The Jetty in Christchurch is in an idyllic location; the picture-perfect backdrop of Mudeford Quay instantly takes my breath away as I head towards a modern timber building quite literally on the water’s edge. I’m at The Jetty, to meet with Alex Aitken – the man behind it all – to talk about life as a local celebrity, what it takes to win a Michelin Star, and how he’s turned Gary Rhodes’ restaurant into the success it is today.
BHbeat: The Jetty used to be run by Gary Rhodes when it was Rhodes South, how are you doing it differently?
Gary Rhodes’ style was a bit like ‘cooking by numbers’ – it’s very regimented, very unlike how we do it. I felt that it was very much in the style of a London restaurant, not a local neighbourhood restaurant. So my aim in taking it over was to use local food which is what we’re doing. We’re so close to the water it shouts out seafood although we certainly do other dishes. We have a catch of the day, and on that we could even name the boat it came from.
BHbeat: Where did it all start for you as a chef?
When I was a young lad I was bored, so I went and saw a friend of my uncle who owns a fishing boat, and at the age of 15 I ended up out there in the sea, fishing. I was earning £150 a week, which those many many many [laughs] years ago, was worthwhile! It was very hard work but amazing, and very impressionable. The amount of work that goes in at that level is immense.
BHbeat: How did you go from fisherman to restaurateur?
I’ve always loved food. Part of it came from my father being in the Royal Air Force, so we did eat out quite often in the Sergeant’s Mess; there were always quite big dinners and events.
Caroline and I had had an amazing meal at Le Gavroche in London, which at the time was the only three-star Michelin, and I just said, ‘we’ll open our own restaurant one day’.
“I just said, ‘we’ll open our own restaurant one day’.”
When I left the trawlers I got a job as a waiter, I went from one waiting job to another working my way up until I became restaurant manager. And then in 1983 my day came. With my wife eight and a half months pregnant, we bought our first restaurant in Brokenhurst called Le Poussin. It was a success right from the word go. She did have to have a baby at one point so that took her out of work for a day! But Le Poussin was a great success, we got fame in the Michelin guide, the good food guide, Times restaurant of the year, etc. We got the lot!
BHbeat: What does it take to win a Michelin Star?
Consistency and using the right produce. And you should do what you say; when I won my first Michelin star the food was very simple but it was great produce, and it was simply cooked. I felt elated; I wanted one for years and I kept it for 15+ years.
BHbeat: What is your cooking style?
If you look at the way people work, they write menus then go and find the ingredients. I take inspiration from the ingredients. Farmers’ markets are great; I go out and get produce then cook the food from there. It’s a better way because you’re always getting the best produce. We also grow our own, the flavour is immense. We’ve got a small holding in Sway with pigs, chickens, beef and lamb.
BHbeat: Have you got a signature dish?
Twice-baked cheese soufflé. People follow me around for it . You’ll have to try one! I’ve been doing it for years; everyone’s doing them now but no one does it the same. [At this point, Alex gets up and asks one of his team to put a cheese soufflé in the oven, and true to form, it’s as good as its reputation.]
BHbeat: Good quality produce can be expensive, do you think it’s pricing the public out of good food?
No, what prices them out is waste. And it prices most restaurants out of business. We are the most wasteful society there is. If you buy a good free range chicken for £10, you should get three or four meals out of that. And that’s what we don’t do; we roast a chicken, eat it at that meal time and then throw out the rest, and that’s the biggest problem; it is waste.
BHbeat: Do you think the Brits have a bad reputation for food?
Food in England is probably at its highest it’s been for years. We go through different revolutions and I have been around long enough to see Nouvelle cuisine. After the Nouvelle revolution, it opened the doors for people to develop their own styles, their own dishes and now with the TV shows it’s opened cookery up. You’ve now got your Heston Blumenthal’s which are chemists more than chefs.
BHbeat.com: Don’t you not like Heston?
Yes I do like him, he’s a great chef and a great cook. But how I explain it is like this: think of Vivienne Westwood, you wouldn’t wear a Vivienne Westwood, but some of her designs filter down. That’s how I see Heston Blumenthal. It’s funny, in his restaurant; he’ll give you an iPod so you listen to the sound of the sea when you’re eating. Here, you open a window!
“In his restaurant; he’ll give you an iPod so you listen to the sound of the sea when you’re eating. Here, you open a window!”
BHbeat.com: What do you think of the rise of the celebrity chef?
I think it’s brilliant. People know who I am now, what I’m going through. They’ve turned cooking into something big and important.
BHbeat.com: Do you think you’re a bit of a local celebrity yourself?
[Hesitates] Well, people like me to be here. I don’t go out begging for compliments, but there’ll be people in that may want to see me. Gordon’s a friend, Marco’s a friend. I’ve met a few people in the game through my career. I’ve cooked for Helen Mirren; she was lovely. I did Jamie Cullum and Sophie Dahl’s wedding recently – they were lovely too. Joe Perry from Aerosmith – took him out for a spin in my Lotus! When he came back he said to his wife “here hun, take a pic of me and the chef in the car!” Who else have I cooked for? Oh yes, the Queen mum!