Gordon Ramsay may have gotten most of the press at his eponymous restaurant, Gordon Ramsay at the London West Hollywood, both before and after he sold it early this year, but executive chef Andy Cook has been the one behind the stoves every night. We caught up with Cook recently, shortly after he opened Boxwood Café, the more informal dining room at the London. Cook, a 32 year-old native of Birmingham, England, had previously worked for Ramsay in England and Japan, and has been the London's executive chef since it opened in the summer of 2008. Cook is engaging, funny and remarkably quiet. But then, compared to Ramsay, everyone's quiet. Check back tomorrow for the second part of the interview, and for Cook's recipe for wild mushroom risotto.
Squid Ink: Has anything changed since Gordon Ramsay sold the restaurant last February?
Andy Cook: Not really, the same management's in place. I'm still here. Most of the staff that we started with is still here. In terms of how we run things, no, nothing's changed. The standards and rules are the same. We've just started the Boxwood, which is a less formal style of dining in the front half of the restaurant, to appeal to the local market a bit more. It's still Gordon Ramsay, but it's a bit more reflective of California and a more relaxed style of dining. It gives us a broader scope as well as the fine dining. Something that's not too intimidating.
SI: Is Ramsay still involved?
AC: He's still connected. We still discuss menus on a weekly basis. Obviously anyone who would expect him to be here every day is going to be disappointed. Like any of these chefs--like [Alain] Ducasse and [Joël] Robuchon--they rely heavily on the management that they put in place. That's why we're here. Gordon puts a lot of trust in people like myself, and people like Josh Emett in New York. We've all worked for Gordon for a long time and we all understand what it means to run a Gordon restaurant. And I think that's the important thing. It's not just about coming to a restaurant and expecting Gordon to be in the kitchen cooking the dishes, it's about the service, the food, the experience, as opposed to Gordon being here every night. You know, I wish he could be, but he's not.
SI: How do you like L.A.?
AC: It seemed weird to wake up with blue skies, as opposed to waking up every morning to it being miserable. I'm originally from the Midlands, near Birmingham. That's not to say that the weather's all bad in the UK: it gets a bad rap. But you certainly don't go there to get a suntan. It's great here, I love the community, I love the fact that you can go to Runyon Canyon and see people on a regular basis; it has that local feel to it. Malibu's just down the road, you can go skiing. It's great.
SI: What's your favorite ingredient to cook with?
AC: I would say game. This time of year, you have the harvest season, you have all these interesting ingredients coming up, like partridge, quail, venison. I love cooking with meat, but this time of year, game is great. Chefs like to play with things that are unusual, and they like to surprise their guests and get them to experience things they wouldn't normally experience. Open their minds a little bit.
SI: Has cooking in L.A. changed how you cook?
AC: Not necessarily. I think one thing that's been great about California is the produce that's out here. It's absolutely amazing. You have this wonderful one long season, in which you get the best of every product. I mean the tomatoes are fantastic, to have amazing strawberries year-round, the citrus is absolutely fantastic. And to have that connection as well with the local farmers--going to the farmers markets or the farms themselves--it's really opened the doors to experimenting with really fresh produce that's in season. Great cooking isn't really about what you do to a dish, but maybe what you don't do to a dish. A friend of mine who's a musician says that it's not knowing when to play, but when not to play. And I think what's important in cooking is knowing when to stop.
SI: What's your first culinary memory?
AC: I would say the first time I remember experiencing anything that wasn't my mum's cooking was my dad taking me to a pub for the first time and having a chip butty. I don't know if you know what a chip butty is. A chip butty is basically like French fries--we call them chips--big fat chips between two big slices of buttered white bread. With loads of ketchup. And I remember going to this car show, and on the way back we went to this pub in Warwick and sat down at the bar and he had his pint of ale and I had my pint of Coke and we ordered these two chip butties. And from what I remember, I don't know if it's true, but the bread was about 4 inches thick and the sandwich was about half a foot tall. That may be my imagination. But that was my first real experience of dining out. And I haven't had one since. I don't know what that says.
SI: Who's been the most influential person in your cooking life?
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AC: It would have to be Gordon. I know it's a trick question. And my mum to a certain extent; she's a fantastic cook. She could make the fastest Victoria sponge I've ever known anyone to make. Literally, it would be someone's birthday and we wouldn't have a cake and she would disappear into the kitchen and come back 5 minutes later with a Victoria sponge with jam and cream. No, it was all fresh. You'd hear the KitchenAid going and some commotion, and out would come this cake. That kind of spawned my love of cooking. Because cooking was not what I wanted to do at all. Being a chef growing up in the UK, growing up in the Midlands--it's not a profession that most people take.
One of the first jobs I had, I think I was 14 or 15, was working in a pub near where my parents lived. I got into the kitchen the first day and I was basically washing up and prepping salad. I arrived on the first day and there were three chefs there. One of them was an ex bank robber, one of them was an alcoholic and one of them was a drug addict. I remember one of them turning around and saying to me, so you want to be a chef? And I was like, are you fucking joking? Not a chance.
SI: So what did you want to be?
AC: I think I just wanted to be rich and famous, as every young boy does when he's 15 years old. To make a long story short, I went and worked for Gordon in London and that was my first real introduction to fine dining and restaurants. That was it. I was hooked. And not just the food side of it, but the energy behind it. This was the time when Marco Pierre White was really big and there was that whole rock-and-roll image of being a chef. That got me hooked, and from there there was no turning back.