Photograph courtesy of Belgo
With five Belgo restaurants to look after here in London, Executive Chef Muir Picken is a busy man, which made us just that much more impressed to find him taking the time to engage with us when we recently sat in on his Lobster masterclass. Continuing with our Chefspective series highlighting London's chefs, here's our interview with Muir.How'd you get your start in the restaurant industry, and how long have you been with Belgo?
I started with home economics at school then at 15 after passing all my O levels took an apprenticeship with a flagship hospital whilst going through my college qualifications. There we had a bakery department and made everything from our own puff pastry to wedding cakes and also a butchery department where I learned the trade from a master butcher. So I was quite lucky. I moved to London just before my 18th birthday and found my love for restaurants, spending the next six years working in high class restaurants and completed four years of Michelin star cooking before joining Belgo in 1992. I have been there since.What's your background with respect to Belgian cooking? What distinguishes Belgian food from other western European cuisines?
I have been going to Belgium since 1992 eating in all the traditional restaurants to get a good grounding of what real Belgian cooking is about. One restaurant we used to visit would have an 80 year old woman cooking your order (took at least 3-4 hours) with her cats running around the small kitchen and the parrot shouting obscenities at you in Flemish! Since then we have taken many chefs and managers on familiarisation trips to breweries and restaurants to understand Belgium and its food. Belgian food has always been described as “French cooking with Germanic portions cooked in beer instead of wine”. Many years ago water was not safe to drink so beer was the standard beverage; the Belgians cooked as much food in beer as they could with some very surprising outcomes.How many Belgo restaurants are there? What's the toughest part of being the executive chef for a chain of restaurants as opposed to running just one restaurant?
Currently I have five Belgo restaurants but when we were a PLC in the late nineties I opened restaurants in New York, Dublin, Jersey, and Bristol to name a few. The toughest part of being executive chef of five restaurants is consistency of dishes and supply of product. You do not get four to five tonnes of mussels or 1200 lobsters a week without a fair bit of stress and frustration, but that’s the job. The best part is working in the kitchens and meeting our customers. It can get pretty hairy doing 1500 covers a day. Also chefs always want to tweak dishes or make them their own by changing things. So our chefs can display their talents by coming up with specials that run for a month, and if successful they can go onto the core menu which is always a great moment for them and myself.Our last visit to Belgo was to check out June's Lobsterfest menu. How often does Belgo offer special menus and how much of a role do you play in creating these seasonal offers?
We do three main seasonal menu changes to the core menu a year and run monthly specials including Lobsterfest
- the latter being where we cook all three courses (including pudding!) with beer and match it with more beer! I am going to write next month's specials up directly after this interview.How does British cuisine compare to Belgian?
Belgian and British food stacks up pretty well against each other in that they both have very strong roots in traditional dishes, but it’s how you interpret them into today’s restaurant menus that’s the clincher. I don’t mind being a bit kitche with dishes sometimes and im not afraid to offer the likes of smoked black pudding as a starter as it may not be a mass seller but many of our customers appreciate the chance to taste and enjoy non run-of-the-mill-foods. If you cook and serve food like your granny used to make im sure it would taste and smell brilliant but you have to stimulate the other senses these days to be successful and im sure you will agree there are lots of great British dishes being served up these days as well as Belgian ones. Just look at the chefs on the Great British Menu - what a great programme and some fantastic interpretations of traditional dishes.Where do you go for dining and food shopping in London?
London is my home now as I have been here for 25 years and I just love the availability of everything. I shop everywhere - if I cook Chinese food I go to Chinatown, Indian Brick Lane. But these days it is more and more important to support your local fishmonger and butcher. Try Godfreys in Finsbury park for meat. They are fantastic and extremely helpful. These local places won’t be there for long if you don’t use them.Eating out in London becomes more difficult as the selection is staggering. That’s why I like Belgo in Clapham and Bromley as I find it great that you can go to your local restaurant and get a large bowl of fresh mussels or a great steak and some fantastic frites for a reasonable price. I’d love one where I live! My favourite restaurants have to be Benares especially the mixed tandoori and the tea! Imperial China in Chinatown as the food is great, but just watching the “BOSS” as she patrols the floors is worth a visit as she can be brutally efficient. Zuma in Knightsbridge is great but I always spend way too much. The Capital Hotel in Knightsbridge for a great small hotel Michelin starred restaurant (I used to work there in 1991) and of course The Wrestlers in Highgate for Sunday lunch as Martin is the best publican in London! I like to spoil my wife and myself a couple of times a year and I would highly recommend The Waterside in Bray for a night with dinner and champagne breakfast and Le Manoir au Quait Saisons especially for tea in the afternoon, then dinner, then champagne and a cigar in the garden to finish. It’s an experience but it does cost (great for a 40th birthday treat).What advice would you give to someone just starting out in the restaurant industry?
To start out in catering I think it is important to eat in restaurants and then choose where you would like to work then apply, take notes, go to college part time if possible for a base knowledge. Keep a recipe book of dishes you like, move every 1-2 years until you feel satisfied with your base knowledge. Don’t answer back (experience cuts out the mistakes and is normally 99% correct); work hard and respectfully; keep a good communication flow going in your section and with your chef; always have a release like fishing, golf, tennis etc as you will get wound up but tomorrow is another day; never hold a grudge, life is too short - move on, it’s in the past!Belgo has branches at Seven Dials, Chalk Farm, Clapham, Kingsway and Bromley. Find out more at www.belgo-restaurants.co.uk.