Director of Moniker Projects and arts initiative ‘the revisionists’ Frankie Shea hosted a fascinating Q and A talk recently at East London’s members club Shoreditch House with Executive Chef of the world famous Ivy restaurant Gary Lee. Gary’s responsibilities as Executive Chef range from the main kitchen through to the private dining room and up to the private members club.
The talk titled ‘How Food Saved Me’ revealed Executive Chef Gary Lee’s challenging journey to the top. Inspired by the talk we asked Gary some more questions of our own. Check out what Gary had to say here:
1) CAN YOU PLEASE TELL US ABOUT YOUR JOURNEY TO THE TOP AND WHAT YOU HAVE LEARNT THE MOST FROM IT?
My journey to the top has been hard, emotional and difficult. There are not enough words, space or time to explain it all but I would like to say that if I have learnt one thing it is to be able to listen, watch, understand and appreciate. Cooking can be very therapeutic given the chance but it can also be stressful, tiring and daunting if you are not organised and don’t understand the needs of the customer. It’s not about what the chef wants to cook it’s about what the customer wants and whether the chef can execute it. In modern day terms a chef is not a chef unless he can make a profit – yes you need to be able to cook but you also need to know how to cook and how best to cost and deliver. You can’t open an ‘eating house’ without solid planning and direction.
2) WHAT HAVE YOUR DIFFERENT EXPERIENCES THROUGHOUT YOUR CAREER TAUGHT YOU IN GENERAL?
I would have said to be patient, committed, honest, loyal and true to your craft.
3) WHAT ARE YOU MOST PASSIONATE ABOUT IN YOUR CAREER?
Seeing the next generation come through. In an age where there is molecular gastronomy, I still believe there is space and time for good old-fashioned cooking. I am passionate about the young chefs learning and not being fast tracked into senior positions without learning their career properly.
4) WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE TO A YOUNG PERSON WHO’S DREAM IT IS TO BE A CHEF?
Don’t believe the hype!! It’s hard, long hours and can be very unforgiving. On the flip side it’s rewarding, satisfying and above all humbling. We all need to eat, it is how we eat that matters; you should never be without a job! Don’t ever think that you know it all….there is no substitute for learning – that has always been my kitchen motto.
5) HOW DID THE VERY FIRST IVY RESTAURANT GET ITS NAME DO YOU KNOW?
It originally was a little café on West street and was opened by a gentleman called Abel Giandolini in the late 1920’s. When the restaurant was going through building works (and managed to stay open) Abel apologised to one customer due to the inconvenience and the actress Alice Delysia overheard the conversation and said “don’t worry we will always come and see you we will cling together like the ivy”. I believe that is how the name came about.
6) WHAT IS THE SECRET BEHIND THE IVY’S ON-GOING SUCCESS AND STATUS DO YOU THINK?
That we are here for the customer, it isn’t about any one individual, it’s a collection of people / a team and with that collection comes experience, commitment, drive and a willingness to provide a service that you will remember; be it food, drink or entertaining at the bar. Everyone that comes here is treated equally. We believe that you should be able to come here and enjoy your experience like anybody else – famous or not famous.
7) WHAT DO YOU LOVE ABOUT ASIAN CUISINE AND CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT THE FOOD AND COCKTAIL MENU YOU’VE DEVELOPED FOR THE IVY?
Well with regards to the cocktail menu, I didn’t have anything to do with that, our Head Bar Man/Manager dealt with that Darren Ball. Asian cuisine is very honest and true. Whilst working at Bambou I had to show real respect for their food and understanding. I went to Westminster College to do an intensive Chinese cookery course to further my knowledge. It helped. Since being at the Ivy I have ensured we have elements of Asian style dishes there as I believe that in this day and age, with so many being able to travel, customers expect to be able to eat more varied foods and Asian style, sharing concepts are something we all enjoy.
8) WHAT FOOD AND DRINKS ON YOUR MENU WOULD YOU RECOMMEND PAIRING?
There are so many…. You would need to choose the food you wanted and then we would pair the wine.
9) WHAT DO YOU THINK ABOUT VEGAN FOOD AND PEOPLE WHO FOLLOW STRICT VEGAN DIETS?
Good luck to them lol… I think we need to eat regardless and nobody should be frowned upon because of what they eat. There are some beautiful recipes and food that can be eaten without it having to have cream, butter, oil, salt etc.. if I am honest at times in the middle of a busy service it can be testing but each to their own.
10) WHAT TOP CHEF WOULD YOU MOST LIKE TO COOK FOR?
There are too many to mention. Jason Atherton I think is a wonderful chef, extremely talented and a natural cook. Pierre Koffman (who I have met) is an absolute legend. Anton Monsimann – who I had the pleasure of meeting and working with as a commis on work experience at the Dorchester many years ago.
11) WHAT WOULD YOU BE IF YOU WERE NOT A CHEF?
Lost!! Seriously…Either a Boxer or a DJ – I box now but solely to keep fit.. but if only..!! My youngest daughter Khyra is at music college so I am living the dream of music through her.
12) WHAT WOULD YOUR PERFECT LAZY SUNDAY IN LONDON LOOK LIKE?
My perfect lazy Sunday would be to go and pick what I was cooking for that day be it at a farmers market (which are great on a Sunday!) or Waitrose. Usually what I want to cook will always change once I start seeing other foods so who knows. Something that can be slow braised or a decent roast so I can take my dogs out on a long walk through the forests. It is always important to have my family there, so my three daughters and my partner Megs and the grandparents Terry and Jane. As long as there is sun and laughter I could be anywhere but they need to be with me. I love my football so at some stage or another whilst cooking I would have the footie on as well and I always enjoy cooking with my father in law as he is very much an old school cook who adores food and wastes nothing (most chefs could learn a few things from him I tell you…)
Written by Julia Nelson
Photography by Simon Fredrick