Controversial is a descriptive word that is often associated with John Burton-Race. It would be too easy to accept the normative thinking and consider this a negative trait that somehow detracts from John Burton-Race the chef, consultant and creative food genius. John was the first to admit; "Yes, I've chucked a few plates in my day. I'm not rude for an ego thing and I'm not rude to be sensational about it. I did it because I was making my own statement about my cooking my standards and myself. While I'm able to practice my craft, I want to practice it to the best of my ability. My goal in my cooking is to please the customer, if I can't do that, or the people around me can't do that, then it just isn't acceptable." This incredible focus on doing nothing but the best is what drives John Burton-Race – yes he can appear to be abrupt, even arrogant, but it is not to be rude or presumptuous. Those who do not know him or understand his dedication to his craft and his customers substitute controversial for superior levels of confidence and determination.
Burton-Race is a master creator of the cooking art! His age, experience, talent and creative flair give him the right to be confident. Everything that John does in his restaurants or his consulting projects is focused on exceeding the customer's demands or expectations. Burton-Race has standards that he will not deviate from when it comes to his food. This fanatical adherence to standards is quite often misunderstood for controversial. John's take on his reputation was simple; "I'm considered to be controversial because I won't play the game. I don't have time for that, I want to move ahead with my plans." In fact, these standards and an incredibly strong need to continue achieving and setting new benchmarks for the industry are what defines John Burton-Race as one of the premier practitioners of his craft.
Burton-Race did not just appear on the London fine dining circuit as some upstart celebrity chef out to make a name for himself. He is a highly successful businessman who for several years was the driving force behind L'Ortolan, a unique gastronomic oasis in rural England. His desire to be the best, to cook with the best that England had to offer brought him to London, he simply could not meet his goals anymore in Shinfield, Berkshire. John was matter of fact about why he moved on from a successful Two Star Michelin restaurant to starting over again in London; "It's the money! I wanted to expand, grow and broaden my horizons and I couldn't do it anymore at L'Ortolan. We didn't have the space, we didn't have the trade and we were outgrowing our local customer base. As we studied our customers and where they were coming from, it quickly became obvious that we had to move to London to go to the next level. We completely and in every way outgrew it." Burton-Race is well known in gastronomic circles for his food and his creativity, but he is also known and respected for his business acumen. He is pragmatic about the role of the chef and the chef owner; "If a business expands, you expand with it, or you have your limitations."
However, to make the transition, the circumstances had to be just right, if the new venture was going to be a commercial and gastronomic success. The timing of John's move coincided with the rise in popularity of the celebrity chef and their signature restaurants. The major hotels were looking for a new innovation to attract the clientele that could appreciate fine dining and superior accommodations. A marriage was made between John Burton-Race and The Landmark Hotel - this new restaurant was to be the site of John's latest triumphs and the showcase for his "modern British food with a French heritage".
The Burton-Race style of cooking comes from a variety of different influences, restaurants and chefs. "I didn't have any one particular individual that I would have considered a mentor, I admired several – Raymond Blanc, Michel Gerard and Michel Bras. I have an affinity to their style of work, an appreciation of what they do and can relate perfectly to what they are trying to achieve. I also like the classic styles and relate to the greats, Bocuse and the Roux brothers." This gave Burton-Race his solid base and foundation from which he developed his own unique style. John was quick to emphasize how the process works; "I didn't take from the style of these chefs, I learned from it and used my talents and skills to evolve it. The great chefs are the ones that move the craft forward. The difference between a great chef and a good one is an identifiable style, much like a painter; you have to have a signature. It isn't style for style's sake or magazine cookery, it's a little bit of style, a little bit of craft and the art comes afterward."
So what is "modern British food with a French heritage"? It's food that reflects the rich heritage of the formidable British Empire and all the influences that have come with the military, political and commercial conquests of past centuries. John detailed it; "You have to look beyond our roast potatoes and roast beef and respect the influences that have come from countries all around the world. It's a history of food; you can't exclude an Indian influence or something from the Far East or Africa. The key is in how we do it. We have the freedom to do anything we like when we're cooking, because we aren't conditioned to a certain style, we can cook any way we want and use any ingredients that we want. I use traditional French classical techniques, but the food is the absolute opposite to the French. French cooking is so blinkered, everything has to be very, very French, they are so committed to their ways that no other influences are allowed in." Burton-Race was very explicit in his thinking on why cooking has evolved the way it has over the past few years. "It's about time! Today's businessmen don't have time for a full luncheon any more. Less than 60% of my customers have desserts, 80% only has two courses. People are very weight conscious and concerned with butter and fat. As chefs and businessmen, you've got to progress. The world is changing and you've got to change with it or you die."
Again, timing and standards are critical to John Burton-Race. "Seven seconds is the difference between a great meal and a good meal! Timing is the most important issue in the kitchen – any piece of meat or fish can't be held beyond seven seconds from when it's prepared until it is in front of the customer. Every product has a rest period in the cooking cycle, but it's very short and after that, it's gone and you've ruined it!" John agrees that ingredients are important and he always strives for the freshest products possible, but to him the real essence of any meal and the driving force behind any kitchen is timing, timing and timing.
Achieving this delicate balance in the cooking and the kitchen is all down to the equipment. John confirmed; "If you haven't got the right equipment, you're dead!" In John Burton-Race's restaurant, there is no other cooking equipment except Garland. "It's a company that's on the move and a company that wants to be leading edge. I was really impressed by the enthusiasm of the company for product quality, excellent service, backup and support. I've been involved with Garland for quite some time and I've seen them evolve into a company that is totally responsive to the customer. They put the chef with the engineers to come up with a solution that is perfect for my needs. For me, it's a personal thing, they showed me loyalty and now I'm loyal to them!" John Burton-Race is not concerned with impressive electrical or digital displays and readouts. It isn't about pre-programming, it's about functionality, and productivity and most of all heat and power. "Any cooker looks good in the show room or in the leaflets, but what does it look like or how does it perform after 14 straight hours in a busy kitchen? That's when you get the real test of how good the equipment really is and whether or not it will stand up to the pressure."
For John Burton-Race, the Master Series Designer Island Suite is the answer to a number of operational issues. It delivers outstanding power, it's built like a tank and best of all, it's modular, so he had the ultimate in flexibility when he designed his kitchen. In a historical site such as the Landmark, a fixed suite was not a possibility; Burton-Race's suite had to be designed so that it could fit into the space that he had to work with in an existing building. "The modular system insures that you get a kitchen any way you want it. You get what you want and then you cover it with a huge top. It's brilliant and perfect for me." The kitchen at the Landmark also benefited from the total kitchen solutions that are provided by Garland's parent company, Enodis. Enodis is the largest food equipment company in the world and they brought this expertise to the design and outfitting of John's kitchen. "There isn't an overall better company for me. The same company did the ventilation, the fire system. The same company put in the refrigeration. Different companies, same name and it all worked to give me the best solution to my needs." The total kitchen solution made designing and operating this new signature kitchen an exercise in simplicity. John summarized his relationship for us; "If you're asking me am I happy, I'm very happy!" But, knowing John Burton-Race's controversial side, if he wasn't happy, I'm sure we would know about it.