A Michelin-starred chef for 12 years, The West House’s owner and executive chef Graham Garrett is a man of many talents and tales. Here, the rock-star-turned-restaurateur east-end London boy tells Produce Business UK how he ended up in Kent, what fresh produce trends and dining destinations make him tick and why communication with suppliers and growers is the most important thing for chefs
Journalists like to hone in on Graham Garrett’s drummer past. Having been in 1970s glam rock band The Dumb Blondes and toured all over the world by the time he was 30, it’s a little more interesting than discovering you’re a dab hand at making soufflés as a teenager, I admit.
But as soon as I pull up outside the quintessentially English wattle-and-daub The West House in the tiny village of Biddenden in Kent and make my way round the back to a busy prepping kitchen, ironically booming out the tunes, my culinary excitement takes over.
Inside it’s a modern fusion of Tudor and boho-chic, with an open fire and lightbulbs hanging from the low beams that a mad scientist would be happy with, which Garrett later tells me is a happy coincidence of bringing practical tastes into a listed 16th-Century building.
Swapping and changing between a love of music and food throughout his life, Garrett was always torn between the two career paths, with one passion always bubbling away in the background of the other. But whichever discipline he followed received his whole heart and soul.
“I didn’t just want to do a job – it had to be the real deal: a career,” explains Garrett, who runs the 32-cover restaurant with his wife and business partner, Jackie. “You have to constantly evolve in life and move with the times. When it comes to catering, you have to be the David Bowie of restaurants.”
Swinging with the changes
With the constant maintenance of a Michelin star for over a decade in the same place, it seems he has managed just that. “You can’t set out for accolades; it shouldn’t work like that,” answers the chef when I ask him how it’s done. “Being a chef is a lifestyle. You think about food all the time and you get excited by produce – you are looking out for the best eggs and asparagus in your everyday life and you don’t even realise it.
“It also helps if you love the restaurant scene – I go to see my mates in London and eat around. I regularly make sure my chefs experience it too. I recently took my head chef Ben to Barcelona for the day to go to a food festival in San Sebastian and whenever I go to the US, it has to be via New York. As far as I am concerned, New York is the place to go for cutting-edge food and you pick up so many ideas that you can work on yourself. It used to be France, but the country has become set in its ways and so traditional. In European terms, Spain has forged ahead and is taking centre stage. They kick France’s ass now!”
Garrett’s culinary career started when he made his way onto a course at Westminster Kingsway College and after years of cooking at home and experiencing food from all over the world thanks to years touring with the Dumb Blondes, he set about getting work experience at restaurants in London, eventually working with Richard Corrigan and taking a head chef role at The House. Deciding it was time to make it on his own, his idea was to take on a pub in Kent – away from the pressure of London – but ended up falling in love with The West House restaurant property, and championing the seasons and local food.
Steadfastly fluid in his art, Garrett having once been quoted as ‘ruthlessly seasonal’, has had time to reflect. “When you work with the seasons, it practically writes the menu for you,” says Garrett, who believes that a close relationship with your suppliers and producers is much more effective than a seasonality chart on the kitchen wall.
“Weather dictates and seasons go awry – you can’t demand something because it should be in season, you have to communicate. Some people can go too far on the local issue. You can go to eat somewhere and everything – down to the bottled water – is local and sometimes it’s not the best quality. I now concentrate on the best quality you can find and if it is grown locally, then brilliant.”
It’s no mistake that Garrett has ended up in the garden of England, with Kentish strawberries, apples and asparagus aplenty on his doorstep and the coastline not too far away. But the chef makes it clear that it still takes work. “You have to talk to your suppliers every day and know what’s short,” he says. “You can’t cook good food without a good supplier, so your relationship with them is the most important thing. I came out of London so I could write a daily menu and go to the markets myself. You have to ask yourself, what am I inspired by today?”
Prepare to be inspired
Looking for a good show where new and exciting fresh produce is on offer, Garrett has high hopes for the London Produce Show and Conference (LPS15) at the Grosvenor House hotel on June 3-5. He will be cooking up a storm in the demonstration kitchen; demonstrating pressed lamb bacon with lamb sweetbreads with a salad of seasonal and interesting products foraged from the show exhibitors on the day.
That said, Garrett thinks that actual foraging has gone too far. “Wild garlic and nettles have become so popular, and we do buy from a forager, but we have evolved – we have airfreight and I’m just not interested in things like Japanese knotweed, as it tastes horrible,” he says. “Foraging used to be unique and a point of difference, but it’s disappointing how it has become so commonplace.”
Garrett is also keen on encouraging new chef talent at LPS15. Having got the cane after showing his interest in “being a rock star” at school, he originally turned to cookery as a first career, but was dissuaded by his father due to its unmanly image at the time.
“You have to invest time in students and improve their relationships with future suppliers,” he says. “Students shouldn’t be just following the ‘right’ chefs on Twitter, they should be out in the fields, tasting peas in their pods and getting a feel for great, fresh food. We all need to start at grassroots level.”
Chef Garrett was in action as part of the programme of chef demonstrations taking place during the London Produce Show and Conference on June 3-5.