Food & Drink

Aiden Byrne talks Great British cooking

The path to success has been tough for this Michelin starred chef.

The youngest chef ever to win a Michelin star (aged just 22), Aiden Byrne has worked with some of Britain’s finest chefs. He joined The Dorchester as Head Chef in 2006 and, since then, has won praise for his seasonally-influenced menus, unique combinations of flavours and his distinctly modern take on British cooking. His first book, Made in Great Britain shows us just how far British cooking has come since the heavy, rich and unimaginative cuisine of old. The Good Web Guide caught up with him to talk about the book, his career and what’s next on the horizon.

So what prompted you to write the book in the first place?

New Holland! (the publishers). I had no intention of writing a book, but Clare Sayer, one of the chief editors from New Holland, came into the restaurant and asked if I’d like to write one. I said, “no chance”. She kept asking for about six weeks and I just kept on saying no. Then I spoke to my PR, Maureen Mills at Network London, and also my old boss, Tom Aikens, and asked them if I should write a book. I didn’t think that I had enough of a repertoire, but Tom was like “Aiden, believe me, once you start looking, you’ve got plenty of stuff to start writing about”. So that was it really. I didn’t really have any idea of what I was going to write about, so I just searched within myself and found what I was really passionate about. I’ve never worked outside Great Britain before, I work with a great British institution, 95% of the produce I use in the restaurant is sourced from Great Britain and I’ve been trained by British chefs, so that subject seemed fitting really.

Has the use of British, seasonal ingredients always played a part in the way you cook?

I wouldn’t go as far as to say that it’s played a part since the beginning. When I was at Adlards, at 21 – 22 years of age, I was just duplicating everything that I’d learnt and there wasn’t much thought that went into the menu to be honest. Then I started growing up a little bit and getting a real understanding of what I was surrounded by.

Is it easier to get good British ingredients now?

Oh god yeah. There are a lot more people now championing the cause than there was fifteen years ago.

Some of the recipes look quite daunting to an amateur cook. What sort of cook would you say ‘Made in Great Britain’ is aimed at?

It’s definitely a keen cook’s book. I believe the photography is more appealing to people who aren’t really keen cooks, but I am working on a second book, which will be a lot simpler and aimed at a wider audience.

Some of your recipes feature ingredients that most of us would never think of putting together (for example Beetroot and Avocado Mousse with Yogurt Sorbet). What process do you go through when you’re creating a new dish?

I always try to stay with classic marriages. For example Beetroot Gazpacho with Vodka Jelly – vodka and beetroot has been around for years. But occasionally something will stand out. With the beetroot mousse, it has a serious unctuousness to it and is quite rich and earthy. I was trying to think of something that would liven that up and that’s where the yogurt sorbet came in. I think about how it looks on the plate but also how it feels on the palate.

You’ve put up with a lot for the sake of your career. What drove you to keep going through the tough times?

I come from a council estate in Liverpool and, right from the beginning, I wanted more than what was on offer. That’s where the initial drive came from, but then once you get into the work, you are sucked in by like-minded people. Basically it’s a situation where you’ve got someone telling you that you’re shit at your job. It’s just that determination to prove them wrong and prove to yourself that you can do it. The next thing you know, you’ve got a career on your hands.

Were either of your parents keen cooks?

No, not at all. I fell into it really. I had an older cousin who was like my big brother. Every subject that he chose at school, I chose too. He took woodwork, I took woodwork; he took catering, I took catering. In my first Home Economics class, the teacher said, let’s make an apple crumble: my apple crumble was perfect. I just knew I was good at cooking and that was it really.

You have worked as head chef at both Tom Aikens and the Dorchester. How have the experiences differed?

Tom has without a shadow of a doubt, the biggest influence on my career to date. I worked with him at Pied á Terre, where he absolutely killed me. When I came back to work for him as a number two (at Tom Aikens), it was one of the hardest things I have ever done. I was thirty years of age, with two Michelin stars, in his kitchen full of my staff and he was absolutely crucifying me. When you get to thirty years of age and you’ve achieved a Michelin star twice, most people would be quite happy. But I wanted to better myself.

You say in the book that you were keen to avoid London early on in your career. Why was that?

Because I didn’t think I was good enough. I thought everyone was better than me. So when I came to work for Tom again as number two, he put me on that lower peg and kept me where I believed I belonged, which is underneath someone as great as Tom. But then, when we started needing more staff and bringing people in from outside - the likes of Gordon Ramsay’s number two, the sous-chef from The Square, the sous-chef from The Capital etc - they would come into the kitchen and I would watch them crumble. I was coping with the pressure that Tom was putting on all of us, and that's when my confidence started kicking in. I realised that if these guys were coming from head chef positions at two, three Michelin starred restaurants and I could run circles round them, then I must be doing something right.

Do you enjoy living in London now?

I do. I do like living in London now. I’m still keen one day to go back up north, open a restaurant in Liverpool and be the first Liverpudlian head chef or restaurateur to get a Michelin star in Liverpool.

To what extent is natural talent a factor in becoming a great chef?

It’s a big factor. A lot of people have got talent, but are not willing to put the hours in; then there are even more people who don’t have the talent, but do have the determination. Because the road is so long and so hard, you’ve got to have both the talent and the determination to succeed.

When you’re at home, do you cook for yourself, or do you just opt for a pizza?

No, no. I’m not very good at Macdonald’s and pizzas and things like that. Not because I’m a snob, but just because I enjoy food and I enjoy cooking too much.

You’ve already said that you are writing a second book and that you would like to open you own restaurant in Liverpool one day. Where else do you see your career going from here?

Yeah, I’ve got a few things on the go at the moment. Channel Four have approached me about being a presenter on a documentary. I’m looking at doing Great British Menu next year potentially. There are quite a few things coming up. It’s all about raising my profile so that when I do open my own restaurant, the PR is already in place.

To find out more about Aiden Byrne, just visit his website here. To read The Good Web Guide's review of Made in Great Britain, click here.

Interview by Emily Jenkinson

11th October 09