Hailing from Denbigh in North Wales, Bryn Williams learnt to appreciate food and its origins from an early age. He would go shooting and fishing with his father and uncle and worked in his local bakery, where he decided that cooking would be integral to his future.
Bryn went on to work in some of the most prestigious kitchens in London. In 1997 he began work under Marco Pierre White at The Criterion, then went on to work under Michel Roux at Le Gavroche for three years, was senior-sous at The Orrery for four years and then moved to open Galvin at Windows with Chris Galvin.
Bryn, who shot to fame on the BBC’s Great British Menu, is now Chef Patron of Odette’s, a fine dining restaurant in London’s Primrose Hill, and makes a point of selecting the finest Welsh produce for his menu.
Sali Earls met Bryn at Odette’s before a busy weekday lunch service.
Why did you decide to become a chef?
I think the decision was made for me in a strange way. It’s the one thing I remember clearly from primary school – we had a lesson about bread, and they brought in supermarket bread and freshly baked bread. They put them in a cupboard to see which went mouldy first, and the fresh bread went mouldy in about two days; the supermarket bread was OK for about another week. From that lesson, we visited a local bakery to see how bread was made, and from that day on something clicked in me. I didn’t realise it at the time, but seeing how bread was made and doing it ourselves got me hooked. It’s never been an obsession, but something I genuinely love to do, and it all came from that.
When I was about twelve, my dad says that I hounded him about how I wanted a job at that bakery. I started off making the tea, sweeping the floor, but I worked there from the age of twelve until I was seventeen, and I just loved the fact of working in a team and seeing these amazing ingredients put together, then my job was to put them all on the shelf and make them look nice. That’s the reason I became a chef, all because of a primary school trip.
I think now that we should teach kids food and seasonality, not because we want everyone to be chefs, but it’s so important that we all know how things are made. I think that what’s happened in these last ten or fifteen years, kids and some adults just don’t know where things come from, and we need to get back to basics and redress that, bringing proper cooking back to schools – not just making a fruit salad; proper cooking. It’s vitally important to bring cooking back to school. We should also take kids to farms, take them to “pick your own” farms, as it’s so important that they see where it comes from.
One little spark of inspiration is all you need?
Exactly. We all have different skills in life – you have to find your skill, and I found that mine was working with my hands with food. If it wasn’t for that day of baking, I don’t know what I would have done. I really don’t have a clue. But I found what I wanted to do, and I think there are many aspects of primary schools that give kids to spur their imaginations.
I have always believed that cooking has to be in school, and that they have to let these kids show their personalities. There’s no right or wrong in food – at the end of the day if you’ve created something lovely, your job’s done. You go to an art lesson, with a white sheet of paper, and you get to show your personality and do anything to express yourself. With food, so far we don’t let kids show their personalities, and it’s very important that we start to let them do that.
You’ve often said that your grandmother has been a great influence
Yes – a massive influence! I think that any Welsh family with a farming background could relate to this. I remember asking her “what is Welsh food?”, and her answer was “good food at any time of the day”. Living on a farm she would prepare stews in the morning, then go out to the market and the stew would be on the Aga ready for whenever anyone wanted it.
I only ever ate amazingly fresh ingredients as a kid – I remember picking potatoes with her and two hours later we were eating them. We took that for granted. I don’t think I had bottled milk until I was about ten! I remember going to the milking parlour to get milk with my mum. In a way I guess I was spoilt, but that’s the way the country life is.
How much of what you do is down to your training versus your instinct?
Training is everything. Absolutely everything. I was lucky enough to go to what I consider to be the greatest college in Britain, which is Llandrillo College in North Wales. The reason I say that is that they helped me go to Michelin-starred restaurants; they sorted my education away for a month, and they really helped me to progress in my career – they didn’t just give me the skills, they actually inspired me as a cook, and it really is a fantastic college.
Your grounding is very important, where you work, how you work, and why you work in a certain way – I see chefs now who don’t work in a clean, tidy or organised manner – your grounding and training is everything. It’s like being brought up as a child – if you’re brought up with good manners, it carries through in life, and it’s the same thing with cooking – you’ve got to get that embedded into you very early on.
I worked for Marco Pierre White, one of the greatest chefs of all time; then I was out of the frying pan into the fire working with Michel Roux Jnr at Le Gavroche, another massive institution of Europe, but this grounding and training was invaluable, I would have paid for these amazing opportunities!
Some people say, “My God, you’ve worked for two of the greatest chefs Britain has ever seen,” and I say that yes I have, but what you learn, and the incredible knowledge and experience you get from that is invaluable. They were long days, 16 or 17 hour days, 5 and a half days a week, but I really wouldn’t change it for the world. I think that your training and grounding is everything.
How did you get involved in The Great British Menu?
I would say that was almost some kind of fluke! The year before, I did The Roux Scholarship after working with Michel at Le Gavroche for three years. I was the first Welsh lad to even get to the final, and I came second. That was the benchmark.
From there a lot of press was generated around that, and at the time The Great British Menu were looking for chefs to take part. Pat Llewellyn who is the Managing Director of Optomen Television – a Welsh girl from Aberystwyth – used to eat at The Orrery, where I worked. She just happened to mention to the restaurant manager that they were doing this TV programme and looking for Welsh chefs, and that’s how it came about. They then researched what I did, where I’d worked, and from the fact that I’d worked with such great chefs and the experience that had given me together with the training, they knew that I had good food under my belt.
I truly believe that you make your own luck, so taking part in that competition and putting yourself out there with your balls on the chopping block, to be judged for something that we do everyday, and then people see that and more opportunities arise.
I’m a big believer that young chefs should be spotted outside of the four walls of a kitchen, take part in competitions, show people what you can do and what you’re about and just put yourself in the right place at the right time.
I put myself through three of the hardest kitchens at the time in London, so that was my right time and right place.
Did you find the experience intimidating, or did you view it as an opportunity?
Most definitely an opportunity. Whoever thought at that age – 26 or 27 – that I was going to beat Angela Hartnett, and get to the final? No-one thought it, I didn’t think it myself, so I had absolutely nothing to lose.
Turbot and oxtail is still on the menu to this day – we can’t take it off! It’ll be on my tombstone – “the man who cooked turbot and oxtail”.
I felt nervous, certainly, but I wasn’t intimidated – I cook, it’s what I do and what I know, and something I genuinely love to do.
What has the experience done for your career?
It’s raised my profile, but one thing I would say to kids if they read this interview is that before I got to that point, there was ten years of hard graft. Nothing happens overnight. Don’t think that just because you’ve got on TV you’ve made it, in some respects it’s the complete opposite.
I worked with these great chefs for nine years, got this opportunity, and then other opportunities came up. I was able to open this restaurant under my old boss. When you’ve been on TV and you have your own place, it puts a lot more pressure on you – people see man on TV, man in kitchen, let’s see if he’s any good. The pressure is much greater than before, as they expect something different – sometimes they don’t know what they expect, but say that they expected something better! That’s what happens with TV, people expect something but often don’t know what they want.
It’s great for your profile, but you have to work twice as hard to keep up with expectations that you’re still very much a hands on cook. On a typical day, I can be in the restaurant at 7.30am, then leave at 9ish to do a radio interview, back to the restaurant for a press interview like this, then lunch service – but people may think that I just turn up at lunchtime, the truth is that I graft and like to be hands on.
An increased profile is good, as it brings people through the door, and business is good, but at the same time, it doesn’t happen overnight. You have to make your own luck to get there, and then work twice as hard when you do get there.
You moved from The Orrery to Odettes, and then you bought Odettes. Was it the right opportunity at the right time?
I bought it in October 2008. At the end of October 2008, the recession hit. I panicked – I thought “what have I done?”. As chefs and waiters were leaving, we didn’t employ others, I just worked six days a week for at least the first twelve months. I think it’s fair to say that I bought it at the worst possible time in the last sixty years!
As a business we’re very young and I don’t cast myself as a businessman, but business people tell me that to have got through to this point I must know what I’m doing business-wise, and that’s really nice to know.
It was the worst time to buy, but I had to make it work – I’d put everything into it, and re-mortgaged my flat, sold my car, everything – if it didn’t work, I would lose my house, my reputation would be down the pan, and I’d have to find a job, so it really had to work.
For me the glass is always half full, never half empty, I’m a pretty positive lad – if they can send people into space, I can run a restaurant!
Now you have Bryn’s Kitchen as well
Yes, my first book, basically covering twenty different ingredients cooked five different ways. For example, beetroot – there five recipes for beetroot, one easy, three medium and one complex.
There are twenty recipes that you’d get here at Odette’s, and although here I may have ten chefs behind me in the kitchen, when you write a cookery book for the home cook, they don’t have that luxury, they may have a son or daughter to get involved, or they may be doing it by themselves, so we tried to make it accessible for everyday cooking and eating. I’m hoping that people will take it and cook a recipe for Monday lunch and Saturday night, and that’s really what we tried to do.
It seems like a really personal book – it’s not something you’ve put your name to, it’s you.
Absolutely – it is me, and I think you can’t put your face and name on a book if you’re prepared to put any old rubbish in it. I wanted people to see my personality, I really lay it on the line each and every time I do something, and it’s the same with food – it’s quite easy to do, but if you get it wrong it’s really wrong. I like to live dangerously!
Do you have any plans to open a restaurant in Wales?
I’d love to open a restaurant in Wales, genuinely. I’ve looked at a couple of pubs in North Wales, when I was up there with my dad and uncle game shooting for the restaurant. I put everything in the van to send back here while I stayed up there for a few days, and I got to thinking about this great produce we were sending to London and how we should be using it there, and how wonderful it would be to open a place there using the local ingredients in a local pub.
On the other hand, there are people from my local area coming down here and saying they’ve just eaten the best pheasant or best pork, and I tell them that it’s actually come from their area, and they think you’re joking. They say “it can’t be – it tastes better” and I tell them that it’s the same ingredients just cooked in a different way.
That’s what made me think that these ingredients are fantastic, let’s keep some of them up there with a pub in North Wales. I’d also love to do something in Cardiff – an all day eatery – any backer out there, give me a shout! It’s one of those things, I’d love to do it but I think I’ve got age on my side and time to do it.
How can Wales do more to get great produce on the map?
Wales has some of the greatest food that Britain has to offer, but we don’t shout about it enough.
We need to work on the provenance, and get things labelled properly in the way that Champagne is, so unless it’s bred in Wales, you can’t call it Welsh Black Beef, it’s got to be bred properly and the same with Salt Marsh Lamb, the Sea Trout – we need to label these are great trademark stamps of quality, rather than just have “Welsh Lamb” across the board. It’s great, but we have so much more to offer.
If we could generate interest in the great ingredients of Wales, I personally think that Wales as a country would benefit, because people would want to visit for a weekend to try the produce – great shellfish, great beef, great lamb. People come into the country, the roads and hotel get busier, the restaurants get busier.
Making Wales better has got to start with food, because that’s what we get off the land. There’s no motorway between North and South Wales – people wonder how the lamb is so amazing, well there’s limited traffic so reduced pollution.
The Welsh Government don’t do enough – someone’s got to pull their finger out.
You’ve been involved with the Conwy Feast for some time
Yes, around five years now as a patron, and I do the festival every year. I get asked to take part in quite a lot of food festivals, but that’s the only one I do on a regular basis. It’s very close to my home town of Denbigh, I know a lot of the suppliers, I know the butchers, so it’s a very good one.
They get between 25000 and 30000 people over the weekend – it’s massive, and what’s good about it is that it’s not just food, it’s very much a community thing – there are animals there, there are activities for the kids, and it’s all about food and the industry.
It’s a fantastic location, all within the city walls. If you want a weekend away and love food, that’s the place to go.
A lot of people say that they don’t have time to cook, or they believe that produce costs a lot of money, so opt for convenience. If you had the opportunity to take a family and give them the basics, what would you show them?
If a family of four wanted a very quick good meal, we have a shoulder of lamb recipe in the book cooked over potatoes.
Basically you peel four potatoes and slice them very thinly, put some onions in, season with salt and pepper; take a wire rack or cooling rack and put it on top, put the shoulder of lamb on top of that, add salt, pepper and olive oil; put it in the oven at 120 degrees C for three hours. Serve it with a green salad.
It’s about showing people what they can do. When we talk about cooking in the book, the dish might be complex but the actual work isn’t – you may have to marinate something the day before, so that makes it complicated; but if you can get potatoes, onions, lamb shoulder in the oven – I do that on a Sunday afternoon, pop out while it’s cooking, come back, get it out of the oven and make a salad, and there’s my Sunday lunch. It takes twenty minutes to prepare – OK, so it takes time to cook, but you can go and do something else.
If I was teaching people what to do, it would be to use their time in the kitchen, rather than showing them cooking skills. There’s no point in running before you can walk. Time management is the key, rather than how long something takes – you can prepare something today to eat tomorrow, so while you’re cooking today’s dinner, put another pot on and a soup for tomorrow can be prepared easily, and you’re cooking two dishes in the time it takes to cook one.
People think that cooking takes all day, but that’s because they don’t know what they’re doing – learning how to use their time will give them greater confidence – it’s not all about techniques.
Are there any up and coming Welsh chefs that you’ve spotted?
Yes – Berwyn Davies, he works in my kitchen. He’s a great lad who comes from just outside Bala. He’s been with me for a couple of years, and really is fantastic, passionate and has that drive and hunger. If you’ve got that, you can teach them to cook. You really have to have those things – you can’t teach passion, drive and determination.
He’s going to go places. Give it three years, and Berwyn will be one to watch.
When you go back to Wales are there any restaurants or food shops you like to visit?
My mum’s house! You go home and you just can’t beat your mum’s food, you know? There are a couple of things in life I should never try to beat – my dad’s fry up and my mum’s Sunday dinner.
When I do go home, I go to a lot of places – Bryan Webb at Tyddun Llan is fantastic; Chris Chown’s Plas Bodegroes in Pwlleli is a great restaurant; The Brookhouse Mill in my home town of Denbigh. If I’m in South Wales I go to Stephen Terry at The Hardwick, or Matt Tebbutt at The Foxhunter.
There are loads of great places to eat, but you can’t beat your mum’s food!
What’s next for you?
Service in about half an hour’s time! Keep on working at Odette’s, and keep trying to find great Welsh ingredients. From there on, once we’ve got Odette’s with solid foundations business-wise and customer-wise, then build on trying to open a pub in North Wales, I’d really like to do that, and maybe another book.