Gordon Ramsay’s first and only Glasgow operation Amaryllis had become a breeding ground for culinary talent before its closure in 2003, turning out to be a short-lived transitional kitchen (albeit with a Michelin star) for its chefs to launch into even greater careers.
Colin Booker went on to become sous chef at York and Albany; head chef David Dempsey transferred to Ramsay’s eponymous Chelsea restaurant to lead the kitchen before his tragic death; and Martin Donnelly became Michael Caines’ head chef at Abode’s Glasgow outpost.
Gavin Austin, Amaryllis’s former senior chef de partie, is no exception either, having garnered experience from many kitchens across the UK, most notably L’Escargot and Searcy’s St. Pancras Grand, before settling in London as head chef of Concept Venue’s newly launched No. 20 at Sanctum Soho.
At 31 years-old the chef from Norfolk, or NorfolkNumpty as he is affectionately known on TheStaffCanteen.com, has worked in over 14 establishments, gathering skills, ideas and attitudes from the many chefs he now admires. In the decadently furnished yet funky restaurant at Sanctum Soho, Austin took a few minutes out from prep for evening service to tell Becky Paskin about how his experience at Amaryllis helped to shape him as a chef, leading him to head up a promising London restaurant.
“I don’t know anybody who’s worked at Amaryllis who hasn’t done well,” he said. “Dempsey’s was probably the best food I’ve ever made, and I really learned a lot from working there. Now I like things to be the best they can, I have a really anal attitude with detail, abut I think that’s come from working with so many different, decent chefs through the years.”
Austin arrived at Amaryllis with eight years experience in the kitchen. After training at Norfolk College of Arts and Technology while working six evenings a week at the Hoste Arms Hotel in Burnham Market, Austin grasped the opportunity to further his skills at Chez Nico’s and L’Escargot, experiences that secured his passion for cooking.
“I had a great time at L’Escargot; I just got into it straight away,” he explained. “I liked the buzz of working in a busy kitchen, as well as the people who work in hospitality. It becomes a family affair when you spend most of your time with them, and because I’m from a broken home I really embraced that.”
However, Austin was called back home to Norfolk due to an illness in his biological family, and after leaving the Big Smoke behind he developed a case of ‘small town syndrome.’
“I went home and hated it. Nothing had changed and all my friends still went to the same old pub. When I heard they were looking for chefs for Ramsay’s restaurant in Glasgow, I went for it. Two weeks later I moved my stuff up there.”
Withstanding the heat
The Amaryllis kitchen proved to be a tough environment for Austin, who at 24 years-old, says he learned to be a stronger person and more dedicated chef, but despite embarking on such a steep learning curve, Austin found head chef Dempsey too much to work with and subsequently quit, returning to Amaryllis only when the ill-fated chef had moved to Restaurant Gordon Ramsay in London. It was just months later when a cocaine-induced Dempsey fell to his death from a block of flats in Chelsea.
“We never really were best friends, but he was one of the best chefs I have ever worked with,” Austin recalled. “He could be your best mate, and your worst mate, and sure things were incredibly tense in that kitchen, but he was incredibly talented. We all worked very long hours creating amazing textures and flavours, and his adventurism in terms of culinary techniques as well as his respect for food, have definitely influenced me in my work.”
After Gordon Ramsay closed Amaryllis, Austin moved from chef de partie up into a sous chef role at Rococo in Glasgow for a couple of years, before moving back to England to begin his first position as head chef at The Pink Geranium in Cambridge. But Austin didn’t find his first authoritative kitchen role daunting, calling on his numerous past experiences to guide him through.
“I learned about the financial side of the kitchen at Rococo, where the head chef was a bit shrewd with money. That came in handy because the owners of The Pink Geranium didn’t want to spend any money. They spent £15k on carpet when they could have spent that on a waitress. Unfortunately that meant we were understaffed and the service wasn’t as good as it could have been. But the whole experience was an eye opener - it taught me what not to do if I ever have a business.”
The lone wanderer
Entering what he likes to define as his ‘nomad years’, Austin left The Pink Geranium to help Damian Brown at Fortnum and Masons for a few months before short stints at The White Star in Southampton and the Hard Days Night hotel in Liverpool. But his family was beginning to grow, and with a young son to support, Austin sought solace with Billy Reid and Searcy’s at St. Pancras Grand.
“I went in as sous chef and while I wouldn’t say that I took a step back, I do feel more creative when I’m doing something for myself. If I’m restricted then I’ve got to keep changing things and doing things to keep my mind occupied otherwise I’ll get bored, and that’s basically what happened.
“I told Billy I wanted to leave and he was very supportive, so when it came time for the company to cut costs, I was first out the door. I had just a week off when I got in touch with Mark Fuller who co-owns Concept Venues with Garry Hollihead. When I first came to see the hotel it looked like a building site; a lot has changed.”
No. 20 at Sanctum Soho is a bold, art deco space with banquette-style seating upholstered in gold leather with chairs covered with red crocodile skin. The kitchen is visible through a hatch, giving diners a fashionable theatrical experience, while Austin has worked alongside menu consultants Private View to create a modern yet simple British menu consisting of Crab and Sweetcorn Chowder with Brown Crab Toast, Spit-roast Goosnargh Chicken with Peppered Creamed Leeks and Roasting Juices; Wagyu Burger with Foie Gras and Dill Pickle; and lemon sponge pudding with ginger ice cream.
He says his greatest career triumph to date is the opening of No.20 with himself at the helm, but Austin still feels the Sanctum Soho restaurant still has a long way to go.
“I want it to be busy,” he said. “People think Sanctum Soho is just a hotel so we really need to advertise the restaurant. I want people to come here happy and appreciative that everything is cooked to order. Nothing is processed but as fresh as we can get it, and as we’re doing something that’s cost effective and affordable with a wide range of ingredients, I’m positive it will get busier.”