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Chef Brett Graham was born in Newcastle, Australia and started his career in a local fish restaurant aged just 15. After moving to Sydney to work at Banc restaurant, he won the Josephine Pignolet Young Chef of the Year Award and was soon on a plane to the UK, where he would find himself under the tutelage of Phil Howard at The Square in London.
In 2005, aged 25, he opened The Ledbury in Notting Hill, widely considered to be one of the UK’s finest restaurants, serving elegant and modern British fare, including venison from Graham’s own deer park in Oxfordshire. The Ledbury currently sits at number 27 on the World’s Best Restaurants list (it has reached as high as number 10), and has held two Michelin stars since 2012.
We caught up with Graham ahead of the Grand Finale of S.Pellegrino Young Chef 2018, which will be held in Milan from 11-13 May. Graham is one of the Seven Sages, the esteemed chefs jury that will ultimately choose the next S.Pellegrino Young Chef from the 21 international finalists.
How has the culinary landscape in London changed since you first opened The Ledbury?
There seem to be lots more restaurants everywhere. The restaurant scene here is so dynamic and there are so many different places. Some say London is now the best place to eat on the planet. 20 years ago, it definitely wasn’t!
You’ve largely resisted the trappings of celebrity chefdom – cookbooks, TV appearances, etc. – in favour of more time in the kitchen. Why is this important to you?
I committed myself to open the doors seven days a week, I make time for my family but anything else is a distraction. Those things are just not very high on my list of priorities.
What are your thoughts on the issues of chef welfare and work-life balance and how do you ensure your staff remains motivated?
The trade is difficult, and balance is something that you probably can’t achieve at this level. You just have to do your best. We are now working eight shifts a week, which means three doubles and two singles. It means some weeks you have four evenings off and some weeks four mornings off.
You’re a keen huntsman, how important do you think it is for chefs to have such a close connection to the produce?
Really important, especially respect for the protein and the amount of effort and grass that has gone into producing the protein we eat.
What do you think about what chefs are doing with indigenous ingredients back in your native Australia currently?
Brilliant, Australia is an amazing place to eat and so diverse. The use of native Australian produce gives the chefs another range of flavours to work with.
What advice would you offer to the young chefs in the S.Pellegrino Young Chef competition?
Look at what you like to eat and taste. It’s amazing how many young chefs I am constantly reminding to taste.
What do you remember as your biggest success and mistake as a young chef?
As a young chef being the Junior Sous Chef at The Square I loved working there and it was a huge achievement at 22-years-old. In the early days of The Ledbury I worked too hard and didn’t have the experience to delegate properly. It pushed me so hard it nearly broke me.
What do you think is/are the biggest issue/s facing the future of haute cuisine in general?
Rising prices and staff. I know its already getting hard in London but it won’t get easier anytime soon. Reducing hours will also make it difficult.
What’s next for you? Any news or plans you’d like to share?
Developing a herd of Japanese Sika that have zero input into the park and are fed on spent grain. They are the Wagyu of the deer world, but don’t need to be intensively grain fed to produce a great result.