Laurie Gear, Chef Patron, Artichoke Restaurant

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 13th September 2016

Laurie Gear co – owns the Artichoke Restaurant with his wife Jacqueline.

Growing up in a household where his father was a baker and his mother a cook, Laurie was destined for a career in hospitality. After finishing college and working for a number of establishments including a four year stint at Combe House, Laurie and Jacqueline opened the Artichoke together in 2002 in Amersham. The restaurant quickly gained recognition achieving Two Rosettes by the AA, Two Couverts in the Michelin Guide, top score for cooking in the Hardens Restaurant Guide, UK Best Dish 2007 in Restaurant Magazine.

In 2008 the restaurant was forced to close after a fire broke out from the neighbouring property. During this time Laurie staged at the world-renowned Noma in Copenhagen alongside Rene Redzepi. The Artichoke eventually reopened in 2009 undergoing an expansion in 2011 with the adjoining building where the fire originally began.

Since reopening, The Artichoke was named ‘Best New Entry’ in The Good Food Guide 2011, awarded a ‘Rising Star’ in the 2011 Michelin Guide and in September 2013 it was awarded ‘AA Restaurant of the Year for England 2013/14’ as well as achieving a third rosette by the AA.

When The Staff Canteen spoke to Laurie we found out what it was like working with Rene Redzepi at Noma and the influence that it had on the Artichoke, and why waiting for spring to come feels like a kid waiting for Christmas.

Sea trout

How did you get into the industry?

I grew up in Lyme Regis in Dorset and I got a job at a seaside café washing dishes. I worked my way around a couple of cafes on the seafront at a very early age, I’m talking about 12 years old.

At the time my mum was a cook for a private school and my father had been a baker. They went on to become steward and stewardess of a golf club so by the time I was 14 we moved to the local golf club and they were running the catering there and I helped out a lot.

I then moved to a hotel called the Mariners Hotel in Lyme Regis and I was working for a chap called Leo Featherstone who was a bit of a Rick Stein of his time so I worked for him and then went on to College in Weymouth.

Once I finished a two year course I gave up my job with Leo and then there was a job going at Combe House in Gittisham which is now the Pig at Combe.

Info bar                                     

Favourite ingredients

Crab – simply steamed or boiled served with mayonnaise and crusty bread.

Scallops – pan fried with some smoked and cured ham and carrot puree.

Oysters – with just a squeeze of lemon for me.

Skate wing – with capers and black butter sauce, that’s one of my favourite dishes.

Pig Trotter – if I’m out and about and I see a pig’s trotter on the menu with morels that’s my bag, I like that.

Signature dish

Pear and caramelised white chocolate galette with a poire William sorbet

You opened the Artichoke in 2002 and have won numerous awards and accolades since, what would you put your success down to?

I think the core success was probably down to my wife, she’s the co-owner of the business and she has a very strong business accruement. When we bought the restaurant it had been an all-day tea shop/vegetarian restaurant and failed miserably so Jackie negotiated on the freehold of the badly neglected building which was a good move. I think also sticking to our guns when we first opened, we wanted to be a neighbourhood restaurant and there were a lot of different styles of restaurants in the area but not a neighbourhood restaurant per se.

We wanted to be a smart neighbourhood restaurant with innovative cooking and approachable friendly service so we concentrated on what we did best. We didn’t diversify too much and mastered one element before we moved onto the next.  I think the main success over the years has been a wonderful and dedicated team that we have behind us.

How did working with Rene Redzepi at Noma influence the Artichoke and food style?

I had literally gone out there to eat prior to the fire of 2008 (there was a fire from a neighbouring premises which burnt down the restaurant in 2008) whilst I was there I met a English lad called James Knappett (now of Kitchen Table) who was then the sous chef, I told him about the fire and that we would be out of business for some time and he invited me over to do a stage. 

It was a good time because Noma was still earning recognition so Rene was always in the kitchen and I got the opportunity to work on the pass with him.

The UK was going through a recession and I think it was giving a lot of restaurants the shake-up.  All the things that used to make me and my wife feel uncomfortable like the snobbery and unfriendliness in a place there was none of that in Copenhagen, it was very open and the staff were friendly.

Quail               

To a degree they also had an open kitchen which was a big source of inspiration seeing all of the dishes, with regards to the food there were different techniques such as pickling and brining, we had always done foraging and when we came back it was just becoming popular. In the first year after re opening we went from a four to a six in the Good Food Guide and were voted the Good Food Guide Restaurant of the Year in the UK, we also got a rising star from Michelin.  Then there was an opportunity to move into next door so thinking about the open kitchen at Noma inspired us to create an open kitchen next door. We knocked through one building and 24 covers became 48. In that first year we also really honed the service as well as the food.    

Would you say your food style has evolved over the years?

When we first opened there were just five of us on the team and there are 22 of us now. I think bringing in new team members has increased our skill set enormously. My now head chef Ben Jenkins has been with us the longest so bringing in new people with new skill sets has really helped improve the food. We have always has a strong focus on seasonality and flavour. When we first opened our dishes were a bit more simplistic but now we have had the opportunity to improve them with a bigger and better kitchen.

What is your process of menu and dish creation?

First of all, Ben and I look at seasonality, we always think about what we should be eating at this time of year. Then we move on to check out availability and then we start bringing all of the elements together. We look at what garnish is going to be suitable for that particular dish and then we look at sauces and dressing. The dish is then put together and we always taste the dish to give a true feeling of how it is going to transpire in the restaurant. Then we’ll critique it and see what needs taking away or even adding to it. The kitchen will then trial and practice the dish and we’ll put it up to the FOH team to taste and get to grips with ingredients. Once it’s had the final blessing all the way round it’s added to the menu.

You use a lot of foraged ingredients from your hedgerows, does this inspire a lot of your dishes?

We have always had ingredients that have come from the wild, West Country and the beach but I also think it’s important to mention that things harvested from the wild need to have a purpose on the plate. Unfortunately not everything that’s edible tastes nice and I think a lot of chefs have picked up on that and everyone is savvy enough now to rein it back a little. Obviously there are a lot of new and interesting flavours but they run alongside our produce rather than being the key focus.

Where else do you source your ingredients?

We have links with local farms and even down to the local brewery, not only do we use their beers but we smoke seatrout with their hops. We source local where we can but obviously if the quality is not there then we have to move further afield.

We also have a local chap who sources our meat and game for us.

Do you have a favourite ingredient you like to work with?

Probably fish and shellfish, and also game when it’s in season.

How do you choose the monthly recipe?

Again it’s seasonality, we see what is in season to do something that can be recreated in the home, just something that’s not too complicated or needs specific equipment to make it. I think that’s important, if you are going to give a recipe that they will perhaps be trial for a Sunday lunch. It needs to be simplistic and something they can follow.

You also have a vegetarian menu, why did you decide to do that?

We have had it on the menu for several years now and that’s really just to respond to the increased demand for vegetarian dishes. What we do find is that by having the vegetarian menu it’s not solely for vegetarians we also find that a lot of people like to eat a lot lighter these days. In response to that it gives them a greater choice. With a bit of creativity and working alongside the seasons we can come up with some inspirational ideas.

What is your favourite food season?

Scallops 

I think the older I get I prefer spring. It’s full of anticipation and because we’ve done the long dark days and nights it’s a bit of fresh air. I think it’s a little bit like being a kid before Christmas, you get the feeling of things that are just starting to emerge and the promise of things to come.

If you’re a gardener you can start planning what you want to plant in your garden and I think it’s the same for a chef, during the winter months you work on your planning and going into spring you’re always looking ahead - spring is a wonderful time.

How often do you change the menus, is this largely dependent on what ingredients are available?

With regards to our lunch and lunch tasting menus they normally change about every four weeks and that’s purely down to having repeat business. We like to ring in the changes and keep it fresh for everybody coming in. The regular menus change with the seasons and there’s normally something going on every month, we will often swap out a couple of dishes at a time for new ones.

Do you have a favourite dish from the menu?

At the moment we have a fantastic Dorset Crab dish on with heritage tomatoes, tomato essence jelly, sea grapes and a fragrant passion fruit dressing, it’s a fairly new dish this year with different textures and great flavours of summer.

What is next for the Artichoke?

We still feel there is work to be done where we are and there’s always room for improvement in any restaurant I think so you strive for everything to be better each year. Looking ahead, my wife and I would like to add rooms to the restaurant and perhaps a second site, a little more casual if there was an opportunity to do so. Those are ambitions for the future but we are definitely focused on where we are right now!

 

 

 

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 13th September 2016

Laurie Gear, Chef Patron, Artichoke Restaurant