Part Two: Behind closed doors

Ben Shewry, Neil Perry and Thomas Keller discuss the highs and lows of chef stardom.
Ben Shewry, Neil Perry and Thomas Keller discuss the highs and lows of chef stardom. Photo: Nick Cubbin

Question: A lot of different skills have to come together in order to run a restaurant and cook beautiful food. Do chefs have mentors and special gurus? (We note Blumenthal is clutching a copy of Bounce by Matthew Syed, described as "a gripping examination of the hidden forces that come together in the making of a champion". We also note that Grant Achatz named one of his two sons, Keller.)

Grant Achatz openly credits his time cooking with Thomas Keller with much of his success. “My foundation for what we've established at Alinea, Next and The Aviary came directly from Thomas,” he says. “Most people say that your second restaurant is your hardest one, and I remember going to Per Se in New York when it opened and thinking there is no way this will be as good as The French Laundry, And it was. So that gave me the confidence to open Next and Aviary at the same time.”

Neil Perry was fascinated by Achatz's revolutionary concept for his "permanent pop-up" restaurant Next, at which the menu, decor and music are completely replaced every three months.

"I had your first menu there, based on Paris in 1906 and it was extraordinary, an incredible experience,” says Perry. “And then to think that you then just turned it all around and did a menu based on Thailand. I'm really curious how you can do that.”

“How do you go from making blanquette de veau one month to tom yum soup the next and get your chefs to understand a whole different style of cooking?” asks Brett Graham.

“We have a team of three sous chefs, the head chef, myself and then what we call our research and development chef,” explains Achatz. “We get together at the least pressured moments during the day or late at night and plan out the whole year ahead of time. Then we have to plug it in.”

Ben Shewry then picks up on the mentoring subject. “I was pretty uptight when I started cooking, and my insecurity came from my inability to meet my own standards” says Ben Shewry. “So I would take it out on others. Then about four years ago I began to coach my son's basketball team, trying to control eight or nine six-year-olds without even knowing how to teach. I thought it was going to be so easy. I was so wrong.”

Doing it is very different to teaching it, he says, adding the on-going experience helped him learn a lot about his kitchen and his own attitude. The other chefs immediately wanted to know how the team is going.


“They won the season” he says with a grin. “They lost two games and both of those were when I was away.”

Lucky Peach magazine recently claimed 'if motherhood makes it difficult for women to become chefs, then fatherhood should make it difficult for men to become chefs.' Where are all the women, guys?

Keller: “Women have different agendas. I have a pastry chef who is 100 per cent committed, but she has also told me that in a couple of years she wants to have children. That's going to move her out of the restaurant, and it's always questionable if they want to come back, because your life changes and your priorities change when you have children.”

Perry: “Men and women generally want to take their roles in the rearing of the children differently. I've had several wives, and three children, and the mothers have a different attitude to bringing them up than I do.”

Shewry: “It has to be an individual choice.”

A chef could spend all year out of his own kitchen travelling the world to food events around the globe, from MAD Food Camp and Aspen Food & Wine to Omnivore, RAW, and the Melbourne Food & Wine Festival (and indeed, some chefs do.) Is it all getting out-of-hand?

“There are two types of events going on” says Keller. “One is purely charity, so we give ourselves freely. Then there are more profit-centred, food and wine events, which I don't agree with any more. They say “come do my event and you'll get publicity”. That worked 35 years ago when it was the only way to generate the publicity we needed to fill our restaurants. Look at musicians, they don't do an event for nothing. These kind of events need to acknowledge that they are making money, and that as the acts, chefs need to make money as well.”

You've all gone through some pretty hard yards before being successful. Was there ever a time when you felt you wouldn't make it?

“I started out at The Ledbury at 23 years old. I had never been a head chef, never been a sous chef, never written a menu, never written a roster,” says Brett Graham. “I owned none of the business at all. I was doing 14 services a week, and we weren't busy at all. Then I bought 10 per cent of the business for £20,000, it was still only turning over £35,000 a week maximum. Then a mate offered me a partnership in a failing pub (the Harwood Arms in Chelsea), free. We started turning it around, slowly, and making a profit.”

Blumenthal recounts what it was like when he first started in the business. “Everything lost money,” he said. “I didn't know about cash flow being more important than profit. I got on the plane on the Monday to go to Madrid Fusion in Spain, knowing that I didn't have the money to pay the wages on Friday. Luckily it was the week we got the third star, so everything changed.”

Last year, several American food critics described the degustation dinner as a form of torture, suggesting it creates a restaurant culture in which chefs are tyrants and diners have less and less choice. You all do degustation in your high-end restaurants, so how do you feel about that?

“You'd have to go and tell the Japanese that kaiseki is dead, then,” says Perry briskly. “They do kaiseki banquets every day.”

Heston Blumenthal explains his drive for a tasting menu was so that he could do simple dishes that had a big impact, like his now-famous orange and beetroot jellies. “What looks like the beetroot jelly is in fact blood orange, and what looks like orange jelly is in fact golden beetroot” he says. “It's clearly not something I can serve as a traditional course. The idea of a tasting menu is that you can create a story, an ebbing and flowing, with a beginning and an end.”

You can travel the globe and eat the same scallop with cauliflower puree everywhere you go, or you can seek out chefs who give you a taste of their specific place. Please discuss.

“I think when Rene Redzepi's Noma put Scandinavian food on the map, there was somehow this idea that modern cooking was dead, and that modern chefs didn't care about where their ingredients came from,” says Heston Blumenthal. “But every chef should look for the best ingredients he possibly can.”

“My opinion is that everybody should cook how they want to cook,” says Ben Shewry. “If we all cook the same, how dead boring is that?”

“I think there are a lot of different ways for restaurants to express themselves, and the media gets this right out of shape, telling us that we have to forage for our ingredients now” says Neil Perry. “Our personality at Rockpool Bar & Grill comes from using amazing, beautiful King George Whiting and Spencer Gulf prawns, and splitting a live Balmain bug in half and cooking it over charcoal.”

“The media constantly wants to write about what is new” says Thomas Keller. “'What are you doing next?' they ask. Stop asking the question. It's asinine. What's wrong with what I am doing today?”

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.