Chefs Duncan Ray (The Little Fish Market, Brighton) and Simon Bonwick (The Crown at Burchetts Green) were speaking at Restaurant magazine's Restaurant Congress last month.
Why do you run a kitchen on your own?
Simon Bonwick: I really like it, it’s so much better. I’m not running around moaning at people, you can’t tell yourself off. You’re the last stop before the customer and you keep your mistakes in the kitchen. You also haven’t got the problem of people not turning up for service. You’ve got to turn up. I can’t say I can’t be bothered today, I’ve got to be there and I want to be there. I feel like that every day. Solitude is what it’s all about. It gives me time to reflect and do things properly.
Duncan Ray: I was tired of hearing the same old thing of people having a great meal in a restaurant and then taking their fiends there and not having the same experience because the chef was off. I wanted a place where that wasn’t the case, where I was always there and the food was always the same. It’s a controlling thing, rightly or wrongly. You can really concentrate on the food and cook the way you want to.
What are the benefits of running a kitchen single-handedly?
DR: I have worked in hotels with large numbers of staff but you always want people to work like you do, and that leads to a point of frustration. By eliminating that you can concentrate on the food. I’m never going to send something out so as not to receive a bollocking.
SB: I’m free. I’m in my kitchen and anyone who comes to the restaurant can see I’m cooking there, it’s a good feeling. And yes, you can send out exactly what you want. Everything has to be right. If anyone wants to cook alone I’d really recommend it.
What are the challenges?
SB: We do get people turning up and saying ‘what’s going on here?’ [if service is slow]. But I go out and let them know I’m on my own and that they’re going to have to wait a bit longer.
Do your menus reflect your approach?
DR: We started as à la carte but although we do 20 covers we had to do mis en place for twice as many people to give everyone the choice. I wanted it to be sustainable and didn’t want to be binning stuff so we now concentrate on a tasting menu only and at the end of that day it’s gone.
SB: I do à la carte, I don’t want to do what Duncan does, I wouldn’t be any good at it. I have a culinary encyclopedia in my mind – I like a 6/6/6 menu, although I sometimes do fives.
Do you stagger service?
SB: We don’t – I like it in one hit. We’re in a semi rural setting and everyone arrives at 7pm to 7.30pm and we try to do all 20 covers in two-and-a-half hours. If we start stretching it we’d have two people eating on their own at the end, which isn’t nice. It’s tough and a bit hairy at times, but I don’t put anything out that’s not right. If I mess up, I take it on the chin, put it in the bin and do it again.
DR: I can’t do that, we couldn’t maintain our standards. For us it was carnage, so we now split service into three and seat tables on the hour.
How many covers could you do on your own?
DR: I could probably do 25-30, but it depends on the level of cooking.
SB: It’s all about level. My son works front of house and immediately on starting he took out a few tables and made the menu smaller. I used to like doing 40 covers.
What’s the best thing about running a solo kitchen?
DR: It’s so much more relaxed, even though it is just as hectic as any other restaurant,
SB: If you love cooking the way I do – and I don’t just like cooking, I love it – there’s nothing like it. I like every little shitty job there is. I see people not peeling a carrot with the right attitude, but I love doing it all. The thing about cooking alone is that it is all about the cooking – you are in control of it. You touch everything.