Simon Flint celebrated his six year anniversary as executive chef at the National Theatre in June, but with 28 years of experience in the industry, from Center Parcs to The Groucho Club and Caprice Holdings, he has approached the varied role with an experienced restaurant chef mentality.
How I got to where I am now:
I have been a chef for 28 years now - I am pretty certain the reason I went into the industry is that I am very practically-minded and I wanted to do something with my hands as opposed to doing a desk job like a lot of my family.
From a young age my parents were quite foodie and still are – well they are very foodie now! I remember having great holidays as a child where we would eat out all the time.
I grew up in Nottingham and went straight from school to an apprenticeship doing the catering at the Nottingham Evening Post with a day release to study at the nearby Clarendon College for a City & Guilds qualification.
It was a three year contract but I wanted to take a part-time job in a restaurant because I was itching to do better food and they wouldn’t let me so I left after two years and worked in a local restaurant – the Ben Bowers. It was unbelievably busy with a very small kitchen and I still had to go to college on my day off!
I came to London when I was 22 and after a position as commis chef at the Mirabelle I found the restaurant too quiet so I went to The Ivy in 1991. It was like going from one extreme to the other because The Ivy was like Beirut – really, really busy and full-on.
After two and a half years as a chef de partie working on all sections I went travelling for 15 months.
The food in Australia was ahead of ours in some respects in terms of having very good quality casual restaurants. It was rewarding as well – if you were quite good out there people would bite your hand off to get you to stay with a sponsorship. I was tempted but I probably wasn’t brave enough at the time to go through with it!
When I returned I went straight back to The Ivy and was promoted to sous chef after three or four months under Des McDonald who later became chief executive of Caprice Holdings. He was a great chef with a calm and motivational management style.
The Ivy at the time was the sort of place where all the senior members of staff didn’t leave so, looking for more responsibility, I went to J Sheekey under Tim Hughes where I ran the kitchen in the evening.
After stints at Le Caprice, Daphne’s and The Real Greek I went to The Groucho Club which had two restaurants and a lot of events – so a challenging environment. Ultimately I felt it was always going to be a drinking club and I wanted something bigger so in June 2006 I came to the National Theatre.
My greatest achievement:
Sustaining things. It is very easy to be passionate about something that comes new to you and is exciting. Sustaining it over the years and carrying on pushing is harder.
When you get to head chef or executive chef level you have to self-motivate yourself – there isn’t always someone that will feed you ideas.
My biggest challenge:
The National Theatre was a very bizarre place to come into because the old executive chef and head chef had both been here for more than 25 years and the food was horrendous – all bought in or not very good quality and the dishes were heavy with no creativity.
It was a great opportunity – there was no way I couldn’t improve the offering!
My background is all restaurants but here we have restaurants, cafes, production kitchens and The Deck – a top-end events venue on the roof.
I have brought in chefs with fantastic backgrounds including in Michelin-star restaurants so we have gone from a culture of people being here for convenience to a brigade that are very ambitious and keen to have autonomy and continually improve. We had four contracted chefs in 2006 – six years later there are 36.
I have had support from the directors on recruitment, buying equipment, changing the menu – even on the odd occasion when things haven’t worked.
Things have gone from bad to good and now we are pushing on to make them fantastic. The theatre is about to have a £100m refurb which will mean a new large-scale restaurant/café, a bar that will do food and a new coffee shop with home-made cakes.
I am quite keen for us to rollout a brand – open a coffee shop in St Paul’s, Borough Market or London Bridge – for us to do that we need to take the first steps to improve our coffee shops and build our new ones so there is still quite a lot going on here.
My biggest inspiration:
Mark Hix and Tim Hughes. Tim because of his passion and his standards to achieve perfection and Mark because he is very foodie, creative and has a way that brings the best out of people and develops them in their careers.
If I wasn’t working in hospitality:
There are a few things I would want to do but I would never have considered not doing what I am doing – I would have wanted to do them side by side. I am really interested in food photography and retail.