Pack up your truffles in your old kit bag: Alyn Williams on kitchen takeovers

Pack up your truffles in your old kit bag: Alyn Williams' CHEFstock 2016

by Eliot Collins 24 March 2016

With CHEFstock 2016 coming up next month, we interview Alyn Williams on the trials and tribulations of hosting and being hosted in kitchens around the world.

Eliot worked as a chef partnership manager at Great British Chefs.

Eliot worked as a chef partnership manager at Great British Chefs.

When it comes to culinary collaborations, one individual who’s done it before and is doing it again is Alyn Williams – Michelin-starred chef and all round industry good guy – who is offering up his plot of stainless steel in Mayfair to four talented cooks from around Europe for the month of April. He talked to us about this new collaborative festival, the aptly named CHEFstock, and the challenges that surround the event.

Wind back the culinary clock twenty years and the idea of chefs even sharing ideas was unheard of, let alone kitchens. The commis chefs from L’Escargot would eyeball their counterparts from Chez Nico, neither parties willing to share their secrets – it was like a form of ‘gastro-hooliganism’.

Sharing ingredients and ideas is a much bigger part of the industry these days. Alyn has spent formative years working under David Everitt-Matthias, Gordon Ramsay and Marcus Wareing just to mention a few, but even going back a decade or two restaurant collaborations were rare. Were any of these chefs opening their doors to strangers in white jackets?

‘No, I don’t remember any at all,' says Alyn. 'Not with the people I worked with. No guest chefs, takeovers or anything like that. The first time I did anything like that I was head chef at The Groucho Club. But that was a different scenario as it was an arts club, and a lot of the members were chefs. Collaborations there was a historic thing for the club, it wasn’t something I introduced – they had people like Fergus Henderson and Jeremy Lee.

‘Mark Askew was a member, Gordon used to come along; Richard Corrigan and Mark Hix, too,' he continues. 'They were all regular members and used to socialise there, so we used to do collaborations. We did these four dinners, one with Rowley Leigh, me, Richard Corrigan and Jeremy Lee; one with Anthony Bourdain and Fergus Henderson and one with Jason Atherton and Gordon. They were private events with thirty or forty private members.’

Back in those days it was quite a lot like that, very much a closed shop. It’s almost gone full-circle now, it’s quite liberating!

It seems, then, that takeovers were at first purely exclusive and only at members clubs or institutions such at The Groucho Club. Outside of these playgrounds of the culinary elite things appeared to be quite competitive. Recipes were secrets and the way a chef ran their brigade remained firmly behind closed doors.

‘Back in those days it was quite a lot like that, very much a closed shop,’ Alyn recalls. ‘You would be protective of what you were doing. It seems stupid now as all you have to do is Google and you can find anyone’s recipe, so it's pointless being protective anymore. It’s almost gone full-circle, it’s quite liberating!

‘Over the last fifteen to twenty years or so we’ve become more of a community, and what we’ve found is that we’re all alright and we all get on,' he adds. 'And we all respect the hard work each of us has put in to get to where we are. You’re more inspired when you get to talk to other people about what they are doing. There’s no plagiarism, you just learn new techniques, and those are handed down anyway – there aren’t many people who are the pioneers of new cooking methods. What you do is take it and adapt it into your own thing.’

This upbeat outlook made me think – what if the doors had remained closed? Where would British cuisine be now? Alyn is convinced that the sharing of ideas, developments and innovative thinking are the major reasons behind the culinary explosion of the last decade, both in restaurants and food-related media. A commercial kitchen is almost like a second home. If you can imagine the hours, graft and passion that are imparted not only on the team, but the space itself, the four walls of a chef's caboose is an extension of themselves. To welcome new chefs into this space is not only a pleasure for the diners frequenting the restaurant, but also a unique opportunity to influence the brigade involved.

These benefits for both chef and consumer are something which Alyn acknowledges. ‘That’s part of the reason we do it,’ he says. ‘A lot of the guests who come to the events are regulars and know us and the events that we do. But this is part of the reason why we don’t have London chefs. If you live in London and dine out there then good food is something that is easily accessible. But you're not necessarily going to dine out in Liverpool or Lancashire or Helsinki. So one of the reasons is to give the people that come here often something a little bit different.

‘It’s all happened very organically. I love doing it and it’s great for my kitchen team – they come out of the whole experience buzzing. Each week I take three or four of my chefs and pair them up with a guest chef, so over the week they all get to work with at least one of them.’

Riccardo Camanini
It’s all happened very organically. I love doing it and it’s great for my kitchen team, they come out of the whole experience buzzing.

‘I know Marc Wilkinson quite well, I vaguely know Nigel Haworth – but I’ve known of and respected him for years. I did this Food on the Edge event in Ireland last autumn and I met Sasu Laukkonen there; we talked a lot and discussed our philosophies on food – he’s a very deep man.'

Pack up your truffles and your old kit bag – Alyn’s systematic approach to organisation is something he takes with him everywhere (a leaf he has no doubt taken from Gordon Ramsay’s book). His own first guest chef appearance was at The Artichoke with chef Laurie Gear, and he went into this challenge with all his ducks in a row.

'You have to up your game and be a little bit more switched on and aware,' he tells us. 'You have to impart what you need doing on their team – which hopefully goes down well as it means they get to learn something. I think Gordon was the expert of this. When we did charity dinners we would have everything done and ready before we got there. Everyone else would be running around like headless chickens and trying to find stuff and going crazy because they couldn't, then we turned up with our boxes and it was done. The guests were seated at 8pm and Gordon would rock up at ten to eight, take the piss out of everybody around him, put on his apron and dress the dishes with us and that was it. It was so straightforward. And it taught me a lot.'