by Marcus Leach
Ask any young chef starting out on their journey into the world of food what their ultimate goal is and they will most likely tell you that it's to own their own restaurant one day. The reality of that dream is a lot harder than most might appreciate at such a tender age, but nevertheless it is one that is achievable with the right work ethic and application of knowledge.
Having recently had the pleasure of interviewing Adam Byatt, owner of two restaurants in South London - Trinity and Bistro Union - and it is clear that he has had both a strong work ethic and a desire to learn and excel throughout his career. Having first seen Adam on The Great British Menu, and been impressed with his food and grounded approach, I wasn't sure what to expect when I met him in person, after all what we see in the media doesn't always reflect people in a true light.
However, as we sat talking in the dining room of his flagship restaurant it quickly became apparent that the hard-working and affable person I had seen on television was indeed the real Adam Byatt. His journey from the aspiring young chef who had a love of food from a young age to the successful head chef and restauranteur he is now has not been an easy one, but then when has any journey to the top ever been easy.
And now, with plenty of experience behind him and a better understanding of what it takes to successfully run your own restaurant, he is looking forward to the next chapter as Trinity looks to evolve and he looks to enjoy more time with his family and out shooting for game.
Marcus Leach: How did you first get into food?
Adam Byatt: Well I was very lucky in the sense that I always wanted to cook, which I think was a very fortunate thing to discover at the age of 14. My mum was a professional chef in dining rooms and my granddad was a cook in the army. Whilst food wasn't a massive thing at home it certainly was important and we cooked properly, ate well and sat down for dinner as a family, so it had prevalence at home. For me it was the only thing I really excelled at as a youngster. I was fairly entrepreneurial at school and I just really loved cooking, it was something I enjoyed. I did home economics at school and it was the only thing I excelled in and the only exam I walked away from school with. I just knew I wanted to go into cookery somehow.
ML: From there was it a natural progression from leaving school into the industry?
AB: I sought out something that would fulfil that desire to get into cooking. I went to a careers open day and the Savoy Group was having an open day for Claridges Hotel and were offering apprenticeships. I signed up and said 'I'm sixteen, I left school yesterday, I don't really have any other career prospects and this sounds great, can I have a job?' Thankfully they said 'yes, you can start on Monday'. So I started my apprenticeship there where I did a day release course with a local collage, which proved to be disastrous as I was there with people who were aspiring to be dinner ladies, and we would have one avocado between four us to make prawn cocktails with. Then I was at Claridges cleaning 25kg worth of truffles, so it was too much of a disparity.
I skipped the day release course and eventually was very lucky to be offered a apprenticeship with Claridges on the Academy of Culinary Arts, so almost like a private schooling for young chefs to go down to Bournemouth and learn. Each year they took twenty chefs down to Bournemouth, housed us down there, trained us and then sent us back to Claridges for six months, and then Bournemouth again, and so on for four and a half years. It was a really good training and thanks to that my classic gastronomic heritage, and understanding of the classics, was really good.
ML: Looking at the restaurants you worked at before opening your own, which would you say has had the biggest influence on you?
AB: I've worked in a lot of restaurants but the two biggest players for me are Claridges Hotel, for my apprenticeship, and The Square. At Claridges I learnt to be a chef, I learnt to work in a hierarchy, I learnt to process kilos and kilos of ingredients, I learnt to work in a team and to work with all manner of ingredients. But I didn't learn to cook there. When I went to the Square, where I spent three years, I learnt to cook. I took all of that skill base I had and I really learnt to season things, understand ingredients and the importance of seasonality. It was there I learnt to understand the mechanics of cooking.
ML: From everything you have learnt over the years what would you say is the most important attribute for a successful chef to possess?
AB: Stamina and persistence, a good pair of shoes. Joking aside I think my best asset is my palate. I feel like I have been blessed with a great palate, which over the years I have trained like you would with a muscle in the gym and therefore at the moment I think my palate is incredibly responsive and tells me everything I need to know. I can judge so much from my palate, it's unbelievable. I employ people based on the response from my palate, I decide what's going on the menu based on my palate. It is such a powerful asset when you really have a finely tuned palate.
ML: Is it something you can learn then?
AB: Yes, I think it is. You learn it from eating a lot of food, not volume, but by tasting a lot of food, by tasting the same food multiple times and understanding the difference in why food changes over the process of cookery, which can teach you an awful lot. And then I think it comes down to spending so much time immersed in food and cooking. Eighty hours a week for twenty years with food, if you don't get good at it something is really wrong.
ML: And when it is those sorts of hours involved there needs to be a huge amount of passion as well, not just a good palate.
AB: Absolutely. Out of everything that goes on in my life, and there is a lot that happens; fifty staff, a couple of restaurants, a couple of consultancies, books, TV, what ever happens actually what it all comes back down to is the food. I've had ups and downs in this career, I've had great moments, I've had really sad times, but actually the food is the stable thing in the middle that never changes. It's the oracle, and I've never lost my passion or love for food, I've never stopped being excited about food and it's the one thing that I can always go back to. It makes me happy. Cooking, for me, is such natural thing, and I'm not saying that in a kind of show off way, it's such a natural process. Watching someone who is really good at something, and is good at it naturally, is a beautiful thing.
ML: It is in many ways an art form isn't it?
AB: It is in that respect very artistic, but I don't follow that as much as other people might. It's more about the mechanics of it for me, they just feel so natural that I don't have to think about it, it's instinctive. To have something in your life that you are very good at, that you can make money out of, that you love doing and is instinctive, that's the holy grail right there.
ML: It doesn't feel like a job then, getting up everyday and doing something that you are truly passionate about. Eighty hours a week at something you don't fully enjoy is very different to eight hours a week doing what you're passionate about. If we are to assume that a chef's food is a reflection of themselves, what does your food say about you?
AB: It's tricky question because when you start out on your own you generally replicate the food of the restaurant you have been in before, you will always do that. All of the dishes that come on will be versions of food you have cooked for other people. Only over a period of time, and it takes a long time, do you develop your own food, your own dishes, your own repertoire, and it's not a process you can rush. I've been cooking now, on my own in my own restaurants for almost thirteen years, and I would say there are probably fifty dishes now that are mine and mine alone. Dishes that have come out of my head, they are great dishes for the restaurant, customers love them, the kitchen can produce them, they make the business money, and they are with ingredients that are available. Now they are great dishes, but it's not a lot in the space of twelve years. They are the ones I can say are truly mine, the rest comes from other influences and a mix of great ingredients.
Food moves along and your approach to food changes as you get older. You go through a process where you really want to challenge people, you want to get recognised, you want to cook food that has so much magic thrown over it, with smoke and mirrors, food that causes reactions. That's what you do when you're young. So you go through this process, you cook food from the restaurants you've worked in, then you cook food that is dynamic and brings out reactions and then you sit back and think 'do you know what, I kind of want to just cook food that I can cope with and that feels more grounded and satisfying'.
Then I think what happens, in my experience, you get older, you eat out a lot more and what's happened to me is I'm now the same demographic as my customers. Therefore it is easier to know what to cook, to know what their needs and wants are when it comes to not only the food but the full dining experience. Sometimes I go out and I just want a great piece of beef and some potatoes, and that's what I want and therefore I understand what people want. That helps me decide a lot of what I am going to cook. I think as I grow older I shoot more, I fish more, I go out picking mushrooms more.
ML: So does that then reflect in your food?
AB: It has definitely moved our food into a slightly new direction. It's nothing to do with that modern age of foraging, they happen to be linked past-times I spend a lot of time doing. If I'm not cooking I'm most likely out shooting, fishing or in the countryside somewhere, so they have a direct relationship to my food. The food has just got simpler.
ML: Sometimes simple is better though. Do you think then in such a competitive industry some chefs have gone too far away from simplicity, to the smoke and mirrors as you called it?
AB: There's a process for most chefs, and I think some chefs are at different stages with their product but there is an evolution of it all. We have all, on the whole, been through the same journey.
ML: You mentioned produce earlier, how important is good quality, British produce to you?
AB: We live and die by what comes through the door every morning. The best quality produce I can possibly buy, we buy.
ML: And is it all British?
AB: I would say we buy about ninety percent British at the moment. We do use olive oil, we do use balsamic vinegar, we do use parmesan cheese. But generally speaking pretty much all of the protein, all of the fish, all of the cheese and over eighty percent of the vegetables all come from the British Isles. I'm British and my cookery is classically rooted but I do take influence from Spain, Italy and France because you would be foolish not to. We would cook a rabbit Cassoulet here and happily put that on the menu, but we might use coco beans from England.
ML: Is the British element something you are proud of then?
AB: Very much so, I love cooking with British produce and I think we are incredibly lucky in this country with what we have available to us. It's only over the last five to seven years that we've really explored what we have here. We have got everything here, so why don't we just cook everything from what we've got. We make some of the best butter in the world, we've got some beautiful rapeseed oil, which is something I think we should be using more of, we have some of the best game in the world and we have undoubtedly the best shellfish in the world. We are so lucky here as chefs and it's no wonder England, and London in particular, is one of the great food capitals of the world given all of the produce we have, but it is only now that it is being fully utilised.
ML: Given that, and the huge array of variety on offer to you as a chef, what would you say are your favourite ingredients to work with?
AB: I love cooking with British game when it is in season. We have just started with grouse now, then teal, mallard, partridge, woodcock, hare and venison. I really enjoy the season for game enormously, and it just so happens to come alongside the season for cobb nuts, blackberries, wild mushrooms, plums, figs, chestnuts and Jerusalem artichokes. For me August and heading into Autumn is definitely my favourite period as a chef. Cooking from the seasons is one of the nicest things as a chef. I can't imagine working somewhere where you're cooking with asparagus in November, strawberries in January, I can't imagine what that would feel like.
ML: It must be exciting for you as a chef looking forward to each season, knowing what is coming and starting to form ideas about what to do with it?
AB: That's what it's all about, I'm like a kid at Christmas. I haven't seen an asparagus since the end of May this year and I won't until April of next year and that is a really nice thing. When it comes I'm over the moon to get it, but I will get bored of it after those two months as we serve so much of it, but then you move on to the next lot of seasonal produce.
ML: But that's better than having that supermarket mentality where people want the same produce all year round.
AB: It is but I think we will move through that and go back to the seasonality of it all though. Brussels sprouts are one of the best things ever but only for about three weeks.
ML: Cooking and being a chef has changed over the last ten or fifteen years. It was Rene Redzeppi who said that it used to be blue collar but now it is red hipster. What has it been like going through that transition where chefs are now, in their own right, celebrities?
AB: When I first started cooking it was the most working class thing you could do, nobody knew who the chefs were, there was no limelight, nothing. I was either going in the army or in the kitchen, that was it. Yet now I have more public school boys coming to me for jobs than I have ever seen in my life. I have guys who are coming to learn the trade, knowing there is family money there to go on and open a restaurant. It is a cool and very respectable career now, but that's because chefs and food are so in the limelight at the moment, to the extent where there is almost mini-celebrity status.
ML: It now seems that the first thing people want to know about a restaurant is 'who is the head chef'.
AB: It is kind of a strange thing and I think we might have saddled ourselves with a slightly strange bag there though. I think people are going to go back to just wanting to eat a decent plate of food rather than being overly concerned with who has cooked it. It is a bit of a farce as well because if you go and stick your name above a restaurant door you're saying you want to be doing the cooking every single day, and people don't cook every day, people are human and have days off. I think it's been a good thing to push the industry to the forefront and make people recognise chefs for being interesting, and for what they are about and increasing the volume of people coming to restaurants.
ML: Have you enjoyed the limelight?
AB: I've really enjoyed the value it has put into my business, the knock-on effects that doing TV shows and being in the public eye. I've travelled probably ten times to Asia to cook, which I would never have done had I not been in the public eye. I've done a cookbook which is all down to the limelight, and the restaurant has a new customer base because of it. However, it was never a part of my career or my strategy when I got into this. But then there are people like that who want the celebrity side of things.
ML: Well look at Masterchef now, it's no longer about amateur cooks but people looking to make a name for themselves off the back of it.
AB: And then they open a restaurant that lasts three months before it goes bust. The best thing about this industry and a career in cooking is that most of it is about the grind. Virtually every head chef running a place, or chef de patron, has been through a long process. You can't walk in at thirty and be a head chef at thirty-two, it's impossible. And that is a nice thing really and the industry shouldn't lose that. People coming in just to be famous is unbelievable, it's a fucking hard job. You can't treat it like a job, it's a lifestyle and you have to buy into it. I see my kids, my wife, my mum and dad more in this restaurant than I do at home.
ML: Is that a struggle for you?
AB: You work with it. That's hard but then owning two restaurants isn't hard, so in that sense I'm lucky. I own my own business and am in control of my own destiny.
ML: And running the business, is that something you do yourself or do you have someone else helping with that?
AB: I ran the business very closely for a number of years, but it drags you down eventually and takes away from the focus of what you love doing. Now days, a long way down the road, I do the creative, I do the strategy and I mentor the staff and that's about all I do. Those are the bits I'm really good at, everything else I have people who work for me who are better at certain aspects than me and I let them do that. They work within my controls and practices but it is their head space that does all of the work to a great level. I stick to what I'm good at, there is no point trying to do everything else as it means my performance at what I am good at suffers.
ML: What does the future hold for the business?
AB: We are going to do a major development of this restaurant in January next year where we will open a new space above here that will be a new and separate offering. This is a contemporary classic restaurant, so what we are going to do, mapping it out for the next ten years, we are going to re-design and separate the contemporary and the classic. Downstairs will become the classic, the very grown-up and mature dining experience, and upstairs will become the contemporary where it will be a lot more relaxed, small plates, chefs cooking in front of you and a lot of wine by the glass. Hopefully we are in the process of rolling out more Bistro Unions as well - which is my answer to cooking for families and everyday people, mainstream food that is accessible to all.
ML: If you look at society now it seems there is a move towards convenience and the need for everything to be made easier for people, and especially when it comes to food. With that in mind how important is to you as a chef, having learnt all of the skills required to excel in your profession, to teach the next generation the skills needed to not just cook food but to prepare ingredients and master the whole process?
AB: It's really important to me. Some crazy supplier about twenty years ago had a brainwave where he said instead of selling restaurants whole fish he would do portions instead. Portions of sea bass, portions of salmon, portions of halibut. All you had to do was tell him what size portions you wanted and he would do the rest, fillet it, skin it and deliver it to you. All of the restaurant managers thought it was a great idea and would save on a lot of prep time and labour costs, so they started ordering portions of fish. And of course what happened was after ten years what we realised was not one chef could fillet a salmon, fillet a sea bass, couldn't bone out a saddle of lamb, couldn't bone and roll a shoulder of lamb.
All of the skills were being lost, obviously not in an entirety but we all saw it happen across the industry. Thankfully now there are a lot of restaurants, like mine for example, where we would never buy anything pre-prepared, we buy everything whole and do all of the butchery ourselves. We even make out own bread, and that is the way it should be and I believe in it fully and I feel I have a responsibility to the next generation to make sure I am passing on those skills. I spent a bloody long time learning them and I'm damned if I am going to lose them.
ML: What impact do you think being away from central London and the real heart of the restaurant scene has had on your business?
AB: Well it's a choice if I am being truthful and it comes with good and bad things. You definitely have quieter lunches, and every restaurant in more residential areas will tell you the same thing. But what we do have is a far more loyal customer base at dinner time. Very rarely in an evening do I not personally know at least three or four of the tables in. We have some people who come in twice a week, others even more often and that is so rewarding to be such a big part of the community. That is such a nice thing and we play a big part in this community. We employ around sixty people in Clapham, we feed 2,000 people a week in Clapham and we are a big part of it. The sense of community is a very important aspect of this to me and I much prefer it to the transient customer base you get in the West End. Not to mention the rent is a bit cheaper here too.
ML: Eight hours a week doesn't give you too much free time, but when you are not at one of your restaurants what do you enjoy doing to relax?
AB: As I've gone over the threshold of being forty now I am trying to get to a point where I can start to let the restaurant run itself a bit more, let the team do their jobs and have a slightly more balanced work and personal time. I love the outdoors, fishing, shooting and time with my family. Those are my passions really, I don't have a huge amount else other than that but those things make me happy. I do a lot of rough shooting down in Sussex and I also shoot in Oxford on driven shoots.
ML: Is that then stuff you take home to cook or is that for the restaurant?
AB: Most of what I shoot, I would say about ninety percent ends up in my restaurants.
ML: And what is cooking like away from work?
AB: Minimal. I don't cook much at all at home. We eat out as a family every Sunday and that is a family night, as well as one other night a week where we all eat at home but then my wife will usually cook.
ML: Finally, as someone who eats out regularly and knows food well where would you recommend?
AB: I think there are so many good restaurants in South London now, we have such an amazing selection. Chez Bruce is always a great one, and is within walking distance of my house. I also had a great meal at the Clove Club over in Shoreditch recently and it's a great interpretation of a contemporary restaurant where the food is classic and easily defined, and not forgetting Bibo in Putney.
Images courtesy of and copyright to Adam Byatt and Trinity Restaurant.
For details about Trinity Restaurant click here.
For details about Bistro Union click here.