Confidential caught up with Create Executive Chef Richard Walton-Allen - former head chef at Harvey Nichols in Leeds - to talk about how his new project is changing lives - and to get the low down on the menu at their 120 cover city centre restaurant.
"All the kudos and all the rest of it honestly doesn’t mean anything to me. In the big scheme of things when I’m 75 years of age sat in my armchair, will I remember that? Not really."
Leeds is a very crowded food market so people have lots of choice. Is Create a foodie act of charity to support disadvantaged people, or is this a genuine attempt to be as good as the rest?
Secondly the aim has to be - absolutely has to be - a restaurant with serious standards because we are selling ourselves to the masses. We’re going to train people up to a great standard and we’re asking employers to take them straight from our training academy, therefore we have to be real and do a real job.
What’s the aim of the training programme in this restaurant?
The aim is to get people from worklessness so they haven’t got jobs and a lot of them are disadvantaged in their lives. So they could be homeless, temporary or permanent, they could have other barriers like alcohol or drug dependency, so they are workless.
Our aim is to get them back to work. We know if people can work then they have value in their lives; something they can believe in so they can change their lives.
We run a voluntary programme and they are all volunteers. They give up their time to come on a programme with us for 12 weeks, and during that time we will do anything we can to get them to a point where they can walk into a job, any job. It doesn't matter what industry, just a job.
So you're using the discipline of the food industry to give people the skills and confidence to go out and find a job - wherever it may be?
In a nutshell. A great example I always use is one of our trainees coming into either the kitchen or our outside catering arm. Before that, they’ve done a period in the academy learning about confidence, doing basic stuff like customer service, food hygiene, health and safety. It’s just basic entry-level stuff to make sure they are safe.
They come into a kitchen and are given a written set of basic instructions. To me, that is a transferable skill wherever you go. That applies to any entry-level job, and we are talking about entry level, and there is nothing wrong with that, you can go to an employer and say I can follow a list of instructions.
So after that 12-week course they can go and say, yep, I can follow a list of instructions and every day I completed them. That’s a transferable skill that is useful in any job you ever do.
So a hard core of food professionals will be supported by the trainees who will pick up some of the skills in this industry. You’ve been in the game a long time, do you think the food industry is the right one to tackle worklessness?
I’ve seen it happen in the time I've been with Create. I’ve seen people go from not being very confident; certainly having no self regard. They’ve been told all their lives they are worthless, right from school; everyone who influenced them in their lives told them they are no good.
There are two ways of looking at it. You can think 'just get off your knees'. You can think that, and I've had that view. You can also think, how would I feel if that was me?
If every teacher you met, every person in authority, every time you came in touch with an organisation, a judge or policeman who told you were worthless or you couldn’t be anyone? Then you’ve got to the stage where you didn't have anywhere to live and you couldn't work.
Then you're told you can try this and we will give you our time and some real skills. That's what this is all about and, again, I go back to the fact it is voluntary.
No government body is forcing them to come and no-one is forcing them to be here. They have to give up their time and their energy and passion to be here.
I can absolutely guarantee they understand what work is about and they understand the rewards work can give them. I think this industry is perfect for that, and you have to work hard wherever you are in this industry.
CreateIt seems to be a big shift from being Leeds chef of the year to come into a start up business with those challenges and a set of people who might struggle when the heat is on. What made you do it?
I don’t see it like that, I really don't. To me it’s a great opportunity, still with food and still with people.
Of course, there is a lot of kudos about some of the places I've worked, like Harvey Nichols, of course there is. I’m getting value out of doing this too. I can go home at night and think I’ve done a great job today. I’ve added value to a person, which is even better, I’ve served the customers, turned out a great product and I've added value to someone, and to me that is great.
All the kudos and all the rest of it honestly doesn’t mean anything to me. It was nice, and I can see why people like it, but in the big scheme of things when I’m 75 years of age sat in my armchair, will I remember that? Not really.
"I’m not a chef who definitely has a signature forever, and I’m terrible for being bit of a magpie. I love ingredients that I’m really passionate about and enjoy. I may go one way, and then use them again a couple of years later."
So that why you're doing it, but what is it when people are making tough decisions about spending 50 quid on a meal that you and the team will offer that will drag those punters in?
It’s the million-dollar question and the fact is we hope we have a package. So we’ve got really nice surroundings; a good content in the menu and drinks list and we’ve been really true to the strong values I believe in, and the passion I’ve built up over 25 years.
So take some great ingredients and great products that I passionately care about, and the customer ends up with a great experience.
There are people doing that but I don't believe there are people doing it consistently in the way we are doing it in this area. That would a fair way to say it.
Then we’ve got great people with a really interesting story. But that doesn't mean that when people spend money here they don't have an expectation that the meal will be good - and it will be
The service is going to be great and the meals are going to be great, and on top of that you’ve interesting people with a great back-story. And every penny you spend is directly helping other people.
You’ve got 25 years in the game, mainly at the top level, what sort of dishes can people expect when they come in here?
That’s good question because it‘s the squirmy questions from a chef’s point of view. I’m not a chef who definitely has a signature forever, and I’m terrible for being bit of a magpie. I love ingredients that I’m really passionate about and enjoy. I may go one way, and then use them again a couple of years later.
We’ve got some great dishes we’ve developed. One is sea trout which, I think, is a fantastic fish and underrated in this country. You get a more delicate flavour than salmon and it’s a beautiful dish and we garnish it with a couple of things. One is poached razor clams, and we’ve cut them up into little bite sized pieces.
Allen (right) and a traineeAgain, it’s a British product, which we have all the way up our coast, all the way to Scotland. It’s bit of a trotted out old fact, but 90 per cent of them are exported to mainly Spain and Portugal. When you’re sat on the beach eating them over there they were probably dug up in Hartlepool.
So an absolutely fantastic dish and a bit underrated. We've garnished it Spanish style with little croquetas flavoured with Wensleydale and courgettes in there. It's a beautiful dish, summery with some fantastic British ingredients that are overlooked and underrated.
If people are not sure why they should try Create what would you say to them - especially if they are looking at their bank balance and consider your new place a bit of a risk?
What I would say is we're no more risky then anywhere else and we would almost guarantee that they would have an experience. We're selling an experience here because we've got lots of things coming together in one place.
So if nothing else, you're coming here to have that experience and buying into something special, and have a taste of a restaurant that is doing something that isn't being done anywhere else.
Create are certainly practising what they preach as three of the kitchen staff and two of the front of house of team are former trainees, with four more out front soon after the opening weekend.
Confidential talked to Richard as he was preparing to open Create - so he invited us to be a guinea pig for the new menu...
I plumped for an old favourite, a grilled plaice fillet that came with seasonal green beans and black bean salsa. The service was efficient without being OTT, and I took the recommendation of new potatoes with herb butter as a side.
Plaice with asparagusBearing in mind it wasn’t a full service, I have to say the plaice was a quality piece of fish and was grilled to my satisfaction. The beans were fresh and not overcooked, but the salsa was a masterstroke as the sharp taste worked wonderfully well with the meaty fish. My only minor quibble was the butter on the potatoes could have been melted a little more.
There’s no doubting Richard’s enthusiasm for this new project, and his pedigree will be a key component of its success or failure, but the signs are good.
Time will tell if the food lovers of Leeds will agree. Confidential will be back for a paid for review over the next few weeks.
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