The Marriott County Hall Hotel’s executive chef Gareth Bowen is keen to both improve connections across the fresh food supply chain and mentor the next big chefs. Produce Business UK caught up with the 3 AA Rosette-winning chef ahead of his cookery demonstration at the London Produce Show and Conference 2015 (LPS15) to find out how he plans to achieve his feat
If there was ever a chef with a lot on his plate, it’s Gareth Bowen. But despite having to oversee County Hall Hotel’s five outlets, 200 rooms and six floors spanning from Westminster to Waterloo every day, the executive chef still kindly found time for us in between his daily procurement tasks and walk of the hotel, where all aspects involving food are checked.
“I find it hard to pick what I love the most about my job,” reflects Bowen, who has spent 17 years working his way up in Michelin-starred and AA Rosette-winning restaurants and hotels. “My average day starts at the hotel at about 7.30am and mainly involves walking the whole hotel, reviewing the product, checking-in with head chefs and reading through menus, as well as sourcing. I think the best thing is being able to step back and see the teams building, the brigade gelling and their skills improving in a very busy day-to-day working environment.”
From country to kitchen
A great believer in good ingredients and cooking in tune with the seasons, Bowen describes his ascent into catering as “almost subliminal” after growing up “eating well” with a very good cook for a mother and a father who regularly shot rabbits and birds on local land to bring home for supper.
“Where I was brought up, the seasons and good food were intrinsic to life,” explains the New Forest-born chef, whose favourite dish on the menu at County Hall at the moment is an embodiment of spring going into summer: pan-fried turbot with asparagus, Jersey Royal potatoes and wild spring mushrooms.
“It’s a great time for a chef when spring starts and you come out the doldrums of root vegetables and to the excitement of Jersey Royals and some great seafood. Nine times out of 10, what’s in season marries well on the plate.”
Bowen’s parents encouraged him to follow a career in cookery after loving working at a local Italian restaurant, running the pizza and pasta sections, during the weekends of his A-Level studies. Then at 21 years old, after spending years within the London restaurant and hotel circuit, Bowen decided to take the plunge by sussing out the work scene in Bermuda, amid rumours of high quality food and exciting seafood.
“As Anton Mosimann once said: you are constantly an apprentice as a chef,” points out Bowen. “And Bermuda was one of my steepest learning curves. I sent out CVs to five or six hotels, and got an outright sous chef job offer from one of the leading hotels in the world, the Southampton Princess, and I was off. I moved out there knowing no one. The chefs were predominantly German in the kitchen where I worked. The pace was completely different and the sheer multitude of multifaceted skills was daunting.”
But Bowen knew he had taken the right career path when, in 1999, his ex-executive chef Jon Clarke called him up for his first big role in a large kitchen: the then brand-new Hennessey Fine Dining Restaurant.
“My life just suddenly changed in one phone call and I opened up the restaurant,” explains Bowen, who spent three years in the role, bringing the standard up to 3 AA Rosettes. “It was always my drive to get those most coveted accolades and at the time the Rosettes meant we were considered within the top 3-4% of restaurants in the UK. It was well and truly a pat on the back.”
His passion for fine dining, seasons and good quality food means Bowen takes on the colossal task of sourcing all the goods needed for the entire County Hall with vigour.
“I am very first-hand and when you run a steak and grill restaurant [called Gillray’s within County Hall] there is no room for error and the meat has to be the best standard,” says the chef, who oversees and works together with each head chef at County Hall on the venue’s constantly evolving menus.
“But this applies to every other food item. We have a great man called Dan from First Choice at New Covent Garden Market, who keeps us in the know, whether it’s on the phone or through media streams via photos of produce coming in.
Bowen claims sourcing fresh fruit and vegetables felt easier when he first started as a chef. “Purchasing systems have made it more complicated and that has taken away the love of ordering and talking to people,” he explains. “The key is being able to go to the market and speak to the people who are passionate. It’s important and I see my relationships with suppliers as an extension to my brigade.”
Chef on show
In true foraging style, Bowen has decided to use the fresh fruit and veg available at the London Produce Show and Conference 2015 on the day of his cooking demonstration where he will prepare his dish in front of industry representatives, journalists and students. Having attended last year, he knows exactly what to expect from the exhibition floor and is keen to find all things interesting and new.
“I visit growers two or three times a quarter,” says Bowen, who is hosting his cookery demonstration together with co-worker Marriott chef Matthew Budden. Both are looking forward to showing what the Marriott Group can do.
“It’s good to be involved in the supply chain and sometimes inadvertently link up people. The guy who produces the cheese we use also has a great sideline of organic pumpkins and squash. I know my cheese wholesaler will pick up the cheese from him, so I’ve asked him to pick up the squash as well to bring to the hotel. I’m happy to go out and find the new products and suppliers myself, and then work with wholesalers who can facilitate that.”
Making it clear that he is like many chefs of his generation who started their careers by “falling into it”, Bowen is looking forward to working alongside the LPS15’s Westminster Kingsway College students who, as part of a special programme, will assist the chef and others cooking throughout the day on the demonstration stage.
“Your aims as a chef change quite considerably as you mature,” Bowen muses, who thinks LPS15 is a great tool for chefs and anyone involved in food. “At first, it’s all about proving yourself and achieving accolades and notoriety. Then it’s time to encourage others and ensure your brigade gets the chance to do that too by giving them a chance. Anyone who works in the kitchens at County Hall gets mentored by me – and it’s great when a young chef walks in with a real spark. The journey starts all over again for another budding chef.”