November 2011

The Nation Reviewed

London calling

By MJ Hyland
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.
Dining at the Ledbury

On 8 August, during the London riots, Brett Graham’s restaurant, The Ledbury, was invaded by looters. “There were 30 of them and they outnumbered the customers,” Graham told me. They used bricks to smash the front door and threatened diners with broken glass, robbed necklaces, watches and mobile phones, and used baseball bats to destroy the innards of the dining room; tables, chairs, plates and wine bottles were all wrecked. When the first gang left, another took its place. During the second attack, the diners hid in the wine cellar and the sous chef and head waiter bolted the doors.

Ten days later, while Graham’s staff were still clearing up the mess, The Ledbury was named ‘Best in London’ by Harden’s London Restaurants 2012. This prestigious award, coupled with two Michelin stars, puts the 32-year-old Australian at the head of the pack.

Brett Graham grew up in Williamtown, “a small town outside of Newcastle”, the kind of place where houses “don’t have fences between them” and the only restaurant “was a Chinese where we went for my dad’s Christmas do … and one place where you could have fish and chips and sit down”. Graham’s mum worked for a pharmaceutical company and his dad sold tractors and other supplies in his agricultural shop.

Graham “loved animals and farming and gardening” and he made pocket money selling his chickens’ eggs. He had no experience with cooking other than “making pizzas with frozen bases and things out of tins” with his dad on Sunday nights. One day “an old bloke across the road” showed him how to kill and cook a chicken and Graham “really enjoyed the whole process of it” and “the creativity of it”. He read books about raising chickens, incubation methods, the “right kind of grasses to feed [them] and stuff like that”.

At 15, Graham signed up for two weeks’ work experience at Scratchley’s on the Wharf. He was “hooked right from the start” and fascinated by how food was made. “How come cooked crabs are red? And why do they go blue sometimes? I loved everything about problem-solving in the kitchen.”

Graham had spent three days at Scratchley’s “sittin’ down by the edge of the water, gutting fish and scaling them off” when his boss, Neil Slater, offered him a full-time job. Graham said, “Yeah, this is where I’m meant to be.”

When he was 18, he left for Sydney by invitation to work at the fine-dining restaurant Banc. The work was “hellish” and the pay was “really crap”. Graham thought vin rouge was ‘vin roogie’ and hadn’t a clue what rien avant meant (mains only). “I rented a one-bedroom flat in Kings Cross and I was clueless.” At Banc, chefs worked 100-hour weeks under the kind of pressure that makes grown men sick. “Thirty-five chefs came and went in the first six months”, but Graham lasted two-and-a-half years. He loved being in the kitchen. When he was 21, he won the Josephine Pignolet Award and a free trip to London. With the exception of holidays, he hasn’t been back since.

I recently spent four hours at The Ledbury, which Zagat has awarded 29 out of 30 for food. The dining room is small: there are only 16 tables. The lighting is subdued and warm, the atmosphere much like eating in a rich friend’s home. The back wall is mirrored, and steel-grey drapes hang neat and sharp. The white leather chairs are straight-backed and white cotton percale tablecloths hang to the floor. Behind the bar, which is hidden behind a nook, a sommelier held wine glasses up to the light, slowly, one by one, to make sure they were clean. He wasn’t doing this for show. He didn’t know I could see his reflection in the mirror.

The head waiter said: “You can choose from the menu, or let Brett design a taster menu and surprise you.” I chose to be surprised and I was. The food was staggeringly good. Among the many dishes: a foie gras tartlet, bacon brioche, hand-dived scallops with seaweed, grilled mackerel with avocado, saddle of roe deer baked in Douglas fir, bone marrow and dried blackcurrant and, for dessert, figs with ewe’s-milk yoghurt, fig leaf ice-cream and citrus beignets, a brown sugar tart with muscat grapes, and stem ginger ice-cream. The food was unfussy and flawless and so was the service.

At half eleven, Graham came out of the kitchen to meet me. His head waiter, like a devoted butler, brought his boss a beer, and gave me another plate of chocolate treats. I had guessed the kind of man Graham was likely to be based on the tone of his emails. When I wrote to confirm, he replied, “Cool banana.” Everything about his tone had convinced me he was not the kind of celebrity chef whose ego and desire for fame dictates all decisions.

Many food critics wonder why Graham’s two–Michelin starred restaurant doesn’t demand the sky-high prices of equivalent restaurants. Many wonder why Graham hasn’t made it onto TV. I was pretty sure I already had the answer: I expected I’d meet a generous and laid-back guy, gifted, passionate, but not a megalomaniac. I was right. We spoke for over an hour, and when Graham said, “I’m quite a generous person by nature,” I’d already seen the proof. When he said, “I really look after my customers,” I knew this was true. “I try to exceed expectations. It’s not just cooking, it’s hospitality.” And I knew this was also true.

Graham told me that he’s often “bloody exhausted” and, for the first time in his life, he’s feeling the rotten wear of the work. He gets up at 6 am and often works till after midnight. He lives in Richmond, a lovely part of London, with his fiancée, an occupational therapist, but Richmond is a 45 minute drive from Notting Hill. When I asked what bothers him, bugs him, makes him angry, he said: “The bloody traffic.” Is that all? “Yeah, I think so.”

Although he’d been “performing service till the last customer was fed at half ten”, he sat with me as though he had all the time in the world. He talked about being a chef the way a real artist talks about their work, with monumental intensity, banging the table with the near-empty bottle of beer when he got excited. His work-wrecked shoulders only relaxed when he talked about “falling asleep on the couch in front of the telly”, taking a holiday with his fiancée (a future time when he “could get some balance … with no mobile phones or laptops”), the fun he has with his “wonderful, wonderful dog, Winston”, his chickens and quails, and going deer-stalking. “So, what are you doing on the weekend?” I asked. “Duck-shooting. We’ll probably cook and eat them down there in Suffolk.”

MJ Hyland
MJ Hyland is an award-winning novelist. Her books include How Light Gets In, the 2006 Man Booker-shortlisted Carry Me Down and This is How. @mj_hyland

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