From snowboard pro to Chef of the Year…it’s been an at times unconventional, but undoubtedly well deserved rise to the top for Alyn Williams, which is why we were keen to catch up and discover the secret of his success, his passions and the key influences that have shaped Alyn Williams at The Westbury into one of the most loved restaurants in the UK.
No stranger to highly acclaimed acclaimed establishments including The Greenhouse, Zafferano, Chez Bruce, Petrus and Claridges, or working with creative culinary giants such as Marcus Wareing, Gordon Ramsey and Michel Peraud, Williams has used this treasure trove of experience and his passion for wonderful food to make his restaurant at The Westbury one of the hottest tables in town.
Alyn, you’ve certainly kept company with some of the most driven, talented and perfection-demanding chefs around, how do you cope with the pressure of working in such environments?
I worked for David Everitt-Matthias early on in my career, he was the catalyst behind my understanding of fine dining and using ingredients properly. Marcus and Gordon both ran very strict kitchens, but the discipline suited me and helped me to focus on improving the standard of my cooking.
What was the toughest, most challenging time in your professional career?
The toughest kitchen was Petrus when we opened in St James’s. It was full on, driven, aggressive and very long hours. I was 30 then and it was hard, but I loved it!
The biggest challenge was opening my current restaurant at The Westbury, we met plenty of stumbling blocks along the way but it was one of the most satisfying things that I have ever done when we had finally achieved our goals.
Who would you say your main mentors have been, and what do you feel you’ve learnt from them?
Of course Marcus Wareing, he showed me how to run a tight, professional kitchen. I also observed how to run and organise a restaurant well. Angela Hartnett and Mark Askew were also great mentors.
What would you say are your key culinary influences now?
I get inspired one way or another every day. Whether it be talking to the farmers we work with about what they are growing, or simply cycling through London, seeing what is growing right under our noses.
There are so many great chefs out there that inspire me too, and I’m very interested in what is going on in the kitchens of Germany at the moment in particular. I’ve just bought Sven Elverfeld’s book (Aqua) which is exceptional.
Tell us about your signature dishes and signature style
My style is evolving, but in essence it would be described by most as being modern French.
I think as a signature dish, the foie gras semi fredo has been the one technique that has been on more of our menus than any other since we started – although it has been presented alongside several different garnishes depending on the season. At present we serve the dish with Amalfi lemons, liquorice and a salted hazelnut crisp.
What are your aims when it comes to sourcing produce?
The aims are simply to source the best of the best. I work very closely with my suppliers, many of them grow, cultivate, catch and breed the ingredients that they sell me themselves. I think that by buying produce that way it means that the ethical side of things falls naturally in to place. There are very few air miles, chemicals or corporations involved in my menus.
What factors do you attribute your success to?
First of all a passion for food and cooking. Then simply hard work, a drive to succeed and the will to improve every day.
Have you any advice for those thinking of investing in the industry?
Choose your investment carefully. Do your homework on the type of outlet and the people you are investing in, and be realistic about the speed and rates of your expected returns.
Any trends you foresee?
I think we will see more restaurants combining fine dining in more casual surroundings in future, and I also think we will see more chef interaction with customers at the same time.
How do you balance the creative and business sides of what you do?
I have had to improve my time management, or else it’s easy to neglect one side of the operation. The creative side is more natural, I’m constantly thinking about new dishes and talking to suppliers about ingredients. I have also surrounded myself with a very good team who help with the business side of things.
What are your plans for the next 12 months or so?
Being here in the kitchen, and pushing to maintain standards and develop the character of the restaurant. Other than that I will be visiting suppliers around the country. We also have a spot at Taste of London this year, so we’re looking forward to that.
What are your long term aims?
My business and personal aims are inseparable. I want to build the restaurant into a successful business that can sustain itself comfortably.
Once we have achieved a continuous success here we can start looking at what else can be done. I’d love to spend a bit more time with my family too.
What are currently your favourite places to dine? And which dishes do you love the most?
Different places for different occasions. I love what James and Sandia are doing at Bubbledogs, with a relaxed, fun atmosphere, but with seriously good food. I really enjoy high end fine dining as well though, and Claire at restaurant Gordon Ramsay is still one of London’s finest.
But to take me home it has to be a good plate of pie and mash (East End style) with stewed eels and liquor!
Finally, top chefs are often described as being slaves to perfection, but it’s impossible to be bang on all of the time. Any funny culinary incidents you can divulge?
When I was cooking at school, I failed my exam because I mixed up the salt for sugar which resulted in me cooking sweet sausage rolls and salty custard tart! Needless to say I taste everything first now.