Interviewed June 2011
Bryan Webb is chef/patron of the Michelin starred Tyddyn Llan in north Wales, after establishing his reputation at Hilaire in London in the 1990s.
Q – How long have you been cooking professionally?
I left school in 1975 on the Friday after sitting my last O level exam and started in the kitchen of the Crown at Whitebrook the next day picking spinach, peeling potatoes and washing up, so that adds up to 36 years.
Q – Where did you train to cook?
It was at the Crown, Sonia Blech was a self taught cook, she showed me the basics, I was amazed how she chopped an onion at first. It was working with Sonia that I developed a passion for food and the restaurant business, it was the Blech’s that took me to eat in my first proper restaurant. The Crown was a great place and the food served was rated with a Michelin star, dishes like sweetbreads in brioche, steak with peppercorn sauce, salmon with chives and cucumber, good classic cooking. After two years I moved to the Drangway restaurant in Swansea, where Colin Pressdee prepared the most fantastic fresh fish straight from the boats; bass, turbot, lobster, crabs and crawfish, oysters and clams were kept in tanks and of course there was always Welsh beef and lamb on the menu. It was here I learnt so much about seafood. I had the chance at 20 years of age to work as a first commis chef at the Waterside in Bray but rightly or wrongly I turned it down, but in the same year won the William Heptinstall Award and spent three months working at 3 top places in France. By 1983 my head was too big for my boots so I packed myself off to Scotland to work alongside Ken Mcphee were he had spent many years working with Miss Shaw at the then famous Inverlochy Castle. Ken knocked me down to size and showed me how to cook more methodically, I enjoyed two years in Scotland but in 1985 three months before my 25th birthday London was calling and I took a head chef’s job at a restaurant in the city called Café Rouge, (nothing to-do with the chain) the owner Danny Murphy wanted a good highly rated restaurant and would buy the best ingredients, something’s that I had not seen before; such as wild mushrooms, foie gras and fresh tuna, so it was books and teach yourself from there on, books that were constantly in use were Michel Guerérd’s Cuisine Gourmande, Cuisine of the Sun by Roger Vergé, Anton Mosimann’s Cuisine à Carte and New Classic Cuisine by the Roux brothers (maybe I should have gone to the Waterside). Within 6 months Mr Murphy got his good restaurant as Café Rouge entering the Good Food Guide with a rating of 13/20.
Q – How would you describe your style of cooking?
I love good quality ingredients, only the best will do and from that point the menu is built, I have cooked this simple ingredient based food for over twenty years, the first five years of running my own kitchen my style was all over the place, chopping and changing from this trend and that but now it’s my straight forward cooking, keeping as simple as possible but with great flavour, simple presentation so that it looks that it’s not been messed around with.
Q – Is there a secret for a successful restaurant?
The simple answer is no. How many restaurant come and go, when we were in London it always amazed me how much money would be thrown at a new opening, become the hottest ticket in town, to find a year later to be closed down waiting for another wad of cash to be thrown at it. The restaurants that I know something about are small intimate places mostly run with a husband and wife team, back in the eighties and early nineties there were many around in London and I am proud that my time at Hilaire lasted 14 years, but with rents always on the increase and the trend for restaurants for seating at least a hundred customers there are now hardly any special small restaurants left. But to last that long at Hilaire and the nine years we have under our belt at Tyddyn Llan its mostly down to hard work, I cook from the heart and what I like and for the customers that comes through my door, I don’t cook for the guides, when I hear a Chef say he is aiming for a Michelin star I think that is bullshit, cook good food and if it’s good enough you may be rewarded, ok it took me 20 years but I stayed in business. But along the way I have discovered you cannot please everyone, while customers may love my simple approach to food others may expect all singing and dancing on a plate and have left disappointed, but stick to what you know and love.
Q – Do you have a “signature dish” or favourite dish you enjoy cooking?
Bass with laverbread, scallops with vegetable relish and steak “au poivre” are always on the menu and I never get tired of cooking them. I love making terrines and fiddly dishes like pig’s trotters and belly pork stuffed with black pudding when I have time and the kitchen is quiet.
Q – Do you have a favourite ingredient?
As long as all the produce is top notch I am happy with everything, but salt and butter I could not live without, and with some good olive oil and lemon you can lift a dish. I also love Orzo tinned tuna for sandwiches and salads for our supper.
Which restaurant do you most enjoy eating at on your night off?
Living where we do there are no good places without at least an hour’s drive, but I like lunch at the brassiere in the Chester Grosvenor when we are out shopping. Otherwise it’s a night away, my favourite place is the Walnut Tree near Abergavenny, I have been going there as long as I have been cooking and celebrated all my big birthdays there, also Steve Terry’s Hardwick pub, and if I was in London, either Chez Bruce, Koffmann’s or lunch at Sally Clark’s.
What is your most interesting or fun experience from your time in restaurants?
Over the years everything seemed to have happened to us from a customer having a heart attack on a very busy Saturday night, being held at gun point after service and numerous occasions cooking by candle light with no extraction due to power cuts, all of this at Hilaire. At Tyddyn Llan recently the kitchen porter was handcuffed, arrested and taken away during service with no one to do the washing up except me. The rush and adrenaline of a busy service is always good fun as long as everything falls into place and there are no hiccups in the restaurant, every service is different and some have their moments but whatever is said; all forgotten at the end. The most fun was in-between Hilaire and Tyddyn Llan, when we were unemployed and unemployable, Susan and I had a bet who could get a job first, she won and I ended up at hotel where weddings were a big event and I could see all the problems the owners was having; been there got the tee shirt, but it was not my problem this time and I could go to bed with no worries.
What would be your “last request” dish?
Roast grouse with bread sauce and game chips, and if not in season Steak “au poivre” with chips and a green salad.
Is there another chef that you most admire?
There are lots, Franco Taruschio when he was at the Walnut Tree was always tops as is Shaun Hill who now runs the show, and I have always looked up to Simon Hopkinson, Alistair Little, Rowley Leigh and Sally Clark.
Any advice you would give to someone wanting to become a chef?
Make sure you are doing it for the right reasons, that is you love food and are passionate eating and breathing restaurants as this is a hospitality industry, so no more weekends out. Don’t become a chef to become the next Jamie Oliver or Gordon Ramsay; being a chef is not about being on TV it’s about what you cook in your kitchen and be prepared, its dammed hard work and very long hours.
Any final thoughts you’d like to add?
I think I have said enough, but personally I hope to still be here at Tyddyn Llan for a few years yet and once we have paid the bank we can enjoy it even more.