February 2004

18 Eighty - Andrew Turner

Going for Gold

Amidst the plush gilt surroundings of 1880 at The Bentley Hotel, South Kensington , Executive Chef Andrew Turner is turning out superlative food.

Andrew Turner describes his cooking as Contemporary European. 'A deconstruction of classic food followed by a reconstruction of those same ingredients, but in a contemporary style.' A protégé of Albert Roux, with whom he first worked at Hanbury Manor, Andrew acknowledges Roux's influence both in the culinary and restaurant management fields. His now famous grazing menus have injected new life into the often-tired world of dining in a hotel restaurant, allowing diners to sample from six, seven, eight and nine smaller grazing dishes from the current à la carte menu. From Brown's he's moved to the opulent Bentley where we caught up with him

A grand entrance

Entering The Bentley is like popping into Liberace's lounge or the anteroom of a minor Saudi Prince - marble and gold shines and winks away into the distance. Feeling a little proletariat in my jeans I ask, rather pompously, for Executive Chef Andrew Turner, worried that at any second I might be asked to leave. A concealed door opens in the opulent wainscoting and Andrew pops out like the White Rabbit to take me down through a maze of staff corridors and staircases to the kitchens.

We descend as trolleys thunder past carrying lucky hotel guests their decadently late breakfasts and as Andrew shows me in to the 1880 dining room, we kick off with a discussion about breakfasts. Being Executive Chef means having an overview of everything.

The full English

''You're staying in a place that's costing you minimum £400 a night and breakfast is probably the first and last experience that you have within the hotel, ' he points out. 'If that experience isn't a good one why should you go and eat in the restaurants? If the chef doesn't care about the breakfast, then he obviously doesn't care about the lunch or dinner services.' It's a fair point and Andrew expands on his theme. 'Breakfast is a very easy meal period as the preparation can be done well beforehand - the cooking of eggs, bacon, and sausages is relatively straight forward, it's not rocket science.' `And at The Bentley there's an emphasis on true quality in every department. 'Here we make all the breakfasts special. We even make the croissants for the continental breakfast. Proper croissants, proper butter in the mix, not that yellow stuff that passes for butter, that makes the croissant puff but has no flavour.'

His disgust at such short cuts is evident and when I arrived he was actually in the middle of making his own marmalade. 'Seville oranges are only in season for a short while, so I'm making enough marmalade to see us through until September, ' he says cheerfully. A man passionate enough about his trade to care about croissants and marmalade is clearly a chef to be reckoned with. But before we both get carried away discussing breakfast it's time to get back to what Andrew is really here to talk about, the 1880 restaurant.

The dining experience

'I was specifically brought in to run 1880, ' he makes clear. 'My name is the 'name above the door'. But I lend my expertise to all the other areas of the hotel, too. 1880 is doing so well that we're fully booked and with a two-week waiting list. And I only open it for dinner. We have a lunch restaurant separate from this one.' So he is carrying on where he left off at Browns? 'Absolutely. Here I have the team I built at Brown's working for me, they come in at midday and their focus is completely on the evening meal. I give my briefing, I check the lunch restaurant is working properly and then I'm down here at 2pm doing my prep for the evening. This is where I spend all of my time focussing, because this is where the food has to be one hundred percent at the level that represents what we're trying to achieve.'

Andrew likes the style of this kind of dining. 'When you've got seven courses and the sommelier can match seven wines to those courses then you're having an experience, 'he makes clear. 'What I really came here to do was create that experience for my guests. Big communal tables, great bowls of steaming noodles, that's great for the students but it's not what I want to do, ' he says shaking his head. 'I don't want a noisy environment and a regimented service, I want the personal touch. People ask for me, I come out and I talk and discuss. People entrust their dining experience to me. They aren't 'clients' I care about them. I want them to go away and tell others what a great experience they've had. It's a momentum - if we do well we can afford the good product, if we have the good product we keep creating great meals. Everyone's happy, I'm not after one hit wonders.'

Product and perfection

'A lot of my time is taken up with sourcing product, ' he tells me. 'That's because the better the products, the less you have to do to it. When you get a fantastic tomato add a twist of pepper, a pinch of salt and a drizzle of your best olive oil and you don't need to do any more. ' And his grazing menu style means he can treat the products the way they deserve.

'We specialise in here in seven, eight and nine course menus, ' he reminds me. 'And last night I didn't sell any a la carte menus it was all grazing.' So that makes things easier? 'Absolutely, because if I've got a table of six and they all want something different I've got to cook all those things and get them all leaving the pass at the same time, perfectly cooked. Now to achieve that you need two more chefs, whereas if you've only got six lambs to cook you know five courses in advance that you've got that coming up and so you can get it out and get it up to room temperature, rather than out of the fridge and into the pan.'

Not recommended technique, then? 'I'll never do it. It's hard to judge how cold the lamb is in its centre. With a room temperature piece I know exactly how long it will take to cook and I can time it perfectly, giving it fifteen minutes to rest before serving. Then it doesn't need to be reheated which cuts out another step. And it will be tender, I get a lot of comments about how tender I get my meat and its simply because it's rested properly and it hasn't been aggressively cooked.'

Are you a 'hands on chef? 'Every day,' he states emphatically. 'I never, ever do a service when I'm the wrong side of the pass. I'm in the kitchen, I'm cooking, teaching and sharing my experience.' Andrew regards the teaching part as crucial. 'You see it isn't like it was when I was coming up - big brigades, pecking orders. Back then you had to be a lot older before you got the rank. That all broke up around the time of the Gulf War- as the economy dropped, the big brigades were culled overnight and they never came back.' This for Andrew has resulted in a skills shortage.

'Now you got kids coming out of school at twenty two thinking they're 'it' but their depth? Well they haven't got any. When I grew up I was trained as a tradesman, apprenticed. I wasn't allowed to pick up a pan until I'd convinced my teachers I had grasped my lessons. Until that point you were confined to passing the whisk and most importantly watching and listening. You were taught 'this is how we do it'. Of course you can bluff cooking the same way you can buy a flat pack chest of drawers and not need a carpenter. But that chest of drawers won't last. I have a very low turnover of staff because they like the way I teach them and empower them. It's never boring here. I've got all the staff making their own vinegars right now, each has their labelled kilner jar and we discuss the different wines they're adding and they can see their own vinegar 'growing.'

A chef's starters

I asked the cliché question of how Andrew got into cooking and his answer is not predictable. 'I was an outdoors sort of kid, ' he tells me. 'But my aunty was a great cook and I'd spend summers with her going to the farms to get milk and cheese. She would make such great things and I used to love it. I was mostly keen on football, I thought I might have a career but injury put paid to that. Then my dad said 'banking', well that didn't interest me. So he said what about being a chef? I went to college and I don't know if it was the uniform or the fact you could use lethal weapons and get away with it, but I loved it from day one. We practised cutting all the classic French cuts,all the Escoffier stuff. I never looked back and I learned the all-important foundations of cooking.'

The cheese course

Is Andrew as much a cheese nut as I've heard? ' I am absolutely mad about cheese,' he happily confirms. 'I change the cheeseboard seven times a year as they come into season in France . I buy a lot of cheeses direct from source in France , from the farms and unpasteurised, of course.' For Andrew the cheese course is no flabby ending to the meal. 'We serve three different types of wine jelly with our cheese and three types of home made biscuits, it's part of the Holy Trilogy. And we serve our cheese with white wine, we offer a flight of four different wines that go with four different cheeses. It's all about getting the two together.'

What Andrew has got together is a dining experience that belies the rather stuffy surroundings. Each course is a surprise and a special treat. Price wise it's not excessive and certainly it's something anyone who is interested in food should sample. Descend the stairs into his world of classic, yet at the same time. groundbreaking cuisine.

Andrew turner does not work at 1880 any longer.



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