Chris Staines, Allium Brasserie at The Abbey, Bath

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 13th September 2012

Photographs by kind permission of Rob Whitrow

Chris Staines is head chef at Allium Brasserie in Bath, Somerset, a hotel restaurant which strives to be exciting and ever changing in terms of food. Before starting at the Allium, Chris worked for seven years at Foliage at the Mandarin Oriental hotel in London, where he held a Michelin Star. He also worked as the chef de cuisine at Marco Pierre White’s The Oak Room, which held three Michelin Stars the whole time Chris worked there. Chris’s main influences are Asian and Vietnamese food, which have inspired him throughout his career.   Chris Staines Tell me how many menus you run? I know it’s very new for you here at the Abbey but how many menus do you run currently? We run one menu which is basically all encompassing; we're open from 12 noon, right the way through to ten o'clock at night. We effectively run the one menu which changes slightly in the evening, and on that menu there's also a snack section which works really well for the terrace and bar and a pre-fixed £14.95 for two courses. So it’s three menus but engineered into one. I guess it’s fair to say probably a big change in your career for you in terms of an operation like this, you've had predominantly the Michelin star background, is that what you've been brought here to do, or is it a change of direction for you as well? This move was a much more grown up move for me. Up until now it has been always been about chasing accolades and getting Michelin stars, and when I was presented with this opportunity it was much more of a business partnership rather than me just being a cook in the kitchen and doing my thing with the food. That’s not to say we wouldn’t appreciate any accolades if they came our way. Just to clarify this is now owned by the Taylors, ex Cotswold House, so again great pedigree there in terms of running quality establishments. Yes. At this stage in my career my ultimate aim is to run my own business, all of the great places I’ve worked were very good learning grounds in terms of the cooking, the managing people and building teams, but the business side of it was run by someone else. I really wanted to get the experience of running a profitable, successful business and learning from someone who has a great track record, so that I have all the tools I will need to open my own business. When you say your own business are you talking restaurant or something that's food led? It will definitely be food led, I'd like to think it will be a restaurant with rooms, I hope a destination place in the country where you've got a few rooms, with fantastic food. I'd love to have my own pigs and grow my own veg etc and just go with what’s good on the day. To do that I need to be sure in myself that I am able to run a successful business. We came to Bath and we looked at this property and saw the potential here, it’s a great location and it’s got a great frontage. There's a bit of a gap in the market in Bath, there are lots of very simple, approachable places, lots of sandwich joints, chains and lower end market restaurants; and then you've got places like The Priory and The Royal Crescent, who are doing great fine dining. But there's very little inbetween to fill that gap. We hope Allium does that very nicely. Do you think there's a real big trend at the moment for hotels to go that way? Using great ingredients, employing great chefs like yourself but you can come in, in your jeans and a shirt and the price point is a much more relaxed. I'm not saying the days of fine dining are dead, because there will always be a market for that. But the second half of your question hit the nail on the head; I'm not using any less skill than I did when I was cooking at Foliage, not buying any lesser ingredients, we haven’t decided to just chuck the recipe book out of the window. We're simply trying to do it at a price point where you can come and have a three course meal at 35 or 40 quid, a nice bottle of wine and walk away with a bill under a hundred quid for great food, fantastic service and some really interesting wines. We definitely don’t want to become a special occasion restaurant! There are 200 odd ‘restaurants’ in Bath and it’s a tough market, so we wanted to hit it at just the point where people can say, “Oh let’s go down to Allium,” without having to think “Have we got enough money in the bank…” How do you adjust your menus then if you’re using the same quality ingredients, you’re using the same skill, the same technique but obviously your price point’s lower, how do you balance that in terms of menu costing? ((laughs)) It’s tough. Is it making sure that you’re using say a mackerel starter and looking at what you put on the menu? It’s been a huge challenge and we are finding that we have to be a lot cleverer about how we write the menu. We're not in a position to buy “premium” products because the price point is such that in order to make the margin we just can't have them on the menu. That’s not to say we’re not using quality ingredients, we’re just avoiding things like truffles and caviar. It’s been really challenging, but part of the enjoyment of it is trying to present something that is still us, - it still fits into what we believe in - but at a price that people aren’t going to balk at. So we've got haddock, plaice and mackerel on the menu, and a lot of vegetable-based starters, which is a challenge in itself. A lot of people think if there's no protein in it then it’s not a dish, saying that though, our most popular starter is a vegetarian dish. And in terms of costing your menus how do you approach it? Do you look at each dish individually? We do; I really didn’t want any of the main courses to go over 20 quid, but at the moment we've got rib-eye steak on, and at the end of the day good rib-eye costs money (and people love it), so that's the only main course on the menu that goes above that price. Of course the thing is now chefs have all got to factor in 20% VAT That is the absolute killer. I mean we could quite comfortably run the menu with all the starters around the £6, £7 point and all the main courses around the sort of £16, £18 mark if it wasn't for the VAT but the VAT just kills you.  It’s that thing isn’t it where we almost need to be trading our way out of a recession as opposed to starving ourselves out of a recession. Yeah and it doesn’t do anyone any good. We have to put our prices up and are therefore perceived as more expensive… It’s a double whammy isn’t it? …and the customer gets hit with it at the end of it and it’s just not good for anyone. In terms of changing your menu then how do you approach that Is it a change across the board, all the way, every dish or do you change and tweak and sort of manipulate as you go along? This was one of the things that we did very successfully at Foliage. We changed menu items as and when, so for example cuttlefish we had on the menu two weeks ago, the cuttlefish season finished so we changed that dish. We like to try and change two or three things very couple of weeks. The very fact that we want people to come back two or three times a month means that they want to come back and see something different. It’s not even just to keep interest for the customers because at the end of the day we have to cook it every day so we like to keep it interesting for ourselves as well. I'm very happy that we're now a brigade of four, and I'm really lucky with the guys I’ve got in the kitchen, we work really well together. It’s very collaborative. Olly (Pierrepont) is just a genius, he's awesome.  You mentioned there's 200 odd restaurants here in Bath so how important is customer feedback to you? Very very important! Are the days of the chef saying, “It’s my food and if you don’t like it bugger off,” are they gone? I mean you've worked for chefs that had that attitude. Completely, 100%, unless you are blessed enough to be fully booked for the next 10 years! You specifically can’t have that attitude in a market that is as saturated as Bath. The people in Baths feet do the talking, if they can’t find what they want in your establishment they just go down the road to someone else. Without disparaging anybody else’s operation there are a lot of operations in Bath who know the tourists are there, they know they don’t have to try that hard and service is not the top thing on their list. So there's a lot of lacklustre operations and we want to really focus on customer service, the interaction with guests and the welcome that they get; and make it a place that the locals feel is theirs in a city that's swamped with all these tourist traps and chain restaurants. Last question for you then Chris please, as a chef it’s the end of the so-called summer, if you can call three days of sunshine summer, which I guess we can in the UK, what’s your favourite menu season and why? Wow. Are you a game man? Are you a Spring man? Or is it the next season, is the next one always the… Yeah I think it is the next one… Seasons are not like they were are they? We've got micro seasons now Absolutely I think there are about 30 seasons in a year now. But after the winter, when you start to see green things, that's always a big moment for me. Winter’s always a tough one for the pastry chefs isn’t it? It is, but spring is that time where you think, fantastic we can start using feves and peas and all that, it’s really inspiring. So that passion’s still there? Absolutely yes! Anyone who gets involved in this is never going to make it a success if they don’t ‘live’ it. You have to absolutely love what you do; when you’re getting up after three hours sleep and have to go in and do an 18 hour day, you really have to want to do that, you can’t play at it and anyone who…yeah it has to be in your blood. Well look on that note thank you very much. What a pleasure to meet you. Thank you. Yeah, pleasure to finally meet you as well.

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 13th September 2012

Chris Staines, Allium Brasserie at The Abbey, Bath