Chris Galvin, Chef.
If London had such a thing as a culinary landscape in the late 1960s, it wasn’t one that would inspire poets, be rendered in beautiful watercolours or perhaps even make the subject matter of a set of cheap postcards.
Chris Galvin was there, and he has tales that paint the city as a gastronomic wasteland, where supplies for even the city’s best restaurants (not a hotly contested arena) were meagre. Ingredients were whispered about by chefs in the hushed tones of drug addicts talking about a new supplier they’d heard of. The next fix of herbs. An incoming delivery of smuggled meat.
Chris Galvin, I should probably mention at this point, is a reliable source. In those dark times, he was an aspirational young kitchen hand, washing pots by night and knocking on doors by day, his eager foot ready for the next rung on the ladder. Today he is one of London’s most successful and respected chefs, with string of restaurants and Michelin stars, so you can listen to his war stories with some reassurance.
“In the late 1960s,” he says, pausing to intimate I should brace myself for the horrors to come, “There was only one type of olive oil available.” I try to suppress an audible gasp. “You had to get it in vials from the chemist. Chefs were desperate for ingredients. I can tell you stories of people getting stopped for smuggling meat into the country. Pigeon. Lamb, even.”
It’s hard to imagine. Chris, now in his mid-50s runs a string of endlessly-lauded London restaurants, many joint ventures with his brother Jeff, twelve years his junior.
They grew up in the austere shadows of the East End of London. Many people would romanticise the era and the conditions, but it’s safe to say not every day was a succession of cheery Cockneys and sing-a-longs around the piano. It was here that Chris’ grandmother ignited a lifelong passion.
“My Nan, like many people in the East End, had a wall garden with all types of fruit and vegetables,” recalls Chris. “She had ten of us kids to feed and though I don’t know how she did it, she would always turn whatever she had into a meal.”
“It was through her that I became acutely aware of the seasons, what produce would be ripe at which times of year, how to make the most of seasonal variations. She was a great cook. I don’t say fine or fancy, but what she did, she did very well.”
Chris’ enthusiasm for flavours was fanned at school, where he was lucky enough to be able to stay behind and take a host of cookery classes, a perk he bemoans the passing of these days.
For Chris, a chance came with the sound of one door opening. At 15 years old, he assumed a lowly position, washing up at a humble neighbourhood restaurant called The Old Log. Luckily, an ambitious young chef called Anthony Worrall Thompson would recognise his abilities and propel him on his course.
Chris was already being consumed by French cuisine, a tradition he has stuck by for much of his career and that defines his current roster of restaurants.
“People often ask me – why French? I tell them there is a litany of reasons. For one, the sheer legacy of French cuisine. Escoffier came to London in 1890 and opened the Savoy with Cesar Ritz. All the successive best restaurants had French chefs. French is the very language of cooking and of food.”
Chris fell in love with the work of chefs such as Michel Guerard and Paul Bocuse. The London restaurant scene was slowly changing, and as the 1980s progressed, high gastronomy began to take hold.
The chance for abilities to be honed and to work with great names was suddenly a reality. Chris landed at The Ritz and then Inigo Jones, both additions to the wealth of French-influenced restaurants preferred by the high flyers of the city, who suddenly found they had a new, exciting gastronomic playground.
But Chris had always been about the democratisation of food, a culinary socialist who wanted fine experiences to be available to the masses. Again, he found himself in the thick of a movement, this time in the late 1990s working with Conran Restaurants.
“Conran turned the London restaurant scene around,” he says. “He made these places available to a whole new category of diner.” Chris recalls the “truly magical gastrodome” of Pont de la Tour, and the joy he experienced opening Mezzo and Orrery, among others.
His brother Jeff was by now an excellent chef in his own right, and as their paths crossed at Orerry, the seeds of a working partnership were sown and found fertile ground. Both had garnered Michelin stars and London was enjoying its most assured culinary times.
This scene was galvanised (more appropriately, Galvin-ised) by the opening of Galvin Bistrot de Luxe in Baker Street. Amid high levels of competition, it immediately won Best French Restaurant two years running.
With momentum behind them, just a year later the brothers debuted one of the city’s most talked-about eateries, Galvin at Windows on the 28th floor of the London Hilton on Park Lane.
It wasn’t long, though, before their roots started to call, and they looked East once more. “We obviously had a lot of old friends from the East End, many of whom had got jobs working in the City,” says Chris. “They all wanted us to open a place there.”
But these were tentative times now, both logistically and economically. Chris voiced some doubt. “At first we were unsure. The mix of people there is incredibly diverse – artists, bankers, bohemians, corporate types – we didn’t really feel we understood it. But we’d always loved this idea of democratic dining and not being pigeon-holed, so we went for it anyway.”
These new restaurants, La Chapelle and Café a Vin, at once bought the kind of critical acclaim that the brothers were getting more than used to. While Chris characterised the approach as his ‘democratic dining’ approach, Jeff would call it ‘fine dining with the edges knocked off’, both looking to avoid elitism and snobbery.
While united in their principles, I wondered if anything separated the brothers, aside from the 12 years between their birthdays. “Jeff has always been a brilliant food technician,” says Chris proudly. “I’m more all-round – design, front of house – but he’s also turning that way, and can easily design his own kitchens these days.”
They try to stay true to their local roots, grounding themselves among the very produce that may once have come from their Nan’s wall garden. “We always loved the markets and they had a huge influence on our lives,” says Chris. “When we opened our first places, we used to sleep in on the banquettes in the restaurants so that we could get up early and get the best produce.”
Success may have been hard fought for, but as the London restaurant scene becomes truly world-class, the brothers Galvin want to bring up a new generation of talent to staff the great restaurants of the future – which theirs will no doubt number among.
Their most high-profile focus is on young people who may have come from similar backgrounds to them – underprivileged, but with a work ethic and some passion.
Galvin’s Chance is a charity that for the last three years has taken in around 20 young people from deprived backgrounds. Money is raised by a star-studded race up the 28 floors of the Park Lane hotel, with proceeds going to fund work placements in their restaurants for the chosen few.
“Some chefs have similar schemes that put these kids in the back kitchens, but that’s not our way,” Chris explains. “We want them at the front of the house, meeting people from all walks of life, perhaps losing a chip on their shoulders if they meet a high flyer that came from where they came from.”
“The restaurant industry is an amazing opportunity,” he carries on. “Working in it can teach you how to cook, how to write, broadcasting, designing, language skills – it’s an unbelievable all-round education and you can work through it gaining a wealth of talents.”
Given his 30 years working 18 hour days in sometimes unforgiving kitchens – the pressures, the personal investments, the cutthroat competition – you’d forgive Chris Galvin some cynicism, even a certain amount of jadedness.
But that’s nowhere near the truth. Telling me he and his brother have “never had a cross word”, Chris is brimming with the enthusiasm and optimism that you imagine he had on his first shift as that young dishwasher at the Old Log.
He signs off telling me how he loves seeing the kids in Galvin’s Chance improve themselves. “I was frustrated for so long, and maybe some of these kids have been, too, but I believe that we all have good in us given the right chances.”
If there was living proof of this, it’s hard to think of better than the brothers Galvin.