Brothers Chris and Jeff Galvin recently added to their impressive portfolio of restaurants and hotels in London and Edinburgh with the opening of Galvin at The Athenaeum. Chris, the elder of the pair, tells us about the added challenge of hotel kitchens, how he got into the restaurant business and the joy of working with his baby brother.
How would you define your cooking style?
It’s French modern classic cuisine. I often say that Jeff and I are like a pair of brogues: we’re never in fashion, but we’re timeless. Traditionally, we worked heavily with French ingredients. Because of the size of France, and with their AOC [Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée or controlled designation of origin], they really were strict on what a shallot should be like and how it should be grown and where it should come from, whereas we’ve never really had that in Britain. Fortunately, a lot of people with integrity are farming and using good husbandry [in the UK now], so we’re working more and more with British farms. It’s doesn’t necessarily have to be organic, but what is important is the husbandry and the conditions. Also, not rushing anything, just letting the tempo of life see its fullness; that makes a big difference to us. It’s making sure the ingredient’s the star. That’s our style.
What was your route into the business?
We come from a big family, and my gran was forever in the kitchen. She was cooking for a huge family, and I just loved to watch her cook. She’d grow a lot of her own: potatoes, rhubarb, gooseberries, pears. She kept chickens. She used to take me to Romford Market [in Essex]. I just loved to see the fish on the slabs and game in season.
I loved cooking at school and then, famously, I started washing up for [British chef] Antony Worrall Thompson and he helped me get a move to The Ritz London, where everything really took off. I made sure Jeff went to a good college and helped him get into The Savoy kitchen.
What was it like first setting up in business together, Galvin Bistrot de Luxe, in London in 2005?
I loved working for [restaurateurs] Chris [Corbin] and Jeremy [King] at The Wolseley and they had big plans, but I just couldn’t miss the opportunity to open our own business. It was everything and more than we ever wished for. I was 15 when I went into working in kitchens and, really, as a chef you disappear off the planet as far as family is concerned. So, it was great when Jeff was 18 and left college and he came into work for me. I was working in a boutique hotel down in Ludlow. We’re coming up to our 11th year working together and we’ve never had a cross word.
You and Jeff have worked, together and separately, in both restaurants and hotel kitchens. How do the two worlds compare?
There’s a big difference. In a hotel you’re looking after someone for 24 hours, whereas, in a restaurant, the curtain only lifts twice a day. It’s a good discipline for young chefs.
Galvin at The Athenaeum is the first time we’re looking after everything: restaurant, room service, banquets. It’s exciting because we always wanted to do hotels. That was a big part of it for us because almost 50 percent of our careers we’ve been based in a hotel and, having worked in most corners, from the banqueting side, room service, looking after the bars, I like to give as much care to everything as I would a restaurant. Also, if you’re going to put your name on the front door of a hotel, it reflects on you, so I’d rather be in control of that.
How important are reviews?
A good review can fill your restaurant. If you get a review that’s not what you wanted, you have to take it on the chin and, most importantly, learn from it. I love reading reviews on restaurants. Some you can take with a pinch of salt. There’s a group of writers that are highly accurate and pretty well trusted, but we are lucky today that we have that second opinion of social media. I’ve opened so many restaurants, and that’s the time you’re going to get reviewed. You’ve got builders. You’ve got so many things that interfere with that, [and] sometimes you can just be unlucky. In cities like London, you’ve got one bite of the cherry. You need to get it right.
What are your feelings about the London restaurant scene right now?
I just love the way [British chefs] cook now: cooking with the season, saying, “What’s available? What’s good?” They’re writing their menus that way and I love that. I love the fact that it’s not just French, it’s not just Italian; it’s modern British cooking and trying to put a label on a lot of it is near on impossible. I’m really excited about what’s happening in London right now. For years, we said, “London’s as good as Paris, as good as New York,” and it never was. But I would say it is now.