Dishing the dirt: What culinary superstars discuss behind closed doors

Thomas Keller lunches at Rockpool Bar & Grill with other top chefs.
Thomas Keller lunches at Rockpool Bar & Grill with other top chefs. Photo: Nick Cubbin

What do the greatest chefs on the planet talk about when they get together? Ingredients? Fast cars? Other chefs? We locked six of them in a room and plied them with Rockpool Bar & Grill's finest food and wine to find out.

Present were Thomas Keller, of Per Se in New York and The French Laundry in California; Grant Achatz, of Alinea, Next and the Aviary in Chicago; Ben Shewry, of Attica in Melbourne; Brett Graham, of The Ledbury and Harwood Arms in London; Neil Perry, of the Rockpool group; and Heston Blumenthal, of The Fat Duck, Dinner by Heston Blumenthal and The Hinds Head in Britain.

Between them, they hold 18 Michelin stars and 19 Good Food Guide hat awards, and their restaurants currently rate at numbers 7, 11, 13, 15, 21, 33 and 47 in the World's 50 Best list.

But enough with the numbers. Talking to chefs at this level is not just about bums on seats, payroll tax and profit margins. It's about a degree of excellence that only they can measure.

When they're not discussing the imperatives of staff training (a recurring theme) or dissing the food media (another recurring theme), guess what they're really getting down and dirty about?

Heston Blumenthal.
Heston Blumenthal. Photo: Nick Cubbin

Yep, their smartphones. We figured you didn't need to know what they think of Apple's new iOS7 operating system, so here's what else they had to say.

What makes six of the world's top chefs drop what they're doing and travel halfway around the world for no money and lots of hard slog to do a one-off dinner for the Starlight Foundation?

''These events are about camaraderie and friendship,'' says Keller, who has now cooked at The Ultimate Dinner five times.


''We hardly ever get to see each other, so when Neil [Perry] calls and says, 'Are you interested?', your initial reaction is 'yes'.''

Blumenthal admits he gets bombarded with offers and requests every day. ''It's difficult. You have to say no to people,'' he says. ''But it's important, if we gain benefit from this industry, to give something back. On a selfish note, it's a great opportunity to spend some time together, and the pleasure you get, helping the kids.''

These are some crazy lives you lead, attending food events all over the world, flying first-class, staying in luxurious hotels, filming TV shows. Tough life, huh?

Grant Achatz and Ben Shewry.
Grant Achatz and Ben Shewry. Photo: Nick Cubbin

''I'm always jet-lagged,'' says Australian expatriate Graham. So is Achatz, having just flown from a chef gathering in Japan to Chicago for three days, before turning around and flying to Sydney.

Blumenthal's life is probably the craziest, what with the scientific collaborations, television shows, supermarket consultancies and catering for the odd monarch or two.

''I met Queen Elizabeth once when I received my OBE,'' he name-drops disarmingly.

Neil Perry.
Neil Perry. Photo: Nick Cubbin

''Then I was making ice-cream with liquid nitrogen for her at an exhibition of the Royal Institution of Great Britain. Some nitrogen splashed over the bowl and she jumped back and said, 'Gosh'. There was a big photo of her jumping back and everyone told me I would lose my OBE.'' He didn't. In fact, he ended up being asked by Prince Phillip to cater for the household's Christmas party.

At this level of fine dining, you need a dedicated team working in your best interests. How many staff are you each responsible for?

Perry: ''About 600. We have $1.4 million in payroll tax for the benefit of giving people the job. Isn't that awesome?''

Brett Graham.
Brett Graham. Photo: Nick Cubbin

Blumenthal: ''I only have 350.''

Achatz: ''200.''

Graham: ''60.''

Shewry: ''23. That's including me.''

Keller: ''About 1000, give or take.''

For Keller, three things are important about staff. ''First, you have to hire the right people. Then you have to train them. When I was a young cook, that was an arbitrary two-week period. It's like saying to a child, 'You need to learn how to swim and, if you drown, tough shit, you didn't learn'. In reality, everyone is different.

''The third part is mentoring, which is not so much about your job, it's about your life. The result of doing those things correctly is what?''

The silence around the table in the private dining room is like day one in the classroom, with nobody quite confident enough to answer his question.

''The result is that that person is better than you are,'' he says. ''That's the ultimate goal.''

The image of a chef used to be that of a screaming, ranting martinet for whom everything has to be perfect. Hands up who screams and rants.

For the record, no hands go up.

''I was trained by French chefs in New Zealand, very angry ones,'' says Shewry.

''One of my biggest motivations for trying to do well as a chef was being told that I was shit, constantly. I never believed that, but it was definitely motivation.''

Graham, too, worked under a tough chef when he started. ''It meant that later, when I had my back to the wall and was struggling for customers at 23 years old, I was also very hard,'' he says. ''There was a lot of shouting. We've completely changed that culture now, and I feel amazingly better for it.''

Keller agrees. ''I've had experiences where I've got very emotional,'' he says.

''Every time I did it, I ended up feeling bad and would apologise. Now, I think the most powerful thing you can say to somebody is, 'I'm really disappointed in you'.''

A collective shiver runs silently across each person gathered around the table at the thought.

How down are you with what's up on social media?

Blumenthal may be notorious for pushing the edges of technology and sanity with his fantastical food creations, but he's not that into new media.

''I don't do Twitter. I don't have Facebook. I never look at comments,'' he says.

Perry is active on social media. Of Instagram, he says, ''Suddenly, you're eating in the best restaurants in the world through your eyes.''

''We use a lot of social media,'' says Achatz, ''when we're hiring, whether its Facebook or Twitter, to get applicants to email and respond.

''We probably get a different demographic due to the nature of our cuisine, the fact that we run a bar and everyone in the company is under 40.''

''Don't worry, Grant,'' says Perry. ''They'll all grow old with you.''

''You'll get older,'' says Keller. ''They'll stay the same age.''

What's more important: food, service or the whole experience?

''I would say that today service is more important than the food,'' says Blumenthal.

''If front-of-house is arrogant and the customer gets that bitter taste, it doesn't matter what you put in the food, it's bitter.

''The kitchen might f--- up, but if the service is human, then, my God, people will forgive you.''

''It's called hospitality,'' chips in Perry, ''hospitality and generosity - and timing. Great waiters know when to get in, when to get out and when not to approach.''

''One of the worst signs of service is to be asked, 'How was that?''' says Blumenthal. ''It's so wrong. It's inviting you to lie. I hate that.''

Just how important are Michelin stars and chefs' hats? Come on, you know you love 'em.

''Accolades for me are a double-edged sword,'' says Achatz. ''I think they have value, one for putting guests in the seats, and two for the cooks and front-of-house. But I think it would be really disappointing for the team to start losing stars.''

''I don't think we go to work to earn stars,'' says Keller. ''We go to work because we love our work. When you reach a certain level, the accolades reinforce what you are doing, but let's face it, everything that is written about you is written about what you did yesterday. I want to concentrate on what we're doing today and what we're doing tomorrow.''

''They can change your business,'' says Perry, ''but they don't change your attitude to why you get out of bed in the morning.''

''When a chef speaks, people listen. When a chef does, people follow,'' said West Coast chef Roy Choi on stage at MAD Food Camp 3 in Copenhagen.

Do chefs really have the power to change public opinion?

''It's an extraordinary situation to be in,'' says Perry. ''Back in the 1970s, I didn't think I would be able to send an email to Tony Abbott and say 'We need to talk about immigration', and get a letter back saying they can meet me on this or that day. So chefs have a view on not just food but a lot of layers of the country.''

This generates a discussion about how chefs should have a unified voice that establishes their point of view on industry issues.

''The medical industry, for instance, publishes research papers, and changes the way in which medicine is looked at and performed,'' says Keller. ''We don't have that, and so our views are left to be interpreted by the press.''

Everybody gets a bum rap, sometimes

When Brett Graham turns the tables and asks his fellow chefs to name their worst review, the responses range from the mild to the horric.

Grant Achatz: ''We had Frank Bruni, of the New York Times, in the first night we opened - literally, the first night. A week later, they ran a feature article with a great big photo of a dish we did, with Bruni saying that it tasted like dog food.''

Ben Shewry: ''It was the first year of Attica, and we didn't have enough money for pots and pans or plates. My sous chef was on the fish when The Age Good Food Guide came in. We got a great review and a chef's hat, but there was one line that read: 'Sometimes overcooks fish'. It was like a knife in the heart.''

Neil Perry: ''I hate it when you've just opened a very big restaurant and you're under the pump, and a reviewer says something like: 'But the service can be a bit haphazard'. That hurts me. I hate that.''

Thomas Keller: ''The first night we opened The French Laundry, we didn't have a saute pan. We were trying to saute in a pot. My then sous chef, Ron Siegel, later wrote in Food & Wine magazine that it felt like the Titanic.''

Heston Blumenthal: ''I once had three reviews in a batch of papers on one weekend. One of them carried a picture of my dish and a great big headline: 'The salmon with licorice was actively disgusting'.''

Brett Graham: ''When [the late] Michael Winner reviewed us for The Times, he wrote that it was very hard to find a car park near The Ledbury and suggested knocking it down and turning into a car park, because a car park is useful and this restaurant isn't. I was absolutely gutted.''

  • Part two of this interview can be found here.

The chefs

Grant Achatz
Head chef of Alinea in Chicago and the foremost progressive chef in the US, founder of The Aviary cocktail bar and pop-up restaurant Next.

Neil Perry
Australia's original "celebrity chef", Neil Perry has built an empire around his flagship three-hat restaurant Rockpool, winning more chef's hats that any other chef in the history of the Good Food Guide.

Thomas Keller
Chef and owner of Per Se in New York (No.11 on the Worlds 50 Best list), The French Laundry (No.47), Bouchon and Ad Hoc in Yountville, California, Bouchon in Las Vegas, Nevada, and two Bouchon Bakeries, he's also the author of four award-winning cookbooks.

Ben Shewry
Chef and co-owner of Attica restaurant in Melbourne, rated No.21 on the Worlds 50 Best list, and holder of 3 chef hats in The Age Good Food Guide, which this year named Attica Restaurant of The Year, and Ben Chef of The Year.

Brett Graham
A proud son of Newcastle and one-time winner of the Josephine Pignolet Young Chef Award, Brett now has two Michelin stars for The Ledbury in London's Notting Hill and 1 star for the Harwood Arms pub.

Heston Blumenthal
In 2005, The Fat Duck in Bray was voted No.1 in the world's 50 best. Today it sits at No.33 with three Michelin stars while Dinner by Heston Blumenthal is No.7 with two Michelin stars, and his "local pub" The Hinds Head in Bray has 1 Michelin Star.