June 2004
 

Style is Everything

The Orrery is one of Conran's finest restaurants and a firm favourite with discerning diners. We spoke to Head Chef Andre Garrett in one of his rare breaks from the kitchen

You'd think a chef called Andre would be as Gallic as an insouciant shrug but not a bit of it. Andre Garrett, head chef at the Michelin starred Orrery has an accent that could secure him a job when the Wurzels do their comeback tour. Taken aback I asked him whether it was all a con, and whether his name was changed in a career move? A question that might have earned me a walkout but instead got a laugh. 'My mother was a big fan of Andre Previn,' he reveals.

We're talking mid-afternoon in the bar of the Orrery, a small and intimate room where the consumption of cigars isn't just tolerated but encouraged - a small humidor of expensive examples is installed close by. The restaurant is lit by sunshine; it floods through the large windows with their view of the church gardens opposite and sparkles off the glassware being laid for the evening. Orrery is of course a Conran restaurant, which explains the cigars and the beautiful design.

Andre's job here is to keep the well-heeled punters happy and make sure the restaurant's Michelin star stays securely attached. Quite a challenge. But before we get to that, let's get rookie reporter's question number one out the way - what made Andre become a chef? "I don't really know,' is his less than helpful reply but he rallies. 'My gran was a restaurant manager,' he offers. 'I remember going around and seeing her at work so maybe something sparked inside me. Academically I was no big achiever, but I wanted to do something and so I went to catering college at fifteen and immediately knew this was what I wanted to do with my life.'

After college Andre soon went to work with some of the best in the business, Nico Ladenis at Nico at 90 and Nico Central, as well as with Bruno Loubet at Bistrot Bruno. But it was soon after his arrival at Orrery in 2000 to work under Chris Galvin that things really began to move. 'Chris recommended that I enter the Tattinger competition to raise my profile,' Andre explains. 'I won the UK round and had to go the Paris for the international finale which was quite an eye opener. It was very classically based and I found myself at that time a bit out of my depth. A great learning experience though. I also won the Roux scholarship, which, as I'm not a competition person normally, was really great. So after a year I was ready to come back here and take over from Chris who had moved on.'

 

The challenge here of course is to hold on to that Michelin star. 'Absolutely,' he confirms. 'In a central London restaurant like this, with a high profile, the inspectors can call in any day and that requires one hundred percent consistency and quality.' Do you know when they are out there? 'Yes you do sometime get an inkling. They're crafty, though.' he laughs. 'It's not as easy as spotting one diner on his or her own, they may come in a group of six.'

"We have a seasonal menu here, ' Andre explains. 'We keep the menu not too short, not too long. It's easier to control that way. Big menus are never a good idea. And of course we are very fond of the tasting menu. I think it's a great way to eat, you go with the flow and we match the wines very carefully. Our food here is classically French based but we keep it light and go for maximum flavours. I learnt in Paris the importance of getting the essence, the very best from the very best ingredients

And the best ingredients take some sourcing, I suggest. 'Absolutely,' he agrees. 'Of course here in London we get the best and I make sure I go the markets as much as I can to stay informed and to be there as the seasonal things come in. I also like to use small suppliers: the lamb we are serving right now, for example, comes from a small farm near Bath where I'm from. That's great and the meat is fantastic too. This farmer only produces a small number a week and I get the best cuts of those. I'll move on to French Pyrenean lamb when the English season is over.' What about New Zealand lamb? I ask. Andre laughs, 'Er no.' he says firmly.

And of course it all ends in cheese. Yes he says, going a little misty eyed. 'We have a massive cheeseboard, thirty to thirty five of them. The public expect it and it looks lovely going around the room and we serve it before the dessert in the French way and everyone seems to like it that way nowadays. Our suppliers advise us on what's special and what's seasonal.'

What about the cost of eating here, is that something that worries you? 'Not at all.' He says firmly. 'We're not cheap, of course, but we justify our price every day. People do sometimes knock us on our prices because we're part of the Conran group and perhaps that makes them expect something different price-wise, but compare us to other Michelin starred restaurants and we are on the same level. Which is as it should be.'


So winning competition, hanging on to Michelin stars, you have a lot to motivate you, I suggest. He agrees but adds a caveat. 'The best compliment I can have is empty plates and happy customers going out the door. That's what it's all about whatever the cost of the menu. Your website is full of compliments about Orrery and that is so good to see. The critics are important, but the paying customers ultimately decide and there's no faking that. Reading those makes me happy and make me continue to love my job.'

'I really do love what I do. Even if I've had a hard day, pissed off and tired I get up the next day and I'm raring to go again. I'm in here at about 8am and I don't get home until after midnight but it's the life for me. The long hours and the heat all contribute to short tempers and stress but I think chefs are a different breed; they thrive on conditions that would flatten most people. You have to love what you do to keep on doing it.'

Ramsay is there on TV ripping into people, do you think a chef has to be a bit of a bastard to get things done and done right? 'It's a kind of military situation. Everyone has to know their job and if something goes wrong it can threaten the evening so, yes, you do blow your top occasionally. If someone delays something, it snowballs and it all starts to pile up so you have to sort out problems immediately and that often involves harsh words. You do need an iron fist. I'm on the pass checking and motivating constantly. TV chefs have given a lot of young people the wrong idea, they think it's easy to be a chef and it's not. A lot of people are coming in without the breadth of training and they expect to rise like rockets and it aint going to happen.'

Not as long as pros like Andre call the shots. Only cream rises.