Laurie Gear The Artichoke Amersham

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 13th September 2011
Laurie Gear is the chef patron of The Artichoke, a restaurant in Amersham, Buckinghamshire. Laurie opened the restaurant in 2002 with his wife Jacqueline with a mission to consistently deliver the highest level of food and service. The restaurant quickly received acclaim, winning awards such as two AA rosettes and a top score for cooking in the Hardens Restaurant Guide. Devastatingly, fire damage from neighbouring premises forced it to close for 18 months in 2008. It reopened in 2009 with a fresh new look inspired by the Danish restaurant Noma. Laurie grew up in Lyme Regis, Dorset and started in the industry washing dishes in a local hotel. After college he moved on to Combe House at Gittisham, a Pride of Britain hotel. He spent six years working his way up and also met his wife there. They then moved to Oxford, where he worked at Gee’s Brasserie, serving up to 120 covers for dinner. Before starting his restaurant, Laurie and his wife raised money for it by running their own catering business, cooking lunches for actors and directors at Pinewood Studios. First and foremost Laurie thank you very much for inviting me in today. Thank you. Let's talk about your current role. Tell us about the Artichoke, how long you've been in existence, how you've developed and an overview of what the Artichoke is? Well we bought the original Artichoke, a three storey 16th century building 9 ½ years ago, and we are based in the old town of Amersham in Buckinghamshire, we own the restaurant, well actually my wife, myself and the bank! ((laughingly)) so there's the three of us involved in the set up. The bank owns most things that I have as well. We bought the Artichoke with the intention of turning it into a neighbourhood restaurant and the sort of restaurant that my wife and I would like to eat in. There's lots of other options in the area but we felt it was a little bit depleted with just somewhere you could go, have a really good meal and if you wanted to dress up and also have an exceptional meal as well in the same building. So that was our mission. We've hit the ground running as the restaurant had laid dormant for a good few months when we took it over so there was a lot of structural work to sort out, when people ask why did we call it the Artichoke we are more worried about water coming in through the roof than names at that point! You've been through some big transformation, we were talking earlier, and obviously there was a major fire next door that ripped through pretty much all of the business. How much of an impact was that on you, the business, and where you are now? It was dreadful it was 2008 we'd been operating for the best part of six years and it had taken us that long to get established because obviously we'd gone from zero to having a good reputation in the area, we were just getting some reviews nationally, we had some good write ups, some good press, a few accolades under our belts and we really felt we were getting into our stride. The brigade was strong, well we actually had a brigade rather than just myself and another lad and somebody doing the dishes which was the case when we first started out  Front of house was pretty good, so the fire hit us, a whole year and a half out, it was devastating, I mean it really was a huge trauma Emotionally it must be a really draining? Really draining we felt like we'd had our baby taken away, it was horrendous, we couldn't get into the building, it was sealed off,  we had all our life's work in there and we'd put everything in to it,  we'd been doing horrendous hours as everyone does in this industry at a certain level so we weren't unique but obviously having that taken away from you it was almost like an athlete that went  running God knows how many miles every day and then suddenly being told you've got to sit in the chair, it just didn't work. So initially I was totally knocked on my arse I didn't know what to do, where to go, it really threw us. Obviously we were heavily taken up with the insurance claim and sorting that out and that was a nightmare And no one teaches you any of this do they? No absolutely we had to hit the ground running. There were people assigned to us initially from the insurance company who were supposedly there to help sort out the claim and we found out that they were actually also Loss adjusters,  so we didn't feel that they would work in our best interest. We appointed our own people who in turn towards the latter stage of the claim turned out to be in it for themselves and we finally got hold of a company, through David Moore at Pied à Terre, Jackie, my wife, used to work at the BBC and she'd come across David Moore through The Restaurant  show and he'd actually put us in touch with Jonathan Samuelson,  obviously they'd suffered a pretty huge fire so David had lots of experience and knew the best people But every cloud I guess does have a silver lining and the Artichoke is now a much different restaurant than before the fire. So was there light at the end of the tunnel? We could see that the building next door was being refurbished and the tenant was not coming back so there may be the opportunity to double our tiny space.  There was also the time to think about doing some proper stages - having dined at Noma back at end of 2008 I got to meet James Knappet who was the Sous Chef at the time - we kept in touch and in June 2009 I made it out there for a couple of weeks in the Summer - it was a heat wave in Copenhagen it was a great experience. I was so dying to get back in my own kitchen and cook, it was horrible. Tom Kerridge at the Hand & Flowers,  he was so supportive. He said to me that if you want to use his back kitchen room, I mean this was in the middle of a lot of Tom's transformation, out of everyone he was the one guy that came forward and said, "Look if you need some help, support, whatever," But isn't it great that you've got people like David Moore, Tom Kerridge and"¦"¦I was talking to you earlier you know Raymond Blanc has also helped you. Raymond had eaten at the Artichoke a few times - the first time he came the Chefs were prepping away in the back kitchen and it was early morning and the Front of House Crew were not in yet - the phone went to voicemail and they  could hear this French voice saying this is "˜Raymond Blanc from the Le Manior and I would like to book in for Lunch....' - I said for Christ sake someone  pick up the phone - he came and he loved it! When the refurbishment was complete after the fire we asked if he would do us the honour of relaunching the restaurant. He came with Natalia to the party and it was absolutely brilliant - all the clients loved him. So when the building next door eventually came up for lease we asked Raymond if he had any contacts who knew about taking on a leased property and he put us in touch with Ian Glynn of Blanc Brasserie who is a really good guy -.  Raymond had broken his leg at the time and was on his crutches but wanted desperately to get upstairs to the kitchen to meet the guys - he's a great inspiration! How have you and your food style evolved in the time that you've been here? What I did find was that we're chipping away right at the coalface so we were literally, or I was literally an inch away from my work on a daily basis and then we had that year and a half off, of course you had a lot more time to go away and see what other people were doing, also sit back and actually read through your own menus and have a little look at what you were doing and be very analytical about how you've conducted service. There was obviously a bit of a renaissance in the industry for another rebirth of this lightening of cooking and also as much as anything a lightening of front of house style and maybe that little trip to Noma was a catalyst for that. We've got really good food in informal surroundings. The reality was before the fire we had pine tables and they were so gash that we had to  cover them with tablecloths because they were so bloody horrible. Of course tablecloths gives that air of formality, especially within a building with just 24 covers and the span of the restaurant is only several feet so you can see how small it is. You can look in through the window and see front to back in a stone's throw, we've never been uptight or formal with our food or service but maybe we may have given that impression. After the fire there was an opportunity to refresh and buy some new tables and then we chose to go for the natural wood look, have that more informal but stylish sort of look and straightaway the feedback was better. Yeah there's nothing in the Michelin Guide to say that you've got to have tablecloths. Exactly, exactly and that's it.  We realIy like the new interiors and  just thought this is the way to go and it really lends itself to our building, we've got a lot of wood,  natural beams and old features,  not that in any way that we'd want to replicate Noma or anything. Sure noma's is noma. Exactly but it was just the catalyst of how things could change in this country a lot of people were already doing that style alongside Copenhagen. So we thought very carefully how we should rebuild our restaurant because once again we had one chance and one chance only it was very damp trouser moment, coming back in mid recession. Was there ever a time when you thought, "˜Bugger it?' No? Or were you always going to reopen? Yes right in the middle of the refurbishment we were battling it out with the Loss Adjusters they kept saying there is a massive recession and it effecting the restaurant and pub industry in particular - they applied a 20% down turn to our loss of business so that we bearly had enough to live on everything was against us and the refurbishment was costing much more than the sums insured we thought we will never be able to get the building back. I mean the trade press wasn't terribly constructive in a lot of the media regarding restaurants. There were a lot of good places going under and there was a lot of people moving around and there was a lot of uncertainty in the industry. And I thought, "˜Christ,' you know, we have ((laughingly)) just lost our entire restaurant and  we have and start all over again and once again your energy levels, you know, and I'm still comparatively young and I still feel, especially now, that we can push on a lot further but you kind of think, am I going to be able to start all over again? And yes there was an element of doubt, I'm being realistic, there was I don't think you'd be human if there wasn't. Exactly I'd be a liar to say that there wasn't but what changed was when Jackie was emailing out to our clients saying, "Look Artichoke we're going to be back in," it's going to be another two months, another three months, whatever it was when we were doing that little countdown and there were so many people asking, "Please keep us informed of when you're coming back "¦" " the support from our clients was fantastic  they were so loyal to us "¦we felt that we really had to come back That goes back to your original goal though of being a community restaurant doesn't it? So going forward then it's been a massive transition and we've had a look around today, you started in what can be described as a box kitchen. You've now got a much, much better working environment. The guides are being kind to you now, Rising Star, Good Food Guide, you've expanded, but what now drives your business? Is it accolades or is it getting rid of the bank owning this and you owning it? No I think what's driving us at the moment is that, without sounding arrogant but the quality of the product that we're now offering and I can see, now I've been away from it for a period of time, I can see the progression and that's exciting. You're working in the business rather than working on the business as we said earlier. It's that you can't see the wood for the trees moment isn't it? Definitely, as I said I'm so fortunate I've got some fantastic lads and once again you're as good as the team behind you. My new sous chef, Ben Jenkins has helped strengthen the team , I've always worked with a team but it's nice to get fresh blood in, new ideas,"¦ And you need them to push you forward as well don't you? I'm under the obligation of keeping things fresh and exciting for them, they've put their time and commitment and almost put their lives on hold to come and work with us and it's a two way street, the team are so excited. I'm the old boy in the kitchen, I've got lads in there 17 -18 years old and I've got to run round faster than them still to prove a point and that keeps me fired up. I like the competition, I've always been very competitive Most chefs are though aren't they? I like that feeling of still having to be the driving creative force but by the same token there's so much input with the team and that's lovely and developing and refining dishes that we already had on the menu and now we're into the next  era of creating new dishes. Yeah I mean I know what it's like running your own business and I know equally what it's like running"¦well I don't know what it's like running a restaurant but I speak to a lot of people that do and I know the bloody demands of time and pressure what's the end goal for you and Jackie? I think, as I said, it's still the same goal that when we set out. We want to have a restaurant that's within a neighbourhood that's initially caters for the needs of the surrounding area but now we want to push the boundaries as we've always wanted to, to have something that's a bit more nationally recognised. But personally where do you want to end up? Personally just to develop what we've got, I mean I think how we are now will be different  to how we are next year. I just want to have a restaurant that is recognised for excellent food, excellent service and that's our goal. Maybe in the future to have something with rooms, but at the moment we feel that Artichoke has still got a lot of legs and I mean we've just moved into the property next door. So it's like a rebirth a new beginning almost isn't it? Yes exactly, longevity, we've just moved from doing that cramped little six burner stove kitchen upstairs and we achieved so much with that, now we've got a posh, flash induction range downstairs, open kitchen, which once again it's given a rebirth to the way that we cook because the chefs, myself included obviously we can see the people that we're serving. It's fantastic you get a little bit of interaction, it's not an open house, obviously it's still very much we're about cooking the food for our clients and our clients are here for their benefit and for eating their meal but there is that little bit of crossover now which is exciting. Brilliant for the young chefs, it gives them much more of an understanding about timing. It also breaks down barriers doesn't it? Exactly and I think it's important especially when so many chefs are working so hard facing the tiled wall, sorry faced  prepping away and just really unaware of what's going on through the kitchen door never seeing  the end results and that little package of food travels its  journey all the way from the knife and the frying pan to the plate, to the customer, it's nice to see the complete journey and I think my particular team  cook better in that environment and it's certainly geed up the boys a lot more when we moved into the new kitchen and obviously we've got a lot more space and facilities are better and I think going back to your original question about where do we see ourselves well I think the longevity of that scenario will push us forward on to the next stage of Artichoke . Well listen I wish you and Jackie every success it's been wonderful to come and see you and understand the journey you've been on and thank you very, very much for your time. Thank you.
The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 13th September 2011

Laurie Gear The Artichoke Amersham