British Bulldogs: Expat Chefs talk shop
January 8, 2014
as told to Mark Philps
Lee Parsons Eight years at Claridges Hotel; three at Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons and three at Niagara-on-the-Lake’s Prince of Wales. Now: executive chef, Bacchus at the Wedgewood
Andrew Richardson Sous chef, 21 Queen Street; head chef, sibling Brasserie 21; executive sous chef, Cioppino’s and West; executive chef, Araxi; opened Calgary’s Blink. Now, executive chef, CinCin Restaurant and Bar
Q: You both began your cooking careers in England. How did you get started?
ANDREW RICHARDSON: By default, really. A buddy of mine was working in a hotel, and he couldn’t make a shift one night and asked if I could cover for him. I hadn’t been in restaurants or anything before, but I went down and started serving tables. It was no fun at all. Then I went into the kitchen and saw what was happening there. I just thought, Oh, this is where I want to be.
LEE PARSONS: I started cooking when I was 14. I was a dishwasher, to make some money, and it just progressed. I went to school, did full-time for two years, then headed up to London and did fairly well. Then I went up to Oxford with Raymond Blanc, progressed through that kitchen brigade as well, and then was enticed by Canada. England was great, no doubt about that, but it was a hard lifestyle.
Q: You mean the amount of punishment?
AR: The U.K. was certainly tough, in my experience. I spent a lot of years working in Newcastle for a guy called Terry Laybourne, who was crazy, practically falling off the walls, shouting and swearing all the time. He used to come in and say, “Who ordered this? Who accepted this? Who signed for this?” And I was always the one who’d have to say, “It was me, chef.” He’d just take a piece out of you to find out why you accepted female ducks when he wanted male.
LP: These people are after perfection. They run over everyone that doesn’t give it to them. You’re there to embrace their philosophy of food. You get some great ass-kickings. It breaks a lot of people, it makes a lot of people — there are no grey areas. But you take it for what it is. It’s heat of the moment. It’s professional criticism, and it’s made me the type of chef that I am now.
Q: Is that kitchen culture disappearing?
AR: You look at some restaurants now and everything is so precious, rather than the rough and tumble that was exciting. There’s no fire, no one’s getting burned, no one’s getting shouted at — there’s just no passion!
LP: I agree. A lot of cooking from the heart has been lost. Now it’s all about little things on a plate. Food’s about eating, there’s no doubt about it. It’s all about how it tastes, and if you’re not putting yourself into that dish, you’re losing the essence of what you are and what food is. And honestly, if you came just to look at the food, go buy a picture. It’s as simple as that: food is about eating.
Q: Imagine a restaurant that said, “This is what we do. No substitutions accepted.” Do you think that could fly in Vancouver?
LP: I’d absolutely love it to.
AR: Vancouver’s very particular. So, maybe? That approach comes from passion, so if you have that and you have conviction about why you want to do it, then I think so. You’d have to be charismatic to sell it. But I think so. Why not? That’s the only way food can keep moving forward. If customers start writing the menus, then you’ll never have people like [elBulli’s] Ferran Adrià. He burned a path doing what he wanted to do, not what the customers told him to do.
Q: Speaking of customers, describe your nightmare diner.
LP: It depends what day it is, how I feel. Some days most customers are nightmares. But they come in all shapes and forms. Some are very easy to please, grateful for what we do. Others… Not so.
AR: That’s polite!
LP: It’s difficult: we’re in an open kitchen, so there are times people round by the piano have heard what I’ve had to say about them. We’ve had to calm it down a bit.
AR: It’s like you’re pulling their leg a little. I mean, Gordon Ramsay built a career around abusing staff and the customers.