23 July 2014

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Caterer profile: Herbert Berger


He’s gained three Michelin stars, loves shooting and hates absent chefs. We meet Herbert Berger one year on from taking over Innholders Hall.

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Although less than a minute from Cannon Street station, like many of London’s 110 livery halls, the ancient guild of hoteliers and hospitality is located away from the City’s bustling streets. From its exterior, you’d never guess what’s inside. Indeed, to many outsiders, livery halls such as Innholders are discreet, secretive venues.

‘The main goal when I took over in September 2012 was to give this place kudos,’ Herbert Berger explains over coffee and some of his homemade biscuits. ‘To give it a name and create a reputation as a leading livery hall event space in the City. And that’s still the aim – it’s much nicer to dine in a place like this than an annexed private room in a restaurant or hotel. And there’s all the history behind it – it’s like a museum.’

We’re sat around an ornate table in the venue’s grand Old Court Room, surrounded by artefacts including a collection of ceremonial spoons dating back to the 1600s. Dressed in pristine, branded chef whites, Berger is explaining how, after 14 years of being chef partner at 1 Lombard Street, he came to take over the catering at this impressive venue.

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‘I happened to sit next to the hall’s clerk at a dinner I went to and he was saying how they were thinking of outsourcing its catering,’ he says. ‘A lot of livery halls have outside catering companies coming in to do an event, before moving on again. They wanted to be different and to have a permanent individual.

‘I was still at Lombard Street, but I knew then that the end was brewing. I had a fantastic time there but partnerships don’t always work out. We just didn’t agree on which direction to should go in and decided to part company.’

A year later, at the same dinner, the two met again and, despite Berger’s plan to either buy a hotel in the countryside, open a new restaurant or concentrate on his hush-hush ongoing fast-food concept, this time the partnership was settled.

Since moving to England in the early 70s ‘because of a girlfriend, which was a good reason – at the time,’ Berger has had an impressive career that includes stints at the Connaught, Claridge’s, Mirabelle and Café Royal. With Michelin stars earned from three separate restaurants, it is this experience, and the venue’s history, that Berger hopes will cement its reputation in the events industry.

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‘I always liked events,’ he explains. ‘Even when I was in restaurants or hotels, I always believed that what you can do for a table of four you can also do for a table of 100. It’s just a matter of logistics, having a good team and space. One of our key points is that we can bring fine-dining to large events.’

Among Berger’s most requested dishes is fowl with morels au vin jaune. ‘That’s one of those heavenly combinations – and very few people do it,’ he says. ‘But I do like to use game. And what’s interesting here, because our clientele is established and successful – and sometimes a bit old school – they love game. It’s great for me to see 80 guests sitting down and each eating partridge or pheasant or grouse. I’m a great believer in game or in anything wild.’

This love of the countryside comes from the chef’s ‘humble’ upbringing in the mountains of Austria. ‘We were basically self-sufficient, preserving and never wasting anything. We had our own farm and often went out foraging, and fishing, illegally,’ he laughs.

It’s these passions that have led to his latest hobby – shooting. ‘I once shot a stag in the Hebrides,’ he says. ‘We cooked every single bit. It was delicious. But I am more into shooting game. Deer is a separate thing altogether: different skills and a different mind-set. Shooting a bird is one thing; shooting a big, gracious beast – you really have to think about that. With deer, you want to make sure you hit it well.’

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So what’s Berger got his sights on next? Another livery hall, perhaps? ‘I’m not saying no, but that would be a very careful decision,’ he muses. ‘It would have to be something special as I am committed to this and there’s so much potential here. Even though we’ve grown so much, I don’t want to dilute myself. A lot of this is based on my name, on me being here and of trust. For me it’s important to have that contact with the client. I don’t want to be one of those chefs where the customers come and they’re never around. It doesn’t work for me.’

Later, we’re given a tour of the venue, from the striking hall itself through to the kitchens, where the team are preparing for a Lord Mayor’s dinner that evening. Then we get the chance to have a peek inside Berger’s office. We’re greeted by a huge mounted stag skull. It’s of that deer he shot and ate. Proof, if needed, that he really doesn’t waste a thing; least of all an opportunity to impress the guests who attend his events.

This article was first published in Square Meal Venues & Events, spring 2014.

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