Words of Advice, The Legends ~ Richard Neat

Following on from our ‘Words of Advice’ series with current crop of talented chefs such as Micheal Wignal, Nathan Outlaw, Shaun Rankin, Wylie Dufresne and latterly Tom Aikens. Our next chef used to be Tom Aikins’s Head Chef.

Richard Neat came to the attention of the catering media as Head Chef of ‘Pied a Terre’, and at the time taking the mantle of the youngest chef to achieve two Michelin stars in the UK from Marco Pierre White, his former boss. With stints with Raymond Blanc at Le Manoir Quat Saisons, Joel Robuchon at Jamin & MPW at Harveys under his belt, Richard made the leap of faith in 1992 and opened ‘Pied a Terre’, with David Moore, to critical acclaim. He’s since openly admitted that he was

Spectacularly unhappy

in his Charlotte Street basement kitchen. Despite nurturing such talents as Tom Aikens & Warren Geraghty and acheiving 2* Michelin in 1996, he left later that year.

Mr Neat moved on to India, and Taj Hotels where he confessed to

Perfecting front crawl and playing chess

as well as teaching the group’s chefs some of his tricks. He opened the restaurant called ‘Longchamps’ in the Delhi Taj Hotel and after 3 years France was calling.

In 1999, with his wife Sophie & backer Robert Saunders he set up restaurant in Cannes, simply called ‘Neat’. He put his neck on the block to show the French what they had been ignoring on their own doorstep, subsequently, he is the first Englishman to achieve a Michelin star in France. During his time in Cannes, he made a brief appearance in London & it looked like the return of the prodigal son. Unfortunately it wasn’t to be, and less than 12 months after opening, Restaurant ‘Neat’ & ‘Brasserie Neat’ at the OXO Tower went into voluntary liquidation and Mr Neat returned to  France. This wasn’t the end of troubled times for him, there was a bigger storm on the horizon.

After 3 and half years in Cannes he was forced to close the 1* restaurant, sighting

I had some very regular customers who loved the restaurant, but yes, some of the French public stayed away because I am English

and,

We knew we were going to be expelled at some time when we bought Cannes because the landlord didn’t want a restaurant on the site. So we knew we had a limited period of time to make as much as we could out of it.

With his French adventure behind him Mr Neat next surfaced in Morocco via Moscow, running  a small boutique Riad called Casa Lalla. He stayed in Morocco for some 3 or so years, then in early 2006 he left for Costa Rica where he’s been running Park Cafe Antiques with his partner Louise, which they describes as

A restaurant set within a stunning antiques shop in Sabana Norte, San Jose, where the tables are scattered partly around a garden with a trickling fountain or beneath the aisles that house the antiques.

November 2007 saw Mr Neat publish his first cookbook ~ Observations from the kitchen, now sadly out of print and in August 2009 he was re-united with his friend and former Head chef Warren Geraghty for a one night only dinner at ‘West’ in Vancouver, Canada.

1.How do you feel the industry has changed since you left working in the pressured environment of a multiple starred kitchen?

I’m not really sure how qualified I am to comment upon the changes in the UK restaurant business as I have been away from Europe for seven years. However, I understand that rents, salaries and taxes have risen dramatically since I was there, and this has had a adverse effect on the ability of restaurateurs simply to survive, inviting them to make choices and compromises that they might not otherwise have entertained.

For instance, when I worked for Joel Robuchon in Paris in the late Eighties –before the deliberate impoverishment of entrepreneurs following Jospin’s decision to implement the thirty-five hour week in a cynical display of slopping-out the vote trough for the electorate- the restaurant had a ratio of one employee to one client. The chefs would sit outside the kitchen peeling vegetables at six o’clock in the morning so that when the doors were opened at seven thirty we had gotten a much needed head-start for the days work. This merely demonstrates the level of intricacy that the dishes demanded and Robuchon was able to commit the restaurant to this particular style of food as he could afford such a team. It might be added that we worked such long hours, not through exploitation, fear or necessity, but because all fifty-six of us grasped that we were part of something momentous.

Years later whilst living in the South of France, we ate in a two star restaurant where every dish was a piece of fish or meat on a bed of a simple vegetable garnish (one plate was just pan-sautéed spinach) and a puddle of sauce. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with simple food, especially in France where the products are exemplary, but this was hardly the sort of cuisine that might have the force to touch someone. The brevity of the menu and the shortage of staff (the barman was off that night having worked his seven hours that lunch, so I couldn’t even have a Bloody Mary?) were a direct consequence of a large team being financially unviable. This seems to be the direction that the UK has moved towards, where a style of food is dictated by affordability rather than what the chef subconsciously desires.

As for other changes, it seems as though gastronomy has been hijacked by the media and public relations industries. For myself, there were two iconic figures of the period when I was active in London; Joel Robuchon and Pierre Koffmann. I never once saw them on television, never once read interviews by them as they regurgitated inane stories about themselves as they sought to make themselves relevant, or newsworthy. They were instead, faultless, fanatical craftsmen. And places were coveted in their restaurants because you would get a meal that would definitely move you. It’s just another example of packaging vanquishing humble effort.

2.What advice would you give to any chefs reading this, who feel that they have what it takes to achieve Michelin stars & AA Rosettes?

As I look back on almost three decades in the restaurant business, I remember a life that has been in maybe equal measure, both exquisite and hideously tormented. I doubt whether I would have had the morale to continue subjecting myself to the latter moments, if the former had not been so sublime. My girlfriend, with whom I live so happily here in Costa Rica, knew nothing of my previous incarnation as a rabid, pan-throwing, culinary sociopath, but having met my sole two friends from the restaurant world, W.G. and J.A. she admires the characteristics that they have and I would like to think I possess to a small degree. Those being; generous – as gastronomy requires you give more than is necessary- conscientious, dedicated, loyal, principled and a hint of naivety that makes you follow your star (not the Michelin version) whilst being somewhat indifferent to trivialities.

I think the above characteristics are crucial, though I might add what could seem obvious, namely that you must actually like people! I’ve really had the privilege over the years of meeting some truly sterling people through my restaurants and my businesses have been supported disproportionately by customers I consider friends –not in the cynical P.R. quid pro quo sense, but with people whom you have earned a reciprocal admiration and who enjoy and support your efforts.

Even today, our restaurant here in San Jose is littered with our pals with whom a daily trade is conducted, they bring their good company, enthusiasm and wallets, I in return would see it as a betrayal of our friendship to fall below their expectations.

Then what might be added is that the embryonic young cook must have an affinity with all that is irrational. For there is nothing more exhilarating than a really “chaotic, frenetic, ballet” –as a French film crew once described our service- where you have been pushed beyond the extremes of what is physically and emotionally safe as stipulated by Health and Safety Directives, and yet at the end you know that you have been part of an effort that has created something applauded and appreciated, and that you secretly knew was as flawless as you can ever get close to.

3.Do you have a different view towards the guide books now that you’re now not at the ‘coalface’, so to speak?

My views as to guides and food journalists have changed little over the years. I still consider them, like taxes and politicians, as a necessary evil. They are just people with foibles and prejudices and just as incapable of objectivity as any of us, yet they are also the sole legitimate vehicle to validate a restaurants work and spread its notoriety. I think the source of my discomfort is that many of them are wholly unqualified to pass judgments upon what are ultimately businesses that might be worth millions of pounds. The restaurant industry in the UK when it was in its infancy during the 1980’s and 90’s might be analogous to Russia at the beginning of Perestroika, when a group of fortuitously placed men found themselves in positions of unimaginable influence and power. Like these technocrats with little background in entrepreneurial endeavor who became gazillionaires, our food commentators with little knowledge in eating food well (as there was none prior to the arrival of the Roux’s, Blanc and Koffmann) found themselves able to influence the evolution of the restaurant business and to be its arbitrators. This has been far from ideal.

One of the reasons I left Pied-a-Terre in 1996 was a fatigue at witnessing people that I had absolutely no respect for, having an inordinate influence over my life. I remember sitting with one such person at the tail-end of my time there, debasing myself as I longed so much for what he could give me, yet conscious of his plastic shoes, hideous jacket that looked like a bad television reception and listening to his inanities and feeling how unreasonable that he should weld so much power. This could be said for many others who wrote during this time who seemed bereft of any qualification to comment on people that might, say, have had an apprenticeship in senior positions in several world-class establishments.

What was ironic was that many of the food writers had a complete disdain for the cooks at the restaurants they were visiting, Drew Smith and Nick Lander come to mind, yet relied entirely upon these cooks for their own notoriety. They seemed to be thoroughly intoxicated by their own self-importance and pomposity, and it was wholly detrimental to the business that such pygmies achieved an enormous influence and used it in such a negative manner. It was obvious that many of the food writers of this time had never been to France to eat, as this would have been important to establish a reference point and also to have understood that many of the menus at gastronomic restaurants in London which they mistook for genius was actually plagiarism. Though this, we presume, was unimportant so long as they received their complimentary middle courses, sets of dress plates and birthday parties thrown for them.

Additionally, so many of them seemed entirely incognizant as to the financial costs of gastronomy, commenting usually negatively on the cost of the experience as though the cuenta alone could provide an explanation as to value. Simply receiving a salary from a newspaper, or publication would appear insufficient training so as to understand the astronomical costs of fine dining, where first-rate products are ……first-rate priced? And that there is a disproportionate cost of labour -not only numbers of staff but quality of staff- not to mention sunk capital on all sorts of expected frills and accessories. It might be pointed out that -at least whilst I was in London- there weren’t any extraordinarily wealthy chef-patrons. Whilst many of the food press are now fawning over the present crop of millionaire cooks who have made a fortune by becoming brands, we may presume they are the same people who squabbled over a Squab Pigeon that costs about twelve pounds before he’s even started to be tenderly caressed and transformed.

However, I did notice a difference when after London, I had the restaurant in the South of France. I spoke for several hours one afternoon to a journalist who wrote for Le Figaro, one of France’s finest newspapers. What struck me most was not only did he genuinely respect the efforts of the cooks who made such sacrifices for their restaurants, but that he displayed – a writer for the Figaro- a deep humility. This did not seem an insincere gesture to ingratiate himself to me, but appeared to be an honest feeling of, dare I say it, admiration and appreciation. I thought it just demonstrated a sense of complicity with the people with whom he was indelibly linked, rather than viewing them as tools for his own advancement.

That said, I still today get a thrill when a good article is printed upon us, maybe like alms being thrown to the poor, and recognize and appreciate that the press has allowed my restaurants to prosper, attracted new faces, encouraged equally-fanatical staff to join me and validated to some extent the whole project, as whenever I feel nostalgic for the madness of gastronomy, I take out my press cuttings and work myself into a masturbatory frenzy whilst reading the eulogies (I only keep the eulogies!) and being reminded of what was presumably –so these press cuttings can verify- a great period of my life. I just wish that food commentators were people who enjoyed the actual concept of being in a restaurant, loved food, and appreciated the lunatics who make this happen.

4.Do you feel that cooking skills are being diminished with the growing use of equipment like waterbaths, sous-vide, pacojets & thermomixes.

Asking me to have an opinion on these new innovations might be like asking your elderly grandparents to comment on rap-music as half of the names above may as well be written in Sanskrit.  However, I think that these new innovations are an inevitable consequence of a general development –or degradation- of our culture. For instance, an obsession with categorization so that everything falls into a pre-existing group for easy description; the trivialization of everything so we might keep the consumer continuously amused, as he might otherwise, Heaven forbid, seek other distraction elsewhere, and the gadgetization of everything in our culture, where every latest product by Apple is greeted with greater fervor than Moses presenting his Commandments.

This is obviously a caricature, but we had a restaurant open here in San Jose whose pitiful marketing pitch was that it was the first molecular cuisine in the country. I didn’t visit the place, but its publicity, faithfully presented by the restaurants vacuous PR team, showed dish after dish covered with foams and served in exorbitantly priced crockery. It lasted a few weeks before indifference drove a fatal, deserved stake through its heart.

Alternatively, I still salivate at the recollection of a plate of Veal Sweetbreads with Truffles at La Tante Claire about twenty years ago, though regrettably there wasn’t any vapors to inhale, or any wacky juxtapositions of ingredients as improbable as friendships between cats and canaries, or dogs and postmen for me to tell myself that it must be the work of a visionary and I had therefore like it. Instead, the sweetbreads were simply emotional.

This isn’t to suggest that there is no place for science in gastronomy as much of the work relies upon a predictive element that tells me that if I treat such-and-such an ingredient in such-and-such a manner, then I will produce a certain result.

That said -at least as I understand the pleasure of eating- I remain unconvinced that Frankensteinesque manipulations of food and its preparation can improve upon a beautifully caramelized fresh Scallop, seared in good quality olive oil, a knob of butter and accompanied by a few spears of boiled, buttered asparagus and artery-clogging quantities of a timeless beurre blanc. But then I also think that listening to rap-music should be a capital offense.

There also seems to be a financial consideration – and although I have absolutely no idea as to the cost of these wonderful new gadgets – they would appear to be an expensive indulgence fostered upon restaurateurs and his clientele with the oily dexterity of the couturier who sold the Emperor his new outfit.

If this seems like Luddite malice, I would only insist that I believe that anything that erodes or denies an individual the opportunity to develop and perform a skill is to be lamented. Efficiency is not an end in itself, and it sometimes has hideous ramifications. It was Karl Marx of all people who cautioned us against the de-skilling of the workforce, and the tragic consequences that it would entail.  It is at least arguable that when we actually had manufacturing, craftsmen, artisans and Guilds, it was a great human consolation against the cruel vicissitudes of life that at least you were able to witness the transformation of something useless and without value, by your skill, with almost Eucharistic powers, into something beautiful which someone else attaches a value to. This is important.

One of the first things Cameron and Robin should do in government is to repatriate much of these lost professions, as surely it is (a) more dignifying to make something with your hands than pick up a dole cheque, or work in the Financial sector (only kidding guys, we’ll forgive you for impoverishing us once you’re rich enough to come to the restaurants again) and (b) it would be more cost effective to pay a little more for indigenously produced products and pay less in Welfare charges. There would also be a sense of accomplishment.

I see every day the satisfaction of the young Nicaraguan boy that has worked for me for two years, who still beams with pleasure after going through the difficult process of caramelizing a Duck breast, rendering the skin and then determining upon the precise moment when to remove it from the stove-top to wrap it in cling film to continue its cooking process for a further five minutes, maybe five and half as it looks slightly fatter, to co-ordinate all this with the other dishes we are executing, and finally discovering upon slicing it that all his skills and deducements have produced a perfectly cooked piece of meat. All without the dubious benefits of needles, thermometers, expensive plastic sous-vide bags, and hideous buzzers squawking a reminder, it was instead because of his comprehension and concentration.

5.How do you feel that the industry could better prepare and service the needs of younger chefs entering catering?

I’ve had such a circuitous, nomadic life in restaurants that it should disqualify me from offering wisdom as to how to get ahead in this business, but as to how restaurants have treated me and the expectations and demands I’ve made upon gastronomy, then I would say it has not disappointed. For example, I always have been and remain so, highly ambitious, but it has been a rather vague and fuzzy ambition, one solely to have a good life, full of inspiration and one of which I can garner a little sense of pride in what I do. A life in restaurant s has allowed me to achieve this, but only because my expectations were so whimsical.

As for creating a system that might allow us to mass-produce a generation of would-be Robuchons, I can think of a few necessary conditions that might allow us to do so. If we start with the least plausible first, and I understand it would be like asking a dog not to lick its balls, but if government could tax us less, hahahaha, if landlords didn’t charge so much for their buildings, hahahaha, and if much of the public fascist bodies that go around investigating, probing and generally make life hideous for entrepreneurs could kill themselves, or at the very least un-invent themselves. Then businesses might have a little surplus capital to sponsor colleges that are theoretically preparing their next batch of recruits. Even if those if colleges were in Tirana or Warsaw.

Next, our cadre of impressionable young cooks should be shielded from the horrors of reality cooking programmes that depict what they will soon be immersed within, as fun and easy. Where willingness is confused with application, and fancy presentation and witless banter are confused with studious concentration. Our new recruits should also consciously desire a cruel and character-building apprenticeship that is ignorant as to the sensitivities of people’s feelings in pursuit of something intangible. They would have to mentally prepare themselves to work every hour (their new) God sends them, working for a pittance (so that during their apprenticeship when they are almost useless they do not add too great a burden upon the restaurant)

The young cook should also love eating, and in a gratuitous act of self-denial be prepared to spend all his meager wealth on restaurants, thereby abstaining from that months latest mobile phone ring-tone update. He, or she should try to discover for himself, just exactly what is the pleasure that the French call being ‘a table’.

Lastly, he or she should make a supreme effort to find a good mentor. This will be difficult as when you are just starting out you are likely to be disorientated and more than likely to be seduced by the lies and deceptions of PR, where their client chef is likely to be the face of a conglomerate that is never at his stove and leaves a necessarily formulaic menu in place for his underlings to bash-out, albeit on fine crockery and under five meter high ceilings. (In the twenty months I worked for Robuchon he was absent only one dinner service)

Instead, whilst you are visiting restaurants look out for the chef-patron, see if he has food stains on his tunic, as though he has recently been in the proximity of food, is unshaven and hirsute as if indifferent to presentation, if he is awkward outside of his kitchen, implying he is happiest amongst his sauces and dead animals. If yes, to all of the above, then beg, cajole and plead entry into his establishment and be humble enough to absorb everything that is done there. Watch, learn and do everything that is demanded of you and acquire as many techniques as possible as this will give your later work greater breadth. Familiarize yourself with the ingredients that you use, identify why they are valuable. Ask as many questions as your betters’ patience will tolerate and challenge yourself to be the best in this environment. Continue the above formula until you’ve worked your way as far up the food chain as possible and always leave on good terms. These people have given you something valuable: knowledge.

When you’ve repeated these steps ad infinitum you might be deserving enough to attract a few sympathetic individuals with a little excess funds –are there any left in the UK?- that are genuinely excited by good food and you are able to seduce them with your vision and they magnanimously allow you to open your own place.

Good luck.

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Many thanks again to Richard Neat for doing the ‘5Questions’ for The Chef Hermes blog, also thanks goes to Warren Geraghty (formerly Mr Neat’s Head chef in London & Cannes) for helping us get in contact with him, along with Amanda Afiya from Caterersearch.com with help in locating Mr Neat

Richard Neat can be found at:

His blog Park Cafe Costa Rica

Or his restaurant’s fan page on FaceBook: Park Cafe Fan page

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Comments
9 Responses to “Words of Advice, The Legends ~ Richard Neat”
  1. chumbles says:

    Another brilliant and in this case, highly literate and entertaining, addition to the series; I hope lots of young would-be chefs are reading these – they certainly deserve a wide audience!

  2. simon says:

    another great piece, I really should pop back more often.

  3. john livingstone says:

    love this richard neat word of advice colum, I myself have been going through the same process and its all true, you discover your own aspiration, passion and love for food and the industry. I have yet to discover my mentor as such but take each knowledgable chef I’d gain more enthusiaium for the kitchen. Its also pleasing to get to see chefs who you worked for in the past to get some recognition within the industry. All I can say the industry never fails to allow to never stop learning about food!

    • chefhermes says:

      Thank you for your kind comments. We never worked for Richard, but always aware of him. An inspirational chef who’s words should be heeded by today’s younger chefs.

  4. david says:

    Absolutely brilliant! Reading that was like being transported back into his kitchen all over again! I was once fortunate enough to have had the pleasure of working for him at Neat London and I can still clearly remember leaving there every single night totally exhausted but feeling lit up inside by the pride and inspiration he would instil in me. It really was a privilege to work for Richard Neat, a magnificent chef, what a truly fantastically mind blowing experience it was. Bravo Richard and thanks for presenting me with the greatest gift any chef can carry with him into a kitchen – integrity.

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  2. […] which is part the burgeoning empire of Michel Roux Jnr. Having also worked for the former 2* legend Richard Neat in his French adventure, Mr Stuart has an impressive CV. Starting with a high standard in his […]

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