Oliver Lesnik was always discouraged from beginning a career as a chef, despite his father, Mario, holding the position of Maitre Chef de Cuisine of Claridges for 11 years. But when his father’s long hours meant a five-year-old Lesnik junior would often accompany him to work just to spend time together, it was the Claridges kitchen where a young, bright-eyed boy found his passion for food.
Now at 28-years old and executive chef of Langtry’s at The Cadogan in Belgravia, Lesnik told Becky Paskin how after years of perseverance, focus and experience working with some of the best British chefs, his passion for a life in the kitchen has flourished and matured.
“When I was a kid I would spend quite a few weekends at Claridges playing about with ingredients,” he said. “I really enjoyed the atmosphere in the kitchen and although I was always encouraged to go down another route, I couldn’t see myself doing anything else.”
The second Lesnik left school at the age of 16 he embarked on a catering course at Bournemouth College that was accompanied by a five-year training programme at the then two-Michelin starred Connaught Hotel under Michel Bourdin.
“He’s a real old school character,” Lesnik remarked about the man he considers his biggest influence. “I learned a lot of the way I think and act in the kitchen from him and that’s held me in good stead during a lot of difficult times. I’ve always fallen back on his advice and it’s always seen me well.”
It was under Bourdin’s guidance and while still at college that Lesnik entered his first major competition, the 1999 Meilleur Ouvrier de France Best Apprentice in Europe, in which he finished second only to a Frenchman.
“I was quite proud with my result in the Meilleur Ouvrier competition - that was quite an achievement for me. Obviously I was quite disappointed at the same time that I didn’t get first place, but it was a huge competition at the time. If the timing was right it could be quite fun to go do another one.”
Bourdin’s influence on Lesnik was so great that he happily remained under his leadership at The Connaught for six years, until in 2002 Gordon Ramsay and Angela Hartnett took over with MENU.
The Ramsay experience
“It was a tough decision whether to stay or not when Ramsay came in as I’d already been there for six years and I’d really had enough of the place by then. It was all I knew since I left school. But when they took over they completely revamped the kitchen and the whole style and I knew it wasn’t going to be another year of the same old thing. I thought that the chance to work with Angela and Gordon was almost too good an opportunity to miss out on.”
After a year of working with Hartnett and Ramsay, Lesnik was promoted to senior chef de partie on fish and sauces, his first managerial position, but found that life in the foul-mouthed chef’s kitchen had a negative impact both on his own managerial style and his passion.
“By the time I took over in a management position I’d had a year with Angela and Gordon and I’d learnt from their management style to be a bit full on. I later realised I needed to calm down and be fairer. Also, everything there was very regimented and you couldn’t move outside of your job role. After working with them for 14 months I wanted to move around onto another section but Angela wanted me to stay put which really wasn’t ideal for me, it would have been too much.”
Reluctant to stay on in the same position for yet another year, Lesnik, who was by now 23-years-old, left his virtual home of eight years for pastures new, which came in the form of Jean-Christophe Novelli’s latest restaurant, Auberge du Lac. However, Lesnik once again found himself as a senior chef de partie on fish and sauces.
“I actually really enjoyed my time at Auberge, it was a great place and there was a lot more freedom than at The Connaught with Angela and Gordon, as I was encouraged to input ideas and be more creative.”
“The head chef, Phil Thompson, was quite young at just 23 and Auberge was definitely a learning period for him as well as us. As we were the first team there, he gave us the opportunity to go on that ride together.”
Stepping out of the race
Lesnik was soon promoted to junior sous chef looking after larder, but found he was unable to go any further up the ladder. With his sights set high on becoming a head chef one day, Lesnik took the decision to step out of the Michelin-starred restaurant scene and work in a high-end ‘whisky and cigar’ gentleman’s club in order to learn more about the paperwork and management involved in such a position.
Accepting the role of senior sous chef at White’s Gentlemen’s Club in St. James under Martin Green, which he admits ‘wasn’t a massive step in culinary education,’ gave Lesnik the opportunity to realise that a head chef’s office responsibilities account for almost half of the job.
Within three years, Lesnik felt comfortable enough to try for his first head chef role, and chose Langtry’s at the five-star Cadogan Hotel in Belgravia for starters.
“I knew moving into the head chef’s position in such a big hotel would be a challenge but I’m always up for that. I really wanted to step out of my comfort zone and get my teeth back into the kitchen side of the job.”
Lesnik arrived at Langtry’s and immediately put his stamp on the menu, a typically British affair but with a few touches no doubt gleaned from years of working under Michelin-starred chefs. Main courses include Roasted Loin of Welsh Lamb with a white Bean & Garlic Cassoulet, Poached Guinea Fowl with Cep & Champagne Cream and Parsnip Crisps, and Pan-fried, Line Caught Sea Bass with Red Pepper Piperade and Sauce Vierge, while afternoon tea features edible paintbrushes to be enjoyed surrounded by artwork adopted from the Kings Road Art Gallery.
“Originally when I arrived I wanted to push for a Michelin star but then I realised how tough that would be. There’s a lot more to it that just putting Michelin-level food out. It was a tough learning curve that, I still want it but there’s going to be a lot of effort involved to get there.”
Just over a year later and with a new kitchen ready to be installed, a refurbishment for the already opulent restaurant planned, and a fully settled and functional kitchen and front of house team, Lesnik feels Langtry’s is finally going in the direction toward those elusive Michelin stars.