Nothing beats beetroot from top of the world

Nick Miller
Fresh, flavourful and seasonal: Brett Graham in the kitchen of his award-winning restaurant The Ledbury in Notting Hill.
Fresh, flavourful and seasonal: Brett Graham in the kitchen of his award-winning restaurant The Ledbury in Notting Hill. Photo: Helen Maybanks

It's not that Brett Graham isn't grateful about his restaurant being named, again, one of the best in the world. Really, he is.

But today, what he's really excited about is beetroot.

It's just about to come into season.

"I'm hoping it'll come in the next couple of days," he says, on a sunny spring morning outside his Notting Hill restaurant The Ledbury.

"Because the cherry blossoms are out and I want to do something with the cherry blossoms and rhubarb and beetroot, and maybe smoked eel."

The Ledbury, it was announced this week, has been bumped up to lucky number 13 on the S. Pellegrino list of the world's 50 best restaurants.

Born and bred in Australia, Graham, 34, started working in a small fish restaurant in Newcastle. Now he's consistently ranked among London's elite, alongside revered names such as Heston Blumenthal.

But the contrast to the wizard of The Fat Duck couldn't be more obvious.

Graham, who buzzes with energy and blunt Aussie pragmatism, has made his reputation with his love of, and obsession with, his ingredients.

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His restaurant is smart-casual rather than formal. And when it comes to the food, fresh, flavourful, seasonal and local are his bywords.

"Asparagus in England at this time of year is unbelievable," he says. "Someone says to me 'oh, you've got white asparagus and green asparagus on the same menu'. I say 'yeah, that's what's in season'. What do you want to do, use a red pepper from the other side of the world?

You get the sense it would be hard to be a supplier to The Ledbury. He wants the best cuts of meat, even specifying which end of a particular cut. If a supplier has ten incredible cuts, and one that is merely good, he'll send that one back.

But you don't get the sense that he's tyrant in the kitchen. "He's OK, he's a bit of a dreamer, you know," confides one cook.

It's cool to tease the boss. But you can feel the respect. They're proud of their top-50 status and their two Michelin stars (a Michelin rep was in the restaurant again this week and spent an hour in the kitchen, interrogating Graham on what has changed in the past year).

Graham can't point to anything particularly Australian about his approach. His childhood food was microwave vegetables and "overcooked topside steak from Coles" (his mum hates it when he says that). But he remembers going to work at the kitchen of Forty One in Sydney as a very young cook and being blown away by the attention to detail.

He came to London 13 years ago and didn't like it at first.

Unfortunately for Newcastle he met his now-wife, Natalie. And he found work at The Square, where chef Philip Howard first mentored him, then partnered him in The Ledbury venture as his fame grew.

Offers keep coming in for TV shows or books. "People ask why haven't I done a book. It's because I am not doing a book, I'm doing this." He gestures at the restaurant.

"There's no grand plan. Just keep improving The Ledbury. I'm not interested in having a restaurant on the other side of the world.

"You make people happy. I think people enjoy their lunch here. And it's the process of cooking. A whole lamb might come in, and a big bunch of wild garlic, and you've got a bucket of water, and you make your stock out of all the bones, and you pickle the garlic down and make a puree.

"And you've got a little bit of fresh curd you've made yourself, a little scoop of that, some herbs and olives. And there you go. You've got yourself a dish. You haven't taken the lid off anything. You've started with nothing but the raw ingredients and a bucket of water, and I think that's what gives me satisfaction."