Steve Crane, Head Chef Ockenden Manor

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 29th December 2010
Steve, thank you very much for your time today, great to see your brand new kitchen, with the wide screen TV!!!! I want to talk with you today about your menus and perhaps we can start with understanding how many menus you run here at Ockenden Manor? We run three menus - a lunch menu, an A la Carte and a tasting menu So three menus; how often do they change? Do they interlink?  Is lunch and dinner similar? Lunch is very different, it's very cost effective.  We offer two courses for £15.95, going up to £22.00 with dessert. We look to use some of the less fashionable cuts, confits, braises"¦.. Yes, I noticed some Guinea Fowl confit when I walked in... Yes, and lunch is really about offering great food but also very good value for money. Is lunch difficult?  You are quite isolated here, by that I mean there is not a large town close by and no natural passing foot traffic, I guess whilst picturesque, you are off the beaten track a little. No, lunch is very successful for us.  We are averaging around thirty five covers a lunch service, in fact we are full most lunch times.  Weekends we can do sixty covers. Wow that's fantastic"¦.. Steve, what would you say is currently your best selling item and how long has it featured on the menu? Well, we change the menus quite frequently, they are continually evolving, and we perhaps change a dish each week.  I tend not to follow the structured route of changing the menu four times a year. We are always looking to seasons, when they start; when they end. We are currently waiting for the game to start. We have a fantastic farm just up in Balcombe, which is where I come from. I've developed a relationship with them -  I'll get a call to say this is ready and will change the menu to accommodate that. It's a similar situation with vegetables, we have three main suppliers with one of them being Secrets"¦ Is that the farm shop? Yes, it is.  So our menus really are driven by what's around; what works well; and what we like to cook, we've been doing it a long time now - there are certain things that I like to cook, and things that I don't. Steve, do you have tried and tested dishes, I guess a repertoire that you refer to, looking at what worked really well and perhaps adjust or tweak each year? You know I don't. I'm actually very bad at that, some of the boys in the team do and they actually remind me of dishes that we've done in the past, I like to try and come up with something that is different. I guess that keeps you motivated. Yes it does, but sometimes I'll do a dish and the boys will come back to me and say, "We did that dish back in 2000"¦.." "Oh did we"¦" (Laughter). But that is very much the way that we do the menus - lots of input, lots of eating, lots of tasting. Steve, I guess that was really going to be my next question, how do you go about changing the menus, do you encourage feedback from the team, what is the process? It will often start with me, and having an idea that might be eating away at me, which in turn makes me think that I need to do something about this. I'll then share it with my Sous Chef Vincent and then perhaps the boys will throw in ideas and we may then have ten/ twelve or more items around perhaps a piece of venison, and we'll start to then break it down. I guess that's how we create our dishes, there is probably less tasting now than before, as I mentioned previously, we've been doing this a long time, so we tend to know what will and won't work. For me, what really excites me is the vegetables and the range of things that you can do with them. Venison is venison, we know the quality of what we cook is outstanding and it hardly varies, so what we can put with it excites me. So, Steve do you, therefore, look more at the peripherals that surround it? Yes, we do. And what about the restaurant Steve, do you look to involve them in how you structure your menus, feed back from the clients as to what does and doesn't work? Yes, of course, as the dishes go William Spalla will ask customers what their thoughts are and comments on the dishes. William and I have worked together for a number of years. I guess the food that we do is quite classical, we are classically trained, and nothing is too far out, though of course the boys watch what Heston (Blumenthal) does with great interest, and where we can work something into the menu, then will try something. An example of that is - we currently have a beetroot Tortellini on the menu, and traditionally I would always add a little gelatine to it just to stabilise it, but the boys have been reading up and we are using Xantham gum, and it's holding up much better  We are still dicing up the beetroot, but using the Xanthan gum and that comes from the feedback of the team and getting them involved. Steve, I guess that must motivate them, to see their idea or their addition to a dish actually make the menu? Yes, of course, that is exactly how this whole beetroot Tortellini came about. So are you looking to embrace modern technology in your menus? It's not something that scares me and we look to use it where we think we can improve what we do. Heston, Chef Daniel (Clifford) - these guys are hugely talented and this is something that they do very well. Where we have to be very careful is we don't lose the skills. Cooking in water baths is great, but we must not lose the skills where chefs can cook a piece of meat or fish through the oven, that is very important. I think I have a responsibility to pass those skills on, it's then up to the team to decide how they want to embrace them and where they want to take those skills in their career. Steve, you've already mentioned a number of your suppliers, are they a large factor in how you drive and structure your menus? Yes, that's the way that we work. So you're speaking to the suppliers regularly, and is there the flexibility in your menus to accommodate something that your suppliers recommend? Yes, lunch is a great opportunity for us to do that because we are so busy we can take a range of vegetables that have come into season and use them, and then look at ways that we can further incorporate this into other areas of the menu. We work with the suppliers, we have crop lists, seasons lists that we work to also. It's slightly different for the lamb, we use a local company and I'm still using his lamb currently (September/October) because his lambs don't start lambing until June and early July, whereas most start on or around Easter time. June and July is very late isn't it? Yes, it is.  We'll use his Hogget up to then and we may get quizzed from perhaps the AA guide as to "is your lamb in season?", well yes it is because the season starts that much later. Steve, you work around what your suppliers are telling you rather than the traditional seasons calendar though you use these as a guide, is that fair to say? Yes, if you take pheasants, the season should stop on the 31st January, but we'll still be using Pheasant through February,and again, we'll be asked how can you be using these, the shooting has stopped. Well yes it has, but these have been shot by the game keeper that we work with and this extends the run we have on using pheasants. Pheasants are in season now, however we'll wait until later in November when they are plumper to use. Steve, this sounds like you have very strong relationships with your suppliers, that you've built over a number of years would that be fair to say? Yes, we have built up an excellent relationship with all our suppliers, who are very important to us. Steve, what about costing your menus, we live in a modern era, were the chef has to make money - gone are the days that the chef could break even, I think the current buzz phrase is profit centres. How do you cost your menus and what GP are you working to? My GP for the year is between 75/76%. That's fantastic, do you have a formula that you work to? No, not really, we simply don't waste anything. So what about pricing then Steve, what are the prices of the menus? Lunch during the week is £15.95 for two courses, so the restaurant tend to up sell desserts and then coffee and petit fours, to try and increase the spend. Dinner is £50.00, with the tasting menu at £70.00 And the tasting menu, Steve, how many courses are there on the tasting menu? We have a seven course tasting menu. And how is that received?  There seems to be a large shift, with Chefs/restaurants offering tasting menus, what is the uptake on tasting menus across the diners? Yes, like everything I guess it does vary, on a Saturday evening with 60 covers, we can expect to do any where between eight and twenty tasting menus, which is great for the kitchen, as it just slows things down. Yes, kitchens love them, for many reasons, but do you find that, as a Chef, you can express what you do and the style of your food better across a seven course menu rather than, perhaps, the traditional three courses? We've tried to run a ten course tasting menu and that was probably just a little too much.  We also tried a discovery menu, that didn't feature any dishes from the A la Carte but we have gone back to the seven course tasting menu which does feature dishes that are on the A la Carte, which does give the guest the opportunity to try a range of dishes, often, there is perhaps a couple of starters that they like"¦. Which often happens when you go for dinner, you look at perhaps the Lamb and Sea Bass and think I would really like both, and I guess the tasting menu offers you that option? Yes, and people will often ask, can we change the main course, which yes of course they can, though we do say that if the customer changes they do need to all have the same main course. Steve, we've talked quite a lot about seasons, lamb seasons, game seasons, but as a Chef, what is your favourite season, and why? I think for me now (the Autumn) because of all of those wonderful gamey things that are coming into season, I grew up in this area, I know the people, so I really enjoy this time of year. We only take the female deer, because the males fight, it comes from just down the road and it's wonderful. Steve, are you championing local, because it's local or because you feel that the local produce is the best? For me, the venison is most definitely the best, and it to me would seem pointless to buy Partridge, Pheasants or Wild Duck, when it's on my door step. The suppliers are proud to supply us it's a great product that they have. It's a relationship that we've built up over the years and I'm very comfortable with that. Steve, what makes you drop a dish on the menu, perhaps something that you've worked on, you're happy with, but doesn't work as well with the customers, what makes you drop a dish? Luckily, it tends not to be the customers but more from me when I get bored of it, more than anything, I look at the dish and it's maybe something that I'm just not comfortable with. I'm at a stage now where I only cook things that I'm comfortable with. That's a great position to be in as Chef, I'm sure a number of Chefs would love to be in that position? Yes, I think, when you get your first Head Chefs role, you have so much rubbish that you have to get out of your system"¦.. Yes, there's almost a case of trying too hard. Yes, definitely there is but after five years or so, you slow yourself down, you become confident in what you do, you know what works and that is certainly what I did, and it has worked. When you are charging £50.00 a head for dinner, for me it's really important to offer value for money, but also offer the best at those prices.  I like to cook Sea Bass and Turbot because, for me, they are the best. I don't like to use perhaps Brill or Halibut when we are charging those prices, I'm disappointed when I go out and spend good money and don't get the best products. Steve, last question, who inspires you? where do you look for inspiration? Is it through books? is it through dining out? I like to dine out. I think that is really important, we try to dine out as a team, often, when the hotel is sold on an exclusive basis, the wedding breakfast is perhaps a 3.00pm sit down, so it allows us, as team, to dine out in the evening. How often do you manage that, Steve? The team certainly dine out at least every few months. Wow! So as a team, perhaps two or three times a year we get out. Which must be fantastic for team morale? Yes, it works well, we'll often go to Chapter One which is a great restaurant, also Apicius is a great restaurant. We recently went to Pierre Koffman, which was great for everyone in the kitchen to see. I was very lucky to have eaten at Tante Clare, we got signed menus for the boys, and I think it was great for them to see the place and Chefs such as Pierre Koffman, and those are the types of restaurants that we like to visit. Steve, thank you so much for your time today, it's been great to meet with you.  Thank you! Thank you!

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 29th December 2010

Steve Crane, Head Chef Ockenden Manor