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Pearls of Wisdom: Alan Murchison

By Luke Nicholls , 27-Apr-2012
Last updated on 27-Apr-2012 at 07:51 GMT

Alan Murchison took up his first post in the kitchen as a porter at the age of 14. During the 1990s, the Scot worked in a number of Michelin-starred kitchens, including Claridges, Nobu, Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons and L’ortolan. He returned to the latter in 2001 as executive chef/managing director and in 2007 he re-opened the renowned Hibiscus restaurant in Ludlow as La Bécasse. In 2010, Murchison launched the 10 in 8 Fine Dining Group, with an ambitious aim to operate 10 Michelin-starred restaurants by 2018.

If I think back to the first restaurant I worked in, and I think about the style of the food and the way it was prepared; the textures and the flavours, it’s completely different to how the food is now. It’s even different to what it was like five years ago.

You never stop learning in restaurants because food trends can change so quickly. I’ve spent 20 years in Michelin-starred restaurants, but food’s always evolving and it’s really subjective. Twenty years back, there were only a handful of restaurants that got Michelin stars – look how many there are now. You can now eat brilliantly in the high street and in local pubs - an amazing meal can be in Ducasse or Monte Carlo.

Over the years, I’ve changed from wanting to set the world on fire myself to wanting to help develop and train the people who work for me. I’d rather give a PR or marketing opportunity to one of my chefs than take it myself - I get as much satisfaction now, seeing a chef do well and build up their own profile, as I once did for myself.

I recently had my 17-year-old chef making bread that a senior restaurant inspector said was some of the best he’d ever had. I get as much satisfaction out of that as I do about opening another restaurant.

BigHospitality and Restaurant magazine wouldn’t have existed 20 years ago, because nobody would’ve given a shit. Whereas now, everybody’s knowledge is far greater and being a chef now is deemed to be an honourable profession.

If anything, it’s easier for young and aspiring chefs to break into the industry nowadays than when I was young. When I was a lad, cooking was seen as a menial job; there was no progression or aspiration, it was a job done by hooligans and tearaways.

There’s so much more opportunity now. If somebody turns up at my back door and says I want to work here for a month for free, I’ll let them work.

Anybody who comes into this business and says they want to be a TV chef ought to be shot as far as I’m concerned. You need to have craft, you need to have technique and you need to have passion and understanding.

People nowadays spend two years in the kitchen and they think they’re a sous chef and they don’t know how to do butchery or fishmongery. There’s a great difference between people who entertain people through cookery and people that are genuine craftsmen. People coming into it that want to be a TV chef should just enter into Big Brother or something.

How many successful TV chefs are actually world class chefs? There’s Gordon Ramsay, there’s Marco Pierre White, there’s Gary Rhodes. You then start clutching at straws because most of them are entertainers as opposed to technical craftsmen.

My advice to any young chef would be to keep your eyes open and your mouth shut. Don’t leave anywhere until you’ve learnt everything you possibly can. Don’t rest on your laurels - you’ve got to constantly try and make things better.

The indication of a successful restaurant is a busy restaurant. If you can get recognised in guide books - whether that’s Michelin, Hardens, AA or anybody else, that should just be a bonus.

If you gave me the opportunity to manage a three-Michelin-starred restaurant that was bust, or a zero-starred restaurant that was always full, I know which one I’d take - that’s irrespective of where those stars or awards came from.

None of my restaurants are in prime locations. My busiest restaurant is halfway up a hill between Birmingham and Wales (La Bécasse). I’ve got another restaurant in Reading (L'ortolan) and one in the outskirts of Milton Keynes (Paris House) – that’s hardly Kensington and Mayfair.

I’d rather have a bus shelter in Slough serving Michelin-starred food than a sandwich bar in Kensington. People will go to a brilliant product. A brilliant site doesn’t guarantee you success if you’ve got a mediocre product.

In 2008 when the shit hit the fan, we made a deliberate strategy to drive up the quality of our product, so we’re constantly investing. We refurbished L’ortolan twice since it opened in 2008. As long as you’re looking offering value and looking after people, you are on a road to success.

With 10 in 8, we’ve gone on the record and been quite brave about it. By default, that attracts people, but I don’t see any reason why we can’t fulfil this rather bullish ambition.

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