Arnaud Stevens, Searcys Executive Chef, The Gherkin, London

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 13th March 2012

The view from The Gherkin

In an interview with Searcys Executive Chef, Arnaud Stevens, we find out how they prepare a feast for the culinary senses to match the breathtaking sights from the top of this iconic 180m tall central London building …  Arnaud wonderful we're rolling. Please, give us an overview of your role here at Searcys? I am the Executive chef at the Gherkin 30 St Mary Axe, and also group chef for seven other sites, within the company some of which are the Commonwealth Club, various champagne bars, and a new very exciting new opening due this year. And how many people are under your control? Around 88 chefs. Do you run individual menus for individual operations or do you have standard menus across all of your operations? How does it work? Each site runs to a different food concept adapting to the various venues so depend on the site there might be the need to offer a different food offering ie, bistro, cafe, fine dining, event space. We are a little limited with some champagne bars as we don’t have kitchens as such just open plan with very little extraction, so we use a lot of water bath procedures to limit this. The Gherkin is the Flag ship site of the company so the restaurant is extremely serious in how we serve and what food is produced. Is it your showcase restaurant? Definitely the Gherkin is our showcase restaurant we have fantastic suppliers and we have great support in ensuring we get the best produce we can on a daily basis. Our business here is split into three sections, we have the restaurant on the 39th floor which offers an a la Carte which we change two dishes from each course weekly, degustation menu. On the 38th floor we have the private members lounge with offer a rustic bistro menu, with light lunch time themed bar snacks. On this floor we also have two private dining rooms offering the same menus as the restaurant which seats a maximum of 14 people per room. Then on occasions varying in the week or the weekend we turn our restaurant space on 39 and the 40th floor into an exclusive event space. Do you have nominated suppliers? We do have nominated suppliers, all of which are well chosen suiting the correct business and site, here at the gherkin we are very lucky to have a wide range of suppliers who can deliver to the standards we set when ordering, so it might be Cornish Red mullet, scallops from Portland in Weymouth. We buy our, lamb and chicken from Rhug estate, our beef and iberico pork from Jack O’shea, we have a fantastic forager from mountain foods Yun who buys our sea beets, wild garlic, perslaine etc we also buy from the legendary cheese supplier Mon’s from Lyon who manage to source us some of the most amazing French artisan produce. All of the above are people who know the business very well and we are on the phone to each other on a regular basis to get the best product for the best price. Let’s talk about something that's very, very in vogue at the moment:  waste. Now obviously you've got a number of sites, you've got 88 chefs so how important is managing waste as a part of your business and a part of your role? The champ bar in St Pauls is quite unique as practically all food is prepared at the Gherkin so have good control in the sense to waste but also for example when we have whole pigs delivered we divide the pork up for events for St Pauls, then the more tender refined cuts we keep for the Gherkin. Very much the same principles apply to the Commonwealth club where Oliver Tobias my head chef there also over see’s the London transport museum. So in terms of food waste I think it’s important to question how we order food and how can we spread the correct use of the product. Fish we buy the night before and only use what we need, so keeping control of stock levels is very important. I guess even logistically managing waste from the top of this building to the back door is quite a challenge because we're what 37 floors up here? We are 37 floors but again if you look at the 37th floor kitchen there are four different bins where they’re allocated in certain areas and controlled and sealed. They’re monitored and emptied three times a day. That goes to a depot in the basement which is then collected twice a day. Okay let’s talk food cost management. Again big operation, diverse operation, lots of different styles of operation, so as a group executive chef how do you manage food costs? Do you do it per dish or per operation? How do you do it? All head chefs in all sites have a cost control package which holds a tracker for daily invoicing, dish costing template ie a recipe is written a formula is then added according to the weight of the product and how much that product cost per unit, it then automatically calculates your margin and selling price including vat. At month end all chefs prepare a stock count like in any normal kitchen, however my chefs input those figures to the tracker for the month, I can then check there GP which is compared to their previous months stock count, only then does this figure go to the accounts dept. That way I can check if there blagging. Are they incentivised to manage their costs? Yes they are encouraged to ensure that they manage their costs because thats what we pay them for, as well as producing good food, a good chef should also have a good knowledge and understand what a P&L sheet is, what EBITDA stands for etc, having said that good results are not ignored and they do rewarded accordingly  Fantastic. How do you manage in-house training because that's obviously paramount in terms of making sure they’re not putting too much stuff in the bin, making sure that what they’re using is the right thing. So what type of processes do you have in place to manage costs? Well I'm lucky that I've got three senior chefs that are under me. It’s a slightly old school way of doing it and most of the sites are like it but bins are checked, i.e. pulled out, each bin bag is clear. I have a lot of great chefs and people managers around me so the job is monitored and done correctly almost all of the time as I would want it to be done. When we have young chefs coming into the business we have a 1 year commitment that ask of them along with that a training manual which breaks down how there year will be spent in the kitchen, so two month might start with the larder then moving onto garnish, fish, etc. We invest in our staff with huge enthusiasm to try to give back to the guys as much as they dedicate their time with us here. When it comes to bins they are see through and the sous chefs check them but also all the expensive cuts ie, meat prep, fish prep are all done by the head chefs and the sous chefs showing the chef de parties who to prep, this limits waste. They’re all clear because they work. Exactly. So clear bags are pulled out. When it comes to purchasing only the sous chefs and only chef de parties will ever order any food and until that's put through online or via the telephone then it’s checked vigorously. I'd like to think that nearly all the sites, and certainly here, it’s relatively empty in the fridge which is a bit harsh for some people for their mis en place but it’s the only way to manage it and not only that you've got less waste. It’s tough on the guys but the guys will order six bunches of thyme, they only need one, because they’re thinking about three days in advance but you can’t work like that you’d just go bust.

Sure. Let’s talk about menu change then what constitutes a menu change, do you change by dish, do you change by season, do you change by menu?

Change by season, by dish for this site. So for the Gherkin it would be like that. If it’s for one of the champagne bars, take an example say St Paul's (because it’s close by) it’s all about seasonality there but also what the customer wants and if we look at our tracker of sales and what dishes are popular then we're going to keep it on. I think what’s important is to listen to the consumer when they come in and if they do rave about it and like it then we keep it on. If it’s something that's going to suffer because of the seasonality because you can’t source that product then yes we’ll have to change but based something around that idea. Customer satisfaction in other businesses are paramount. Here we can be a little bit more flexible and change because we're running a different ship. That was very much going to be my last question actually. How important a factor is customer feedback, how do you monitor it, how do you take that information and how do you use that information to drive your business? For instance if we do an event here, very much as we would do for a sit down dinner in the restaurant but the feedback will always come via management but for an event it will always come through the organiser and we constantly send them an email and then we find out what is the positive feedback or a small percent might be negative. The majority of feedback we get as a whole, especially the champagne bars, Commonwealth and here, is huge. It’s really huge but that's only driven by the people that run it understanding that it’s important to give people what they want but also to cook properly, to manage properly, to be clean, to be professional. And do you filter that back to your team? Yes, big time, absolutely. we have a notice board in each kitchen and feedback is put up and it’s very encouraging, it’s very good, because it makes them feel happy that they’re doing a good job and they push harder because of that, because they want that every single week, that same really good feedback. Last question then, what are the advantages of working for a company like Searcys? They are a company that's quality driven and produce driven. They are very happy for you to look at buying the best but obviously incorporate that with your margin but when it comes to the quality then they’re going to buy you Thomas Keller tasting plates, they’re going to buy you a beautiful glass range. The front of house are going to have great uniforms, really good quality tablecloths, in the kitchen you’re going to have the best pans, the best containers, you get where I’m coming from. But the ethos has always been about looking after the guys and it’s not about screaming and shouting and pushing people to do 18 hours, you can actually do the same quality food in a balanced environment with the correct days off where they can rest and when they do rest they’re actually more productive, training, talking to the guys about produce, and showing them the joy of the job that we do, let’s face it we spend a lot of time as a chef in the kitchen, so we really need to have that passion and “good time” feeling whilst doing it. I have fond memories of working in a particular restaurant in Mayfair, very well known chef, he had all the accolades, media attention, obviously a very good cook, but had no man management skills what so ever, it was “kill or be killed” type of attitude, which drove people to leave, made people make mistakes, and having an awful environment to work in, food of course is the most important thing and we always question what we do and how we do it, but if you have a brigade of boys and girls that are broken and unable to do it then your business in big trouble. Absolutely. Well listen thank you for your time and let’s go and do some cooking. Great. Marvellous.
The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 13th March 2012

Arnaud Stevens, Searcys Executive Chef, The Gherkin, London