The hard life of the Chef Patron...

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I'm writing this from my hospital bed. Yesterday morning my wonderful surgeon, Mr Richard Keys, removed the plates and screws he put into my leg almost a year ago, when I fell and broke it on six places. This blog post is evidence of what a great and rapid recovery I'm making. Of course, there is a certain amount of post-surgery pain; but my goodness, how pleasant not to have so much of the inventory of an ironmonger's shop installed in my leg.

What I really want to tell you about, though, is the remarkable experience I had on Monday, 7th February. I was giving the keynote address to a National Restaurant Awards exclusive seminar at Hakkasan, for an audience 40 of the country's top chefs and restaurateurs, including the Award winners named last October. The host was Restaurant Magazine.

My topic was good service: my own "Service Secrets" to complement my Kitchen Secrets book and new series starting on 21st February. In the talk - which I wrote out in advance so many times that I found it wasn't necessary to read it, as I'd unwittingly memorised most of it - I detailed some of the changes we've made at Le Manoir. If you follow this blog, you'll have already read about some of these.

In the end, changes like these, though they serve many ends - even resulting in better balance sheets -  have a single purpose: to make the guest enjoy himself more, to meet the changing expectations and needs of the modern guest.

But what I want to tell you about is not what I had to say, but what happened later. That afternoon I joined a huge number of chefs at the Connaught, to celebrate the shiny, new second Michelin star just awarded to another French-born chef, Hélène Darroze. The host of this elegant party was the General Manager of the Connaught, Nathalie Seiler-Hayez (Swiss-born, and French-speaking, so nearly another compatriot).

Between Hélène's exceptional culinary offerings and the warmth of Nathalie's hospitality, we were all so blissed out that many of us were late arriving at the next celebration, for the opening of Heston Blumenthal's new restaurant Dinner, in the most wonderful, spacious room at the heart of the Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park.

But not me. I was the first of the chefs to arrive. Heston already had his trademark big grin on his face. And for good reason: everything felt so very right. There is drama in the glass-walled wine cellar, as in the big glass-fronted finishing kitchen, visible from all over the dining room, full or young chefs working together, focused and with precision.


It was astonishingly quiet, the only voice being Heston's Executive Head Chef, Ashley Palmer-Watts, announcing the checks at the pass. If Heston was happy, he was also understandably proud. He has put so much of himself into this new venture, and worked so hard.

Heston was beaming as he showed me around his new domain, including the immaculatepatisserie on the same floor, and the two prep kitchens downstairs.

Then, as other friends and colleagues arrived, hailed each other and embraced, there was much kissing of cheeks, hugging, congratulating in English and French - for a moment or two, I had the delightful illusion that I was back in France, among old, or even long-lost friends. Again, it just felt so right.

And then I had a revelation. We have changed - our profession has changed its attitudes, and grown up. There were no unpleasant rivalries, no excess of testosterone; the threatening culture of fear, jealousy, mistrust, of petty measures and petty rumours is slowly dying out. These nasty attitudes displayed both to colleagues and to staff that had dominated London kitchens for years, and spread their poison across the country - they are vanishing.

In their place, camaraderie and generosity: Chefs openly talking to each other about food and their new ideas, about new techniques, ingredients and design matters. The hot topic was Michel Roux's terrific new TV series, "Service" in which he makes his points and criticisms with civility and without shouting.

At this precise moment I experienced an epiphany: the world of chefs and gastronomy is reconnecting with its true values and meaning. I thought to myself - this is a profession young people can safely join, and will want to embrace. It was a special moment, of intimacy and pride. It was one of the happiest of my life.

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