September 2008 and he continues to oversee private dining in the private dining room at The Ivy.

The Ivy underwent a major refurbishment in 2015 and The Staff Canteen caught up with Gary to find out what effect this has had on the restaurant and the menu, why he is so passionate about bringing on young chefs and apprentices plus he tells us where he loves to eat on his days off!

Gary Lee, The Ivy
Gary Lee 

How has the Ivy changed since you first stepped in to the kitchen?

We are thinking about the customer a lot more, it’s not a male dominated menu as it seemed to be for a long time so meat, meat and more meat. We’ve moved it to a more modern day approach and giving people a more varied option. The food is lighter, there is a lot more flavour to the food – I think we are just more in line with what a modern day customer or foodie would want.

You are now executive chef, on your way up, has one particular role been more challenging than the others?

Any job within Caprice Holdings is going to be a tough challenge because of the standards and the levels that they set. If you had asked about The Ivy ten years ago, it was the mothership. It still has that same mantel within the group but there are now other restaurant pushing just as hard. It’s a hard existence here and you have to have a thick skin but it’s also about how we teach the next generation of chefs coming through. We have to support them and I’m a great believer that they should learn while they are here.

You’ve worked with some top chefs in your career, now you are one of the top chefs and young chefs look up to – how do you find that responsibility?

You have to have patience with people and I have learned that over the years. When I was training there was no patience at all, if you couldn’t do something after a couple of goes you were moved on to another section. Now we talk, we nurture, we say go again – these people are here on a career path and it’s our responsibility to try and help them take the next step forward. Once they leave here they are on their own but they come with a reputation of working at our restaurant. It‘s our responsibility when they do step out on their own that they can still hold their own. It’s not just about being a chef these days, it has completely changed. But the beauty of being a young chef now is there is such a huge amount of opportunity.

Last year The Ivy underwent a refurb, how has that been?

I lost about a year of my life! It took a hell of a lot of organising, we went from 80 percent gas to 20 percent gas and all induction. But we are walking into a kitchen now where you don’t ever feel it’s too hot, it’s continually clean, marble slabs everywhere – it’s just a lovely environment to work in. I’d need a week to explain the set up! You just have to remember we started with a shell and we worked our way back up again. It’s been a success though and we managed to pull it off and people say we still capture what The Ivy is all about.

The Ivy Sticky toffee pudding by David Griffen HR (4) low res

The Ivy Sticky toffee pudding

by David Griffen 

Did the menu change massively?

Yeah it did. We still kept true to our identity but the menu is very diverse so there is something there for everyone which is the most important thing. It was what I wanted and it was a fight to get it but we’ve had positive feedback. On the menu now all the classics are right down the middle of the page, I don’t want to lose the core of our regulars who have been coming for twenty, thirty years – it’s still their restaurant. But equally there is a younger crowd coming here now and they eat healthier, they don’t want fishcakes or shepherd’s pie, they want raw, they want shaved vegetables, they want pulses.

Do you have a signature dish?

The Ivy has signature dishes – not me. So shepherd’s pie, dressed carb, haddock and chips – there are loads of different dishes. As the seasons change I keep those classics going. I’m not saying there was anything wrong with what we did before but all I have ever wanted at The Ivy was tables of six or eight people, being able to swap plates and share what they were eating – that was unheard of here before! If you come here now you will see nothing but that.

Being a chef, was that something you always wanted to do?

Yes and no! I was doing art at school, but I wasn’t very good at it – good enough but not good enough for my teacher. It was a cross between my teacher putting a black marker pen across my work and me getting the hump and storming out of the class. Some of my friends were doing home economics, they kept saying ‘you should come in here, have a go and see what it’s like.’ I had a go and came out top of my class – I couldn’t believe it! It just went from there and I’ve never really looked back.

The Ivy May 2015 by Jake Eastham
The Ivy May 2015 by Jake Eastham

You went to college after your home economics success, when did you start working in a kitchen?

I was 18 and I worked in a carvery in Kingford, my job was to do 12/14 different salads for people to come up and help themselves. On days of doing prawn cocktail and things, for me it was absolutely brilliant, making coleslaw look better than it ever had by putting it in cabbage leaves – I have to laugh looking back at it now! But it worked, it gave me a good sense of organisation and an understanding of people’s needs. It was very, very different to what I’m doing now.

When and where was the first ‘professional’ kitchen you went in to?

It was probably the Dorchester. I did work experience there and I was blown away by the whole set up, the cleanliness, the professionalism of all the guys – everyone seemed to know what they were doing and I had never seen that before. I spent two weeks upstairs in the Terrace Restaurant and I was only allowed to wipe and watch.

That must have been frustrating?

It was but it was also quite relieving when you would see someone come in and get a bollocking, and it wasn’t you! I was on the receiving end of it occasionally - they used to have a chocolate fridge with the loveliest chocolates and truffles I had ever eaten in my life. I used to go in and nick one every now and again and they knew I was doing it. So, one day they asked me to make and test the fondant icing, chef told me to warm it and every minute or so test the heat of it on my lip – it needed to be at blood temperature to use it. I was unaware that they had already heated the icing so it was boiling hot, it burnt my lip and left a blister and chef said ‘next time you want a chocolate you ask me and you can have as many as you want’.

You worked under Mark Hix at Le Caprice, how was that?

I spent about four years there which was fantastic times. Mark was still finding his way in the world as it were, he already had a reputation when he moved into the west end and people were talking so it was a good time. We all sort of grew up together, I had met Mark at the Dorchester and he’s very laid back – what you see is what you get with him. In total I probably worked for Mark for ten years.

Was working in Mark’s kitchen very different to kitchens you had been in before?

The Ivy Shepherd's Pie by David Griffen
The Ivy Shepherd's Pie by David Griffen

Oh god yeah. It was a smaller environment straight away but work ethic, ethos and direction never leaves you from the Dorchester. He worked it like it was a hotel kitchen and he worked the boys like it was a hotel kitchen. His idea of food was very simple but very true. He was very clever in how he put food together and very clever in the way he made sure you understood what he wanted from that food. That’s something I’ve always tried to keep with me – you can shout at people but if they don’t want to listen they won’t. If there is one thing we learned from Mark it was be true to yourself and the people around you – that way you get the best out of them.

How did you end up at The Ivy?

I went with Mark, when we were at Caprice, The Ivy was just about to get going – it was a very new thing for Caprice Holdings as there was only Caprice at that stage. I left after a year because it wasn’t really me, not that there was anything wrong with what they were doing but it didn’t feel right for me. I was used to a smaller environment and a small amount of chefs. I just wanted to take a step back, cook some food I wanted to cook and still go home at a reasonable hour. I did come back into the group in the end and I ran a place called Bamboo for five years, I had no idea about Vietnamese food but Hixy said ‘you know how to cook, and if you know how to cook you can cook anything’.

I went to Nobu, Nahm with David Thompson – I just got an understanding of what oriental food was about. I made some massive changes at Bamboo, it took some time but we really pushed that place.

The Ivy T-bone steak by David Griffen

The Ivy T-bone steak

by David Griffen

When I said I’d had enough they didn’t want me to leave the group so offered me The Ivy, I came and had a look and I haven’t looked back.

Where do you like to eat when you aren’t in the kitchen?

I go out once or twice a week and I’ve eaten in some lovely places. There are some great places outside of the west end places like Hackney, Portobello, you’d be surprised. I really like Lee Westcott at Typing Room, I love the Clove Club, I’ve got a real soft spot for Brett Graham - I wish I was 20 or 30 years younger because he is the sort of person I would like to go and work for. One of my other favourites is Jason Atherton, I think he is a little bit of a cut above the rest.

What are your future plans?

I’ve got a few things under my hat – I’m not looking to go and open anything but I’d like to teach one day.    

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The Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 24th March 2016

Gary Lee, Executive Chef, The Ivy