At 10:30 on a Thursday morning, Plateau’s kitchen in Canary Wharf is already busy will freshly pressed chefs chopping and boiling. Today there are seven new dishes on the menu and one of these even features cauliflower. It is only the latter that is unusual in a restaurant run by Head Chef Allan Pickett.
On the fourth floor of Canada Wharf, the lift’s door slides open to reveal a sleek warren of archways leading to light modern chambers. Symmetrical in design, these serve food ranging from a la carte to off the grill. Soft olive and cream tints unobtrusively compliment the view of the capital’s business district, which diners can behold through the expansive glass frontage.
Plateau is Allan’s second D&D posting and as such he is at the helm of many of its management decisions – learning everything he can in preparation for the day that he will command his own restaurant. His calm demeanor is at one with his surroundings and he talks with an assurity borne from an expansive knowledge of his art. Taking a cohesive approach to food, finances, staff and even social media, he can say with confidence “We’ve got Plateau to where it should be, the figures are good and we’re still growing”. Not that this means he’s taking a break, “I’ve got to be protective and I can’t let standards slip,” he says “whether we’re doing a mini-burger or a fillet of beef, I have to look at it the same way; its got to be perfect”.
So how has Mr Pickett gone from splattering cake mix up his grandmother’s wall to Michelin star holder and a guest appearance on Celebrity Masterchef? Well he started at the very bottom: KFC. Thankfully he exchanged the Kentucky kernel for Thanet College in Broadstairs, Kent where he became Patisserie Chef of the Year. It was while in one of the infamous Roux restaurants that he decided to make a move to the hot kitchen. Taking a step back meant he was momentarily behind his peers but not for long. Many early mornings and later nights in kitchens including The Hurlingham Club, The Orrey, L’escargot and The Aurora followed. When he returned to The Orrey as Head Chef he proved his abilities once and for all by retaining the Michelin Star of his predecessor Andre Garret.
Every move has been carefully considered, and the illustrious Galvin brothers have more than once steered his course. His respect for Chris and Jeff Galvin resonates within every article and interview, and this one will be no different. He is magnanimous in his praise saying, ”I moved to work with Chris and Jeff Galvin because I thought I’d learn a lot more from them. And I did. They’re great mentors, cooks and businessmen and if I’m a quarter of what they are then I’ll be happy”.
He can still empathise with his past self and chefs moving through the ranks. “As a CDP you don’t have much influence over the menu, Michelin star restaurants have their formulas. What’s important is that you soak up the atmosphere in the kitchen and learn how to produce dishes with consistency. You get paid a pittance but you’ve got to remember that there’s a 20-strong waiting list of people like you, so feel lucky that you got the call”.
“Question why you’re going to work with someone,” that’s Allan’s advice to the next generation. His own desire to work faster led him to cooking 80 Michelin star worthy covers in an hour and a half. “If you weren’t cooking fast enough, then you were in the shit,” he recalls, “We didn’t start work until 8am, and the kitchens wouldn’t open before. Now imagine you’ve got two turbot, 30 lemon sole, three sea bass and 120 scallops to prep, and that’s before you start your garnishes. Up the ante – that’s what makes you faster”.
Speed and efficiency are undoubtedly held in high regard by Plateau’s clientele, who are making £multi-million deals before even the Amuse Bouches can be cleared. Sustaining the interest of Canary Wharf’s 110,00 city slickers is no small feat. Allan observes that, “One of our customers comes in four times a week, so he wants to see a change”. This even includes the bar snacks, and with so much competition in such a dense area, change is what keeps customers coming back.
However the varied menu isn’t the only reason they return. Ever the astute businessman, Allan recognises the importance of service. “If something’s not on the menu, like a steak tartar, then we’ll take a few extra minutes and make it. Customers pay my wages and everyone else’s too. We have to try at every opportunity to exceed their expectations”. This includes greeting customers after their meal and making them feel special.
With social media giving every diner a very public platform to be a critic, business meetings are now as much about Allan’s twitter followers as the menu. It also means that the modern chef has to act on customer feedback fast. “You have to take it on the chin,” he advises “and then work out why the problem’s happening”. Recently a duck dish was being served on a piece of slate, which while visually impressive was cold by the time it reached the table. All that was needed was a change of plate and the issue was resolved.
While little touches like writing ‘Happy Birthday’ on a dessert will cause a gasp of delight, it will always be the food that enthuses the applause. Allan aspires to astound his customers’ palettes before they’ve even ordered, “ When one of my customers looks at a menu and thinks, ‘I don’t know what to have’ then I’m happy because that’s a conundrum I want them to face’.
As a mentor for many up and coming chefs, Allan has strongly considered views on the development of food identity. “I see lots of chefs who dabble which is great, but you’ve got to understand what you’re dabbling in. Last night Mark Poynton, Alimentum, had posted on twitter ‘Does anyone still use Escoffier?’. Well we still use a roux, you need it for Béchamel and Goujeres”
“You’ve got to have foundations. You have to know how to make a great sauce or a great purée. There’s no point having one really flavoursome piece while the rest of the dish is tasteless. It’s about making sure the whole dish comes together”.
His own food identity is still evolving, he’s even embracing cauliflower, a vegetable he’s never had a taste for. About five years ago when he was at Aurora he was playing around with foams and jellies. “I was looking back to places like Le Gavroche and the Roux family in general,” he says “the food at Waterside has stood the test of time and for good reason”.
And that’s the thing about Allan. When questioned on any aspect of his profession, he invariably refers to the work of others. This is a man who speaks with admiration for his peers and past mentors alike. And he fondly recalls the days working in The Orrery with Phil Thompson and Chris Eden – even if it was ’bloody hard work’. It’s no surprise that while each has moved on to success in new kitchens, they’re still close friends.
He’s as touched by Jason Atherton posing for an after-dinner photo with his wife, as a personal note from theatrical culinary genius Guy Savoy. It’s this sincerity and genuine human warmth that perhaps defines both Allan Pickett’s restaurants and his career. His phone book surely reads like a Who’s Who on the contemporary restaurant scene. Over the years he’s chosen to share kitchens with the chefs he most respects – and having had just the briefest conversation with this remarkable man, I’m certain the feeling was mutual.
You can read Allan’s blog here: http://www.chefallanpickett.wordpress.com
Or follow @chefallanp