David Hands tells Richard McComb about his culinary journey from the West Midlands to the West Coast.
David Hands needs a special visa to return to New York and continue the job he loves.
The paperwork requires no less than 24 references to convince the authorities that his presence would be of benefit to Uncle Sam. These things are never straight-forward but it helps that David has a trump card when it comes to his personal sponsor: Thomas Keller – entrepreneur, culinary seer and all-round kitchen genius.
Keller is regarded as the finest chef in America and undoubtedly one of the greatest in the world. Food critics speak in hushed tones about The French Laundry, his temple to gastronomy in California’s Napa Valley.
No less stunning, certainly as far as Michelin, the food industry Bible, is concerned, is Keller’s New York restaurant, Per Se. Robert de Niro eats here, as does Al Pacino, Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes, Bruce Willis and most of the global celebrity A-list. If David and Victoria Beckham are in town, they head to Columbus Circle, where the restaurant overlooks Central Park, to indulge in otherwordly concoctions such as Keller’s signature Oysters and Pearls, a dish of caviar and oysters served on a bed of creamy pearl tapioca.
Ordinarily, this is where Hands, a graduate of Birmingham’s College of Food, plies his trade and it where he will return when his visa is approved, which hopefully could be any day. He won’t stay long in the Big Apple, though, because this chef is heading West.
Keller has big plans for Hands and is entrusting him with one of the main jobs at his brand new venture in Los Angeles. Hands has been appointed sous chef at Bouchon, a French-style bistro due to open later this year in Beverly Hills. From an Englishman in New York to the Beverly Hills’ Brummie, mentored by one of the greatest men ever to shave an Australian black winter truffle.
Hands is on some trip – and he’s still only 25. “It’s been a crazy turn around,” says the 2001 Egon Ronay Student Chef of the Year. There can’t be many chefs from three-star Michelin kitchens working in English pubs, but that is what Hands has been doing while awaiting visa clearance. He’s been working for his old friend, Hash Chavda, at The Oak at Hockley Heath, outside Solihull. Chavda got Hands his first catering job, at the Malt Shovel at Barston, when the lad was 16.
Although he is a born and bred Brummie, you wouldn’t know it from his accent. It is hard to pin it down, although there is a light drizzle of mid-Atlantic inflection. Hands is an assiduous time-keeper, a hang-over from hitting service deadlines in the kitchen at Per Se. Who wants lukewarm, tired Elysian Fields Farm’s “Selle D’agneau Rôtie Entière”?
So when my mobile phone goes two minutes before our scheduled meeting, it’s not entirely unexpected. Hands is calling to say he’s arrived at the designated meeting point, a cafe off Colmore Row in central Birmingham. He’s ready to roll. He’s always ready.
When he graduated in 2002, Hands didn’t bother staying on to complete his higher national diploma. He “dropped out,” he says, although he didn’t drop out at all. He got a job for two-star Michelin chef Michael Caines at Gidleigh Park, Devon – not bad as an introduction to commercial cooking. Hands ended up staying for four-and-a-half years, rising from commis to sous chef. “It was an invaluable experience, teaching me everything I know,” says Hands. Caines was “phenomenal, an inspiration.”
It was through a contact at Gidleigh Park that Hands secured a five-week stage at Per Se some two years ago. The contrast could not have been more pronounced, moving from a quintessential English country house hotel to the frenzy of Manhattan. Gidleigh might serve 40 covers a night – Per Se racks up 100 most evenings of the year. “I met Thomas Keller on the trial. He didn’t acknowledge me,” recalls Hands. “Because of the restaurant and because there are so many trials, you are just a face.”
Hands jumped at the offer of a job as chef de partie and it was only then that he came across Keller in full flow. “It was the first time I had seen him shout properly,” says Hands, who is clearly in awe of the master. “He is an absolute genius. It is his way – or no way. He is one of the greatest chefs that has ever lived.”
The preparation of the food is surgical, precise. “If it takes five hours to do something, it takes five hours. It has to be perfect,” says Hands. If Keller or head chef Jonathan Benno want the diced potatoes to be 1cm in size, 9mm is no good.
Hands takes me through a typical day at Per Se and it is exhausting just listening to him.
The first thing to understand is that the restaurant only does two menus. But take “only” with a large pinch of salt. These menus are vast and they change every day. There is the chef’s tasting menu and the “tasting of vegetables.” Both are nine courses and both cost $275, about £170. There are supplements, so a recent dish, Terrine of Hudson Valley Moulard Duck Foie Gras, slapped another $30 (£19) on the bill. That’s modest – the supplement for an optional white truffle risotto is $150 (£93). Service is included.
Lunch is the responsibility of a different team. It means Hands and the crew for the dinner service arrive around 11am. As a team of commis takes care of the prep and the back-up, Hands, as a chef de partie, will go through his orders from the previous night, check the produce, check the prep and fine tune and arrange his menu for the long day’s journey into night. There are five or six menu checks throughout the day. “The receptionist prints out the menus and every chef in the kitchen looks at it and watches for every mistake. By the time it is ready for service, the menu has been checked 100 times. It is all about perfection.”
The menus themselves are utterly seductive and concisely labelled, despite their inherent complexity. Take Scottish Langoustines “À La Plancha” (“Pain de Campagne” Melba, Marinated Summer Squash, Holland Eggplant Roulade and Cilantro Shoots with Pimenton Aïoli) or Saddle of 24 Carrot Farm’s Rabbit (Brentwood Corn Kernels, Celery Branch and Summer Truffles with Lovage Cream).
For dessert – three separate puds are served to each diner – there might be “Mud Pie,” not to be confused with the slop at American-style grills. Per Se serves up a “dark chocolate Mud Cake, liquid caramel, chocolate “crémeux” and caramel parfait with sassafras ice cream. Sara Lee it ain’t.
Hands says the kitchen might suggest a simple lemon sorbet, but he adds: “It would be the best in the world.
“Thomas Keller is all about using the best ingredients and using the best techniques to cook food the best way you can. We do a roast chicken. How many three-star Michelin restaurants do roast chicken? It is all about the best possible taste,” says Hands.
Service might finish around 1.30am-2am – “It’s the city that never sleeps,” says Hands – and then it’s clean down time, a cup of coffee ... and bed? No. There is then a meeting of all the chefs to plan the next evening’s menu. All chef de parties are expected to devise dishes for their section, which are then vetted and ultimately approved by Keller or his anointed one at Columbus Circle.
“On a good day, we get away at 3.30am. On a bad day it’s 4.30am,” adds Hands, who lives in Queens.
At Bouchon in LA, he will be right-hand man to head chef Rory Herrman, who he has worked with at Per Se. They anticipate cooking for anything up to 300 covers a night.
Keller has gone on record as saying the restaurant will be true to the flavours of a classic French cooking. He said: “I believe that a bistro has parameters and I want our food to have integrity and a connection with French bistro history. We’re not being interpretive here. We’re not making crème caramel flavoured with lavender.” It represents a brave new world for one of the finest chefs to come out of Birmingham. “It is a huge honour for me and it is going to be a challenge as well,” says Hands of his new role. “I couldn’t have had it any better than having Thomas Keller as my teacher and mentor.”