Spencer Metzger: “We’re not stiff and old hat as people sometimes assume”

By James McAllister

- Last updated on GMT

The Ritz head chef Spencer Metzger Chef to Watch Estrella Damm National Restaurant Awards on future plans Simon Rogan Frantzen Great British Menu c...

Related tags: Spencer Metzger, Chef, Estrella Damm National Restaurant Awards, The Ritz, Great british menu

The Ritz head chef, who was named Chef to Watch at this year's Estrella Damm National Restaurant Awards, on his future plans and why mastering classic French cooking techniques still matters.

When Spencer Metzger was promoted to head chef of The Ritz in July 2021, it marked the culmination of journey that began back before he had even left school.

Born in Essex, Metzger first realised he wanted to be a chef when he was 15 after completing a two-week work experience at The Ritz under the eye of legendary executive chef John Williams. From then on, he knew that being a chef was the career he wanted to pursue, later gaining a position as an apprentice at The Ritz and eventually working his way up to sous chef.

In 2016, after five years behind the stoves of The Ritz, Metzger left to spend a year working at L’Enclume in Cartmel as chef de partie but returned to the London hotel in the summer 2017 as premier sous chef.

Despite only just turning 30, Metzger’s career has been one marked by success. In 2019 he won the Roux Scholarship, impressing the judging panel with his take on monkfish blanquette and langoustines with saffron basmati rice, garnished with seasonal vegetables and asparagus. His triumph there led him to complete a three-month internship at the three-Michelin-starred Frantzen restaurant in Stockholm

Then, in early 2022, Metzger was crowned the Great British Menu Champion of Champions having successfully taken both his fish course and his main course to the banquet, which celebrated '100 years of British broadcasting'. Metzger’s fish course, entitled Be Careful What You Fish For, drew inspiration from Sherlock Holmes and featured brill served with a smoked beurre blanc, dulse, finger lime, chives, marinated grapes and sea vegetables; while his main course, First Impressions, was based on Pride And Prejudice and comprised partridge, pommes de terre sarladaisies and poached pear.

Both dishes neatly underscored Metzger’s imagination and ambition. From humble beginnings, he has grown into one of the country’s most exciting chefs. In the wake of his triumph at this year Estrella Damm National Restaurant Awards, where he picked up the Chef to Watch award, sponsored by Belazu, BigHospitality ​caught up with Metzger at The Ritz to discuss his career to date, his plans for the future, and the importance of mastering classic French cooking techniques.

What do you remember about first setting foot in The Ritz kitchen?
I was just 16 when I started, and the kitchen was an intimidating place to be. I’d never worked before, and I didn’t know what had hit me. But there was something about it I loved, and I always wanted more and more and more. Sure, I would make stupid mistakes and get told off, but every time I messed something up it would just focus my mind harder to make sure I didn’t do it again. And that’s exactly how I am now.

How has The Ritz changed over the years?
Fundamentally, the food is the same, but it’s elevated. It’s always been a very technical kitchen, but those techniques we use have developed with the times. Our focus now is on keeping that heritage but making sure the food has moved on from where it was 15 to 20 years ago. For example, the fundamentals of the sauces and stocks are the same, but the ways we finish them are different.

In 2016 you left The Ritz to spend a year working at L’Enclume. What did that experience teach you?
It was only a year, but I feel like I accomplished loads. Both places were trying to achieve greatness. The mind-set, the ethos and the attention to detail at L’Enclume at that point was something very different, and the produce was unbelievable. It was a different style of restaurant to The Ritz. We only served a tasting menu, and the emphasis was on taking individual ingredients and letting them shine on each course. There was loads I learnt there, including techniques for making purées that I still use. And I made good relationships with suppliers and was able to bring a few of those into the fold at The Ritz. We still work with them today.

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You also spent a few months at Frantzen after winning the Roux Scholarship. Why did you choose to go there?
I wanted to go somewhere completely different, which was out of my comfort zone, and I could take something from. I had a list of five or six places I was thinking about, including [Thomas Keller’s] The French Laundry. But then I went for dinner at Frantzen and I knew that’s where I wanted to go. It was the best meal of my life. I soaked up so much from those three months, including new methods of cooking shellfish. They’re a great team there, so welcoming and it was an amazing experience to be a part of. The inner thinking of how the restaurant operates, it was faultless and that really inspired me.

Earlier this year you appeared on the BBC’s Great British Menu​ and was named the 2022 Champion of Champions. What made you to take part?
There were two reasons. Firstly, I wanted to show myself off. And secondly, I wanted to show that while The Ritz is a very classical restaurant, we’re not stiff and old hat as people sometimes assume. We respect the foundations of the hotel, like asking guests to wear a jacket and tie in the dining room, but there’s also a lot of playfulness and theatricality to the experience. That’s why I really liked the brief.

How much creative scope do you have when it comes to dish development at The Ritz?
You have to understand the restaurant and the room you’re cooking for, and the people that come to our restaurant like the finest things in the world. Our job is to take those ingredients and refine them as much as we can. I treat it almost like a theatre production. I want every guest to have a moment where they go ‘wow’ and are caught off guard. We put a lot of work and focus into training our front of house, who do a lot of the theatrical stuff like preparing the crepe suzette and the pigeon press. I think that’s what classic service has always been about, and it’s nice for them to get involved and do things like that.

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What’s the importance of a chef learning the rudiments of classic French cookery?
It’s one of the most important things that chefs don’t do. You see chefs with incredible CVs moving from two star to three-star restaurants, and they’re just learning recipes and dishes. Others have worked in the same place at a top level for three or four years and they’re the ones that will have learnt more about cooking. Young people today want to jump from restaurant to restaurant, and then when you ask them to cook you a steak or prepare a red wine sauce, they don’t know what to do, because all they’ve done is learnt recipes. And there’s nothing wrong with that, but you still need to learn your foundations and fundamentals, and then you can go and do what you want.

Do you have ambitions to open your own restaurant one day?
Absolutely I want to open my own place, but I don’t know what the end picture looks like yet. Everything I do is building to that moment. It’s not going to be classically French, but that’s the way I cook so it’ll be heavily rooted in that. I loved my time at L’Enclume and Frantzen, and I’ve done other stages too, and all those will hopefully feed in to the concept. It’s a hard industry, it’s hard to open a restaurant, and there’s no guaranteed success. But if you believe in what you do and have the right team around you, you can make it work.

How do you reflect on your relationship with John Williams?
He’s been there the whole time. Even when I was away and I left, we’d still talk every couple of weeks. And as I’ve grown up, he’s put more and more trust into me. We’ve got a really good relationship and I still ask him for advice all the time, especially when I come up with new dishes. It’s great to have someone like that who’s almost like a pillar. I’m still learning from him.

The Chef to Watch award is sponsored by Belazu Ingredient Co​.

Related topics: People, Profiles, Chef

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