From amateur to professional

It has now been more than a year and a half since Hedone opened its doors. Time really flies. I thought I would have time to blog about what it is like running a restaurant, about produce and other matters that might be vaguely amusing for old readers of this blog. Speaking of which I am grateful that so many old readers of Gastroville have visited Hedone.

It has been quite a bit busier and a lot tougher than I expected.  The first couple of months were chaotic. If I had to do it again I would maybe do things in a different way.  I never expected we would get the attention we got. Never ever. As several online commentators and bloggers pointed out I was just an amateur chef, albeit to some with a bit of talent, and I reckoned it would take quite some time for me to get used to running a professional kitchen and to send out food in a restaurant setting. After only a couple of weeks we got 4 stars from Fay Maschler and 5 stars from Time Out. Then great reviews in FT, Guardian, Metro and later in New York Times. I was stunned by the influence some of these critics had. Nick Lander’s article drove in people from all over the world. In between there was a more faint praise from Giles Coren’s stand in Tony Turnball, who was actually one of only a few critics that I recognized. It was hard to decide whether we deserved all the good reviews since I did not know when most of the critics had been. We were shit some nights but doing pretty good food some nights. It was a struggle getting good enough produce on a daily basis and to find kitchen staff, me having no real connections in the British trade and no kitchen track record when we started. Sometimes I was dead tired and I could work for days with a constant headache. When Turnball was in we were shit, so we deserved a good beating, but did not get it.

It may sound weird, but had I known that the critics would come in this early, I would have had the restaurant open to friends only for a couple of months while I got used to being a chef and got used to the kitchen, its organization etc.

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First Night

First night done! Nobody, except me thought we would be able to serve anyone yesterday. At least not at 3pm. The site still looked like a building site with dust and all furniture still wrapped.

At 6 pm, the builders were still painting. Then, at 6.30, the chairs and the tables were put into place and it looked like this:

I felt a joy when we started. I have always wanted to do this. It was a bit chaotic at times. We are understaffed in the kitchen and I have no clue were to find things since I have not had time to involve myself in putting the cooking the cookware and utensils in place. I screwed up the cooking of some beef that we had to redo. And well some of the sea bass was undercooked because I have not yet quite made friends with the combi-steamer. The fish was of stunning quality. If I can continue to get fish of that quality, I will be very happy.

Tonight we are going to do a short a la carte menu. First courses will be gazpacho with dill seed ice cream,  scallops with seaweed butter, scallops sashimi-style and slow cooked duck egg with banyuls emulsion and leaves. Main courses will be turbot, beef and pork. Not sure what there will be as garnishes. Will try now to see if the potatoes we have will make good fries. Desserts will be cinnamon ice cream with raspberries and horseradish cream, apricot clafoutis with tonka bean ice cream and a chocolate preparation. I hope it will be quiet. I am absolutely knackered after taking over this place.

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37 hours to go

Yesterday we made great progress. The bar counter facing the kitchen was assembled. And most of the painting of the ground floor was done. Hopefully, progress continues today. An army of cleaners will come in before we open.

Menu for tomorrow is coming together. Much to the frustration of the wait and kitchen staff, the menu is still in my head. It looks like it will be featuring scallops, beef, pork, duck eggs, tomatoes, lobster, raspberries, peas e t c. I am worried about the fish. I have fish coming from two sources, but somehow I doubt they understand how picky I am with fish. Fingers crossed that the fish will be good. I have asked for sea bass and turbot. Turbot because it is a fish that better withstands bad handling after catch to delivery at the restaurant. Sea bass because it is a good time for it, but I have yet to see anything coming to London even remotely as good as a line caught sea bass from Mediterranean at this time of the year and that has not been put on ice. I would love to get line caught pollack (lieu jaune in French) as it can be an incredibly good fish. Line caught pollack has nothing in common with the pollack most of the time encountered in restaurants which should be avoided. It is annoying that I won’t know what the fish will be like until tomorrow morning when I open the boxes.

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Finally it is starting to come together. The last week was tough. Delivery of wrong furniture. BT not being able to install broadband. Tiling of the basement taking forever. Then there was a major water leak when a contractor hit the main water pipe with a drill. Oh, yeah the air conditioning unit that was moved started leaking. E t c, e t c. Someone asked me if I regret it all. No, not for a second. Although, I have not gotten much sleep the last month.

Soft opening will be on Friday the 1 of July this year, which is in only a few days time. I can’t wait to get started. We are a bit short staffed in the kitchen and the pastry chef arrives on Saturday, so it will have to be a half-fixed menu a la Viajante, SaQuaNa, Chateaubriand e t c. I am not sure yet what we will serve. Tomorrow or Thursday at latest, it should be clear what I will serve the first two nights.

The suppliers I will work with in the beginning are starting to come together. I want to use as much English produce as possible, but there are constraints with this approach since supply of exceptional produce is very limited. To be able to use great produce, the menu has to be somewhat limited and has to change according to what is available on a weekly basis. I have for instance found great beef, but it will not be available all the time. The same for pork. The English pork we tried last weekend was amazing, actually better than the much more expensive Iberico pork we tried before that, but I don’t know how often I can get it. I have explained to my suppliers that I want to get what is great at every moment and then adjust the preparations accordingly. They all like this. Getting consistent supply of great fish (other than shell fish and crustaceans) is however going to be a problem. I want fish that has not passed rigor mortis buried in ice. This seems like an unrealistic requirement.

The bread is coming along well. The sour dough starter thrives in West London and I have found a great flour. I am proud of the bread. But it is thanks to the flour.

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One of the nightmares I had was that the truck that was going to deliver the furniture would be involved in an accident and that our furniture would be put on fire. I never thought it would happen. One nightmare I didn’t have was that the furniture supplier would deliver the wrong furniture, or rather furniture with a totally wrong color. This actually happened yesterday. I thought these guys were professional, though now they appear rather amateurish. I have not felt as gutted in a long time. Obviously, they have said they will rectify this asap. The question is when that is. Only the standstill and the commotion that this caused yesterday will result in a delay of the opening.

Then there is BT. I wonder if it was this difficult in the former Soviet Union to sort out phone lines. One of my employees who would know tells me it wasn’t.

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Finally the kitchen has been put in place. Well, almost. Enough so we can start playing with the equipment and try to figure out where all the utensils will be stored. Not easy. I got 4 dozens of scallops yesterday from a diver that I will probably use as a supplier quite a bit. Fantastic stuff. A bit on the small side but amazingly sweet. I had scallops for lunch with seaweed butter. Quite a change from the junk I have been living on the last couple of weeks.

The name of the restaurant will be Hedone. It is from Greek mythology and means pleasure. It is the word that hedonistic comes from. I like it. Those interested can follow us on twitter @HedoneLondon. There is a Facebook page too, but I am not sure when we will have time to work with it.

The website is here: Obviously it needs a bit of work.

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Not quite there yet

I was hoping that the kitchen would have been installed by yesterday. It isn’t. It will hopefully be by tomorrow. Only two weeks left until we open now. Still so much to do. Staff will start working over the next couple of days. One of my chef de partie arrived from France yesterday. The pastry chef is coming a few days after we open. A few people will be over for trial next week. Yeah, I know it is a little late but it will have to work out. We will just do the number of covers we feel confident with doing in the beginning.

Everyone is asking me for menus. How could I know what we will be cooking? I haven’t had time to think about food the last five weeks. I haven’t been cooking in weeks. On top of this, my iPhone with all the dishes and recipes was stolen two weeks ago. There should be a backup somewhere.

Everyday we eat fast food from the street. Yesterday, I found myself walking from fast food vendor to fast food vendor not being able to find anything I wanted to eat again. It is a good way to oppress hunger.

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Waking up the starter

Some friend chefs have told me that I am crazy to think that we will be able to make our own bread during the first few months. Perhaps. There are several reasons why I want to make the bread. First of all, I want to make the bread as natural as possible, in other words a bread that contains nothing but water, salt and flour. My reference for bread is the breads made by French baker Alex Croquet.  One of his breads that I would love to serve in the restaurant looks like this:

It is full with flavour and a has a nice acidity.

Since I can’t get Alex’s bread in London, and since I haven’t been able to find anything remotely close to it, I will have to make it myself, even if it will only be a faint shadow of Alex’s bread.

So what is the point with not using commercial yeast? Most types of flour contain a number of pretty nasty agents, such as lectins, gluten and phytic acid, that from an evolutionary point of view, it could be argued we are not supposed to eat. Sourdough fermenting breaks down these agents to a greater or lesser extent.  Sourdough fermenting also results in deeper flavours. Generally (and very very simplistically) speaking, a starter contains two types of leavening agents, (natural) yeasts and lacto bacteria. It is the lacto bacteria that is responsible for breaking down these agents and for causing an tangy note to the bread. In France, a pain au levain francais, is supposed to have a minimum content of acetic acid and a pH of not more than 4. Commercial yeast thrive when pH is between 4-6, so bread that is done with commercial yeast will rarely have the nice acidity of a true sourdough bread. A lot of bread sold as sourdough bread have had commercial yeast added to them to speed up the bread making and to achieve a consistent result.

The yeasts and lacto bacteria can be of different kinds resulting in different flavors. It is all quite fascinating.

Making true sourdough bread without addition of yeast is quite complicated. It is basically about finding the right mix of lactic bacteria and wild yeasts. Too much lacto bacteria and the texture of the bread will be too dense and the flavor too acid. It is great fun to work with a living starter.

I put my old starter back to life earlier this week. It was put to rest some time ago. Usually it takes a bit of time before it is ready to be used for baking. It has to be fed constantly and I take it out for a walk in the park now and then. Just kidding. I am a little surprised that it has started to come along quite nicely. Maybe it likes West London.

When the starter is ready for baking we will try different flours. I have found a few interesting English flours that I hope will turn out to be good enough.

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A week in chaos

The past week has been a week in total chaos. Kitchen equipment was supposed to arrive on Thursday. With short notice, delivery was moved a day earlier to Wednesday but only some bits and pieces finally arrived so the equipment could not be installed. Bewildering, especially considering the manufacturer. The contractor for the kitchen floor did a scandalously poor fitting of the safety floor so they had to come back and redo most of it the next morning. They even managed to cover one of the drains in the floor. I will probably let them take me to court to receive the final payment.

Everyone was praising induction, but failed to tell me the cost for three-phase wiring. Bloody hell!!  The only thing that has gone almost according to plan the last week was the flooring in the dining room and the stairs to the basement. It looks gorgeous. It looks a lot more expensive than it was. I like things that do. Vice verse is no good. The dust is slowly settling. Can’t wait to try the new kitchen equipment next week if the rest do arrive. The sour dough has been put to life the other day. It seems to thrive in West London.  Will get back to this.

No shaving and no haircut for a while has made me look like a caveman.

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The refurbishment of the place is progressing nicely even if the space now looks like a space in shell condition. A lot of things will happen this week. New floor in the dining and in the kitchen room will be fitted. The tiles to the kitchen arrived the other day. Not totally sure how it will look when they are on the walls. I have not seen a kitchen with the same color. Most things are ordered, except for the glazed partitions for the basement and the new awnings. And all the small stuff remains to be ordered. Oh, and the lights to go above the staircase. I got nosebleed when I got a quote on the solution our designer suggested. I am having nightmares that the furniture will not arrive, that the truck with the furniture will be in an accident and the load is destroyed in a fire.

We finally decided what would go on the walls in the dining room. It will look really cool.

So much left to do. Hopefully not so long before opening.

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PR and marketing

One of the most difficult decisions to make was whether to hire a PR consultant or not. Everyone in London has told me that I had to have a PR consultant. Some has even suggested it is more important than the food, which I find hard to believe. I have met with some of the PR consultants that are used by London restaurants and I have to say that they have impressed me with their approach and at the speed of which they are able to get the press in quickly after opening. This enables a buzz build up, which fills reservation books. I have followed a couple of openings in London this year and it is clear that the quick success of some restaurants is due to a well working PR campaign.

All this comes at price, which is quite high. I can see that an opening like Pollen Street Social has to take out the whole brass band, considering that they have a £500,000.00 annual cost for rent and rates. Must feel like walking around in shoes of concrete and lead.

I have asked myself what I wanted to achieve with hiring a PR consultant. What was obvious to me was that I did not want to have the press marching in the first four weeks. It will simply not be as good as it will be later for a large number of reasons, including that I will not have a kitchen brigade that have been glued together. I will not have my produce sourcing in place. It will take a while before I am even remotely happy with what I am doing. I think that I will find chefs who claim they are firing on all cylinders after a few weeks from opening are simply full of bollocks.

I asked one PR consultant if I could hire them to stop the critics from coming the first two months. They looked at me as if I was joking. I wasn’t.

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Going natural or not?

We have hired the sommelier. He is French, like most people we have hired so far. He likes and knows natural wines, which is good because those wines are really fashionable these days. I like the idea of biodynamic wines that have been made with as little man made additives as possible. My philosophy on food is similar.  More and more restaurants claim they only put natural wines on their wine lists. From this would logically follow that also the food is made without additives or chemicals e t c. If the wine must be made with the natural yeasts to be eligible to go on the wine list, then so should for instance bread that is served be made without the addition of baker’s yeast and other additives that improve the texture of the bread. What about charcuteries that often contain nitrite? Much of wild seafood today is so contaminated by heavy metals that it could be argued that these too should not be served. Same for game. What about man made refined oils or fats? The manufacturing process of much or most of these is pretty questionable. The list is long.

What about farmed food that contains much too high levels of omega 6, an oil we already consume way too much of in the Western world? Should not this too be avoided?

Then there is the issue of only using sustainable produce. This is a pretty complicated issue since defining what is sustainable is pretty delicate.

What about using cooking methods that are “sustainable” in that they do not result in waste that is not degradable. One thing comes to mind, namely sous vide cooking. Even if I do not believe there is any danger in using the proper plastic bags at not too high temperatures, it can be argued that the use of plastic is questionable from a pollution point of view.

There are many other similar considerations.

Going natural with the wine list may be seen as hypocrisy unless everything else is is made with a “natural” approach.  Doing this would be a fun challenge, but it is a step I am not prepared to take yet. At least not until I have figured out where to draw the line. So for now there will also be some “chemical” wines on the wine list.

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Restaurant design

I really wanted to start writing about what makes great ingredients and why they are everything when making great food but there is so much going on right now that it will have to wait a few days.

The process of opening a restaurant has made me think of totally different aspects of the dining experience. It is great fun. When I decided to embark on this, well actually even after I decided to go for the premises in question, I thought I would not use an interior designer. Actually I thought I did not need one. Simply because I don’t really care much for the design and interior in restaurants when I eat out. I also thought that most restaurants (especially in London) are overly designed. Somehow I felt that by just applying some common sense I could create a space that would fit what I wanted to do, namely serve good food based on excellent ingredients in a fun and informal environment. Well, we got stuck. Hiring an established interior designer, who would cost a fortune, was not really an option. I have done it before and afterwards I said to myself, never ever again. I argued with my front of the house manager to be about whether we really needed help with this or not. I thought we didn’t. We found an interior designer who has worked with restaurant design and who wants to open his own business and needs reference projects. I was a bit skeptical at first. Not about that he could not do the job, but mainly for the reason that it would take so much time to make him understand what it was I wanted to do and if he would really come up with something useful. I was wrong. Not about the time it has taken to explain what I want to do, because that has consumed a lot of time. No, I was wrong about the usefulness of a designer. It is a must. Not only because the designer comes up with a lot of ideas, both good and bad, but because it has made me question what I want to do and why. For sure this process has been time consuming, but it has made us come closer to what I had in mind from the beginning. It will not be perfect. The size of the space, budget and time are important constraints that has resulted in compromises and shortcuts. It is still a building site and we have just done the plumbing for the new kitchen, but somehow I can feel what it will look like. I like it. Hopefully our guests will too.

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