Chef Helena Puolakka: “I don’t want to run an army, I’d rather conduct an orchestra”

By Sophie Witts contact

- Last updated on GMT

Helena Puolakka chef restaurant D&D London

Related tags: Chefs, Food on the Edge, Restaurant

Finnish-born Helena Puolakka is chef patron at D&D London restaurants Aster in Victoria and Skylon on the South Bank.

She was previously head chef at Pierre Koffmann’s three-Michelin-starred La Tante Claire in London and at Pierre Gagnaire’s eponymous three-starred restaurant in Hotel Balzac, Paris.

At Food on the Edge​ in Galway last month she spoke about her experience in tough restaurants, why London may be the ‘last resort’ for difficult kitchen behaviour, and working with the next generation.  

A personal change

Many years ago I created a zero-tolerance in my kitchens for bullying, shouting and fighting. In my personal experience as a young chef I couldn’t cope with it, [but] at the same time I’d been like that [myself] for many years. I was very proud when I became a sous chef La Tante Clare in the early stages of my career, and I invited my mother to come and see [me working in] the kitchen. We walked in to the middle of the service, then I turned around and she wasn’t there anymore. That night at dinner my mother looked at me and said ‘I’m not sure who the woman in that kitchen was, but I’m sure it wasn’t my daughter’. That was the first sign for me that change was needed.

London restaurants

I’ve lived in London for 23 years, and I think it might be the last resort for this very tough culture. Sometimes when I tell these horror stories my young chefs think it’s cool, but when they hear the truth about how ruthless and hard kitchens could be it changes their perception.

A dish at Aster

The millennials and young chefs don’t want to work 100 hours a week, they want a break, and their experience of life is everything for them. Many of us have experienced something very different. The industry is ruthless, but it’s changing and through that we all should make a decision. Whether you’re a big or small operator, we still face the same music.

I don’t want to run an army, I’d rather conduct an orchestra by working with individual talent and training them to become a team.

Change at D&D

When I first started working for D&D London I was given a great opportunity to open [Skylon] at Royal Festival Hall. Working there gave me a lot of energy and I wanted to get my voice out there about the need for change.

At the same time I had a head chef who’d worked for me for several years, it seemed like there was a revolving door of young chefs coming and going, me hiring and him firing. It was three years until he decided to move on and I realised the time was right to do something different. After that I forced it to happen with common sense and kindness.

Creating more ‘superstars’

Another beauty of chef life is we are reactive like a team in A&E. We recognise problems faster than they occur and use our common sense to solve any issues.

Of course the success rate is not 100% for me, but we share our values and teach and give leeway and trust. I think we plant a seed [with young chefs] and eventually that begins to grow. We have to encourage each other to believe in change and accept that not every cook coming through the door will be a superstar. And that’s ok. We need them as much as the talent, and if we can get them to emote and understand their skills, that will be the start of creating more superstars.

Food on the Edge is a two-day food and restaurant symposium held in Galway.

Related topics: Chef, People, Restaurant

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