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31 July 2014

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Grill the Chef: interview with Adam Byatt

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Adam Byatt 2013 - Adam-Byatt-2013_resized.jpgChef and restaurateur Adam Byatt has made a name for himself on the culinary stage from his base in Clapham, with acclaimed restaurants including Trinity and Bistro Union. The straight-talking chef talks to Square Meal about his career so far, his latest business ventures and his future plans…

1. Do you like to be thought of as a Clapham chef?

I like being in and around Clapham, and I like to be able to get to my restaurants quickly and easily – I go to both restaurants every day and visit Story once a week. I opened Thyme (now closed) in Clapham in 2001 at a time when I had the fine-dining/special occasion end of the market to myself, so I enjoyed it while I could and made a name for myself there. I’ve been here for 10 years now, and every night in Trinity (pictured, bottom left) I’ll recognise up to 10 faces; then I drive to Bistro Union (pictured, below left) and I’ll know three more people – it’s lovely. In central London, people are more fickle, looking for the next new thing, and tourists will get off the tube, go to your restaurant and never come back.

bistro union 2012 - Bistro-Union-_-M-Franke_MG_0036_resized.jpg2. Will you consider rolling out Bistro Union to other neighbourhoods in the future?

I think Bistro Union definitely has potential in other areas of London, but we want to get it right. The intention has always been to do more than one, and certain parts of Bistro Union were set up with that in mind – we made sure there were fewer moving parts so that further branches were easier to roll out and simpler to run. I’d like to open another one, but it would have to be in south London. There are a couple of sites in Dulwich that I really love, and even one on Northcote Road would be fine.

3. You’ve mentored a number of chefs who are gaining a high profile now, including Tom Sellers from Restaurant Story. Are you proud of his achievement?

Tom worked with me for three years – he went to work in Noma, then he came back to work for me. I knew he wanted to open his own restaurant and I wanted to back him. I was asked whether I wanted to open a restaurant on the site Tom’s in now. The site wasn’t right for me, but I liked it and the guys behind it. At the time, we were looking for a site for Tom, so I brought him into the equation, and the rest is history.

It’s not without risk backing someone so young. I bring the operating expertise, the systems, and many years of making a lot of mistakes and learning the hard way, to the table – that allows Tom to focus on cooking and being creative. It’s going well so far: I ate at all the soft openings, and I ate there last Saturday with my son. It’s nice to see how the food’s evolved over the past few months, and how the restaurant has already grown.

Adam Byatt pull quote - Pull-quote.jpg4. You also mentor young chefs at the Academy of Culinary Arts – what advice do you give to them?

What happens quite a lot nowadays is that young chefs seem to gravitate towards whatever’s new and interesting and different without having any sort of game plan. I genuinely believe that they should map out their career route very carefully and work in the most relevant places. There are young chefs who have chalked up 10 amazing restaurants on their CV, but the places are all quite different so they don’t necessarily lead to a specific end goal. They might learn how to peel a langoustine at Noma for three months – a completely non-transferable skill. It’s like trophy-hunting: they spend six months in one place, tick the box, then six months in another, and tick that box.

Also, I tell them to accept that they’re going to give up 10 years of their life – there isn’t an easy way around that, or any point in cheating the system. You need to put in the hours to gain the basic skills and repertoire you need for the craft, and the way to do that is by doing things over and over again. Being a chef is a huge sacrifice and only a very, very few make a decent living out of it.

5. There was a furore this summer about the documentary on 18-year-old Luke Thomas, Britain’s youngest head chef. Could you have been a successful head chef at that age?

I’ve never met him but I think the appointment [at Sanctum on the Green, in Berkshire] was absolute lunacy – I wouldn’t want my dinner cooked by an 18 year old, and I certainly wouldn’t pay for it. The repertoire, expertise and understanding of ingredients that you need to run a kitchen – not to mention the emotional intelligence you need to lead a team – just cannot be learned in that short space of time. He can’t yet have acquired the skillset to do that job as well as someone who has another five, six or 10 years of experience behind them. It was a fantastic PR exercise more than anything.

6. Would you consider The Square’s Phil Howard as your biggest mentor?

I’d say Phil Howard has had the biggest influence on my cooking; he does things properly. He really understands what makes people feel satisfied with food, and is able to translate that into a sophisticated arena, which is not as easy as people think. In my opinion he’s one of the most incredible cooks I’ve ever met and worked with.

Another important mentor for me was John Williams at Claridge’s, where I started as an apprentice in 1989. He understood that I, as a 16-year-old, needed drive, direction and discipline. He taught me how to work in a team, and he exposed me to kitchen life, dropping me in it and letting me figure things out for myself. He also patted me on the back when I moved on to The Square in 1995, rather than trying to make me stay.

trinity 2012 - Restaurant_007_bleach_Trinity_2012.jpg7. Do you see yourself first and foremost as a chef or a businessman?

I don’t see myself ever stopping cooking – I still love the buzz of service, the camaraderie, and the banter, and I love owning restaurants, training staff and developing people. The hours and lifestyle are less appealing now that I’m at the butt-end of 30, but I love and understand ingredients more than I did when I was 25, and I’m a better, more confident, more competent cook now.

I always wanted to be in control of my own destiny, and having my own restaurant has allowed me to do that. I’ve always used business partners to help with the things that I wasn’t strong on, such as number-crunching, and I’ve learnt a lot from them – that experience has been sort of a finishing school for me. It was important for me to get to grips with the business side of things – what else am I going to do when I’m 60 and can’t do 100 hours per week in the kitchen?

8. Can you see a future for yourself as a TV chef?

I don’t want to be known for doing a TV programme; I want to be known for cooking in my restaurant. I do Saturday Kitchen as a promotion for Trinity: it genuinely works in terms of getting bums on seats – when I get back to the restaurant the phone is literally ringing off the hook. But if I were to start doing that every week, it would be a different story.

I want to do more TV but I don’t want to do anyone else’s programme. The only way to monetise TV is to own the programme. I’ve started making a wonderful series called Cook & Son, and the first three episodes are now being considered by the broadcasters. It follows me and my son on a road trip as we visit producers and watch how different foods are made. We did one episode on a beach – we went out on a boat, caught lobsters, visited a fish market, then cooked with the primary ingredient. And we did one in a field, camping out overnight and hunting, going to a butchery, and cooking the meat over the barbecue. I’m really proud of it and it was a great chance to go away for two weeks with my son.

9. What is your idea of food heaven and food hell?

I like a simple roast chicken, with chips, gravy, corn on the cob and coleslaw. When I’m ill, my mum cooks me roast chicken with chips and coleslaw – she knows it’s my favourite meal ever. But I also love shellfish, scallops, langoustines and lobster – this country has absolutely the best shellfish in the world.

I’ve never been able to find anything nice about okra, or marrow. Those are the only two ingredients I genuinely wouldn’t bother touching because I don’t find them satisfying to work with.

10. What has been your biggest kitchen disaster?

I dreamed up a dish one day on the way to work that involved squid-ink mash with roast cod, fava beans and chorizo. On paper, that sounds like it could work, but in practice it’s a car crash. The mash looked like tarmac and tasted foul, so it never made it onto the menu.

This interview was conducted in July 2013.

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