Paul Raynor was part of the so-called Brit-pack who came over to Melbourne in the nineties and took the restaurant scene by storm. There was no going back, for Paul or for Melbourne food.
When you can call great chefs such as Albert Roux, Michel Roux Jnr., Paul Wilson, Andrew Turner and Rory Kennedy, not only mentors, but friends, well then you are really in amongst it. Yet, Paul Raynor is one of the most down to earth chefs I have met. Fresh from renovating and relaunching The Baths Middle Brighton, he is excited to welcome diners into his beautiful seaside restaurant and give them a stunning dining experience. See you there!
How did you get to be here in such a beautiful place?
I came to Australia 19 years ago with Georges Department Store when that opened up with Martin Webb in the kitchen and from there after a year or so I moved on to The Stokehouse. I ran the kitchen in The Stokehouse for two and a half years and then it was a bit of a switch. I came here when this had just been opened about three months and the guy here, Maurice Esposito, went to The Stokehouse. I worked here for about three and a half years and it was a beautiful place but then it was time to move on. So then I did a few other things. I worked at Werribee Mansion which is part of the Sofitel spa. I did that for two and a half years, which was good. It had good things and bad things about it. I learned a lot there management-wise and started looking after Sofitels across Australia and went to board meetings and tried to influence a lot of kitchens across Australia through Sofitel. It was interesting. I learned how to deal with managers and people a bit more diplomatically, rather than just being a chef.
Then I came back and did another place called Embassy@97 on Fitzroy Street; a little cafe. I was walking past one day and there was a lease sign up. It was a small place and I thought well if I do it I’m not going to lose a lot of money. If I lose, I lose, if I don’t I don’t. I took it on. I did pretty well there and then after about a year, year and a half, a friend of mine, Liz, who has worked in the office here pretty much since it opened, for some reason called me up and said The Baths are struggling a little bit, he’s looking to get out, would you be interested? So I made a phone call, met the guy who was running it at the time. I came in for dinner and lunch, saw the potential and thought it had something I could really turn around. So we didn’t have much money, me and my wife, being a chef, you don’t get paid much, not like you do now sometimes. So I agreed to a management agreement. I paid a lot of money for a management agreement just to be able to get into the place, run the place, take profits and pay all the rent and all that but I had a clause in there that after twelves months I could purchase the business for a certain amount of money. I thought I’d never get it, I wanted to show them what the place could make and we showed the bank and they looked at it and came back to us and said yes, so me and my wife mortgaged our house and our cars, everything. We started with nothing really, just had a leap of faith and went for it. We really believed in the potential of the place and wanted to see what it could do. It had never really reached its potential so we took it on board. There’s the restaurant upstairs, the café downstairs and the gymnasium next door which we sublease out. We’re 8 years in this year. When you borrow quite a bit of money to open your own business you still have to pay it back. There’s lots of payments and so on. But we’re very lucky, we’ve got some good suppliers and we’re doing very well which is why we decided to relaunch and change a little bit the way we were going to make it more accessible for everyone. It’s a beautiful place.
It’s stunning. Even working here and looking out at all that must be great.
A lot of people say they didn’t even know it was here. We really want to get people to come down and try The Baths. We’ve got breakfast downstairs and lunch, and the weekends we’ve got breakfast upstairs as well now from 7 o’clock. We’ve never done that before. Part of it was that it was so busy downstairs for breakfast, we thought we’d take the pressure off by doing it up here too then the service and the food gets better down there too. So there’s something for everyone. It’s been a fresh start, a chance to recharge the batteries. I wanted to forget everything I had done before and try and look at things in a different light. You know when you’ve done something for seven years and everything is trained in your brain. It’s good to try and think outside of that square and do something different. Some things won’t work and some things will work.
So it’s modern Australian food?
Yeah, modern Australian. I’m French trained so I do like French cooking. Different styles of cuisine, you just can’t pick them up by reading a book, so I try and work more with what I know; the French cuisine. But I get a lot of influences from the chefs who have done a bit of Asian cuisine which they bring to the venue. It’s very important the chefs get their ideas in there as well; it’s not just me.
So you work off other people…it’s interesting you say you can’t get ideas from books, so do you…
You can get ideas from books, but I’m a person who learns from feel. Some people can read it in a book and do it straight away. But I can’t just read a recipe. I have to actually do it. I have to be hands on to do it. Put me in a kitchen and get me doing it.
For example Steph Warner has done a lot of organic food and fresh raw food and I’m getting her in here to have a chat with her and I’ll get her to come in the kitchen with me so I can get a feel for a different aspect of food. That style of food has really come up a lot now. I mean, we can do it, but I want to make sure we do it right.
She’s a fairly young girl, but it will give me a chance to grow. She’s been doing it for a couple of years, so get her in and pick her brains.
That’s great because not everyone is open to that, are they?
People can be quite narrow-minded. I know because I was, myself. But you have to embrace it. And it gives her a chance as well, she might be able to learn something off me too, so we are sharing the love around.
I like to think that there’s a community of chefs who do work together.
I think everyone should just get on. Life’s too short to argue. Some people are all, he stole my dish or whatever, but no one stole any dish because everything has been done before and all you’re doing is tweaking it, you know? If someone takes a dish from here and does it somewhere else, I look at it as a compliment more than anything else. They respected what I did so they took it somewhere else. And that’s the way you have to look at it, I think.
Food is a massive thing. When I came here 19 years ago, the food was good but the produce wasn’t good. The produce you get now and the tastes in restaurants now…we have such a diverse culture here and so many restaurants are good quality restaurants. It makes it hard though because it’s difficult to get quality staff because it’s too thinly spaced around the industry. Sometimes I think that makes you have to adapt the style of food you do as well because you could cook great food; two or three hat food but there’s no point if your chefs aren’t capable of that so you have to choose food that matches the calibre of your chefs and then slowly get them to where you want. You can’t expect them to get there straight away.
That’s right, I was talking to Paul Tyas at The Grosvenor last week and he said some similar things to that; you really need to keep staff and train them. And I’d just seen that movie ‘Burnt,’ with Bradley Cooper yelling at everyone and Paul said that he had started off like that but he’d had to change for exactly that reason because you have to keep staff and it takes a while to train them to where you want them to be.
Paul worked here for a while, a year and a half, I think. We’re very good friends. He’s having his wedding here in October or November. When he told me he was getting married, I said to him, come to The Baths. He said, “Look if there’s one thing I want, it’s to have you and your wife there and if it’s here, you’ll be working.” I told him, “I promise you I’m not working that night.” And he said as long as I promised that, he’d have the wedding here. Deal’s on. He’s a good guy.
But it’s the same for me. I’ve worked in some really tough kitchens in London and it was a beastly sort of thing; it was really hard and you’re working in demanding kitchens. It has to change. I look back and I was a really hard chef when I was younger, at The Stokehouse and when I was here the first time. I wish someone had tapped me on the shoulder fifteen years ago and said, that’s no way to run a kitchen, mate.
I had a chance to work for Gordon Ramsay in London when he was at the top of his game. I’d been working for Albert Roux in Amsterdam, then in Paris with him, and then a few places in London. Then I went to Le Gavroche. It was one of the things I really wanted to do; I really wanted to work in a Michelin star restaurant before I did anything else. I was getting to about 23, 24 years old and I thought I better do it now or I won’t. I went back from working in Paris where I was a Sous Chef on £22, 000 a year, which was good money. In January I went to the Gavroche which was £8000 a year. People said why did you do that mate? But the amount of knowledge you can learn from a chef like Michel Roux Jnr was, well you can’t pay for that. I was looking at the big picture. I thought, this two star Michelin with Michel Roux Jnr., later on in my career, I will have done that and no one can take that away from me. It’ll stand me in good stead for my whole career. To me, a year and a half there was the most I learned anywhere. I learned to cook great food there; basic techniques, simple techniques. It doesn’t have to be complicated.
Michel Roux, as a person, is one of the people I look at very highly in my career. He was a magician. He’d pull a terrine together with no effort. And he’d never raise his voice in the kitchen. He’d be there at 8 o’clock in the morning and leave at 3 o’clock, be back at 5 and leave at 10. Every day. As calm as anything in the kitchen. Shit’s hitting the fan, he’s calm and collected. No raising his voice. I think maybe once or twice he raised it if people were being lazy, but that was it. And I thought gee, the difference between working with that and working at Ramsay’s place where he’s throwing plates at you and pinning people up against the wall. You don’t have to do that to do good food. And that’s what I try to get through to the guys now. You don’t have to work 60-70 hours a week, and you don’t have to be beastly in the kitchen to do good food. You have to be organised and managed. I look at it like, if we get in the kitchen and we get in the shit, it’s me and the managers who have screwed up, not them, because we didn’t check their sections, we didn’t check their mise en place. We didn’t give them the tools to get it right, so look at ourselves first before we start having a go at them. If you told someone I worked with 15 years ago at The Stokehouse I’d be talking like this, they’d say is that the same guy? You learn and you grow.
I work on the floor as well and I’ve realised that front of house get it from the customer and from the kitchen and they’re in the middle of the sandwich. I wish I’d been made to do it back then actually.
That’s right. I remember when I was working front of house, I was quite scared of the kitchen staff at first.
They still are. But the kitchen has got to be approachable. If it isn’t then the team on the floor aren’t going to come and ask questions and they’ll try and bullshit their way through which doesn’t do any favours for the restaurant. And nothing’s a stupid question. You’ve got to embrace it. If you want them to serve your food at a quality standard, you’ve got to spend the time working with them. It’s as simple as that.
You must have started off quite young?
I left school at sixteen and went to Grinsby. I went to Grinsby College for two years, hated it, and hated cooking. The last three months of college I learned about playing pool and drinking. I went to a place called the Royal Berkshire on placement. I walked into the kitchen there and just fell in love. It was a machine that worked, you’re responsible for certain things, you’re like a cog in a big wheel. I fell in love with it straightaway and they offered me a job once I’d finished my schooling in two or three months. So it was great. I went back to college, failed my exams. Twice. Actually I’m a qualified waiter. I passed all my exams as a waiter; failed all my cooking exams twice. (laughs)
I worked at the Royal Berkshire for two years. I was very fortunate to go to a very high standard place to start with. There was a great chef there. It started a few things in my life and in my family’s life. My dad was a fisherman at the time on the docks in Grinsby. He wanted to work for himself so he bought a fish van. He’d buy the fish off the docks in Grinsby and drive to Ascot and stay with me and sell his fish around Ascot for three days and he did that for two years and then when I told him I was going to move on he asked where he was going to stay then. He’d come down on the Wednesday and go back on the Friday and stay in the staff digs. He got to know all the boys. And one day the General Manager came past and asked who he was. I told him he was my dad and that he sold fish around Ascot. So I introduced them and he made my dad come in for dinner before he went back to Grinsby and then any fish he had left, the restaurant bought it and used it for staff dinners. So it worked really well and my dad did his fish round around there for about 25 years in the end. I think it was just an excuse to get away from mum for a bit and have a drink with me.
From there I went to a place called Hanbury Manor, Albert Roux was consulting there with a chef called Rory Kennedy. Another big influence in my career, Rory. Great chef; hard as nails. But very compassionate. Hard but firm. That’s where I first worked with Paul Wilson. We worked for two years there together. It was a great place. Really big. Bigger than the Royal Berkshire. It was a different style of food. I thought geez, this is really good, this is what I want to do. Very interesting.
And you were in Amsterdam and Paris as well?
After that I worked at Quaglino’s in London; a big gastrodome. We were doing eight or nine hundred covers a night, but it was just below Michelin star food. I went there after Hanbury Manor and it was just so big; 64 chefs on the roster. It was a beast. It was a really good eye opener. I did that for a year and half –two years and Albert Roux said he had something in Amsterdam and would I like to go there? So I went there, to The Grand in Amsterdam. I did a year and a half there and then he phoned up one day and said, “Dear boy, I’ve got you some tickets to Paris.” I said, “Oh, thanks, Chef. Is that for a holiday?” “My dear boy, no. You’re going to take over the kitchen at Bertie’s.” Bertie’s was an English restaurant in Paris. I said, “But chef I don’t speak French.” And he replied, “You’ll learn. The flight’s booked. I’ll send the details.” And that was it. Two days later I was in Paris.
What part of Paris was the restaurant in?
Just off the Champs-Elysées.
Oooh. How flash!
Yes. Very nice. It was a five minute walk to the Eiffel Tower. I lived in a place just on the outskirts called the Kremlin-Bicêtre. It was about a 40 minute train ride into Paris every day. I got to Paris and didn’t speak a word of French. I was thinking, “I wish I’d learned French at school.” But I got by. A lot of the guys, to their credit, learned English pretty quickly in the kitchen. You get through in pidgin French. It was a wonderful spot. It’s where I met my wife. She was there working front of house from Bournemouth College on a work placement. We didn’t know at the time we were going to be husband and wife but that’s where we met.
Well why not, in the world’s most romantic city?
Exactly. I was there for a while, then it was time to move back and that was when I asked Albert whether I could go to the Gavroche. And he said yes I’ve got a place in January for you. In between I went to work for a guy called Andrew Turner at The Berkeley, a hotel in London. He had just taken over and we had worked together at Hanbury Manor; he’s a great guy. Then I went to the Gavroche.
I always say I learned to cook at the Gavroche and I learned to manage at Quaglino’s. It was funny because Martin Webb who used to run Quaglino’s kitchen started working for me the other day.
He was at Georges when he came over here and then Punch Lane and so on. But he was looking for work and I thought, do you know what, I need someone here to help me grow and develop, someone who I think has something to offer, so what more could I ask for in Martin?
So he has come on four days a week to really help me and mentor here. It’s very tiring running a place like this at times. It comes at you, comes at you, comes at you. And with Martin on board now, he’s got that level of ability like I have. I’ve been here seven years, so it gives it another perspective and there might be things I’ve missed. It takes a lot of confidence in yourself to do that, though, otherwise you’d see it as criticism, but it’s not, it’s helping.
Do you actually get any time off? What do you do for relaxation?
I used to do a lot of running, triathlons. I’ve done about six Ironman competitions. I actually got Paul Tyas into Ironman. I did the Marathon des Sables, which is the marathon in the desert, in the Sahara; six marathons in seven days.
Exercise is a great relaxer for me. That’s how I relax. It clears my head.
What’s your favourite thing on the menu?
My favourite thing is still the ox cheek. Especially in winter, it’s great. Then in the summer, we do simpler things like the seared tuna, nice and light. That’s something we had to learn when we came to Australia, we had to make food lighter. There’s a lot of cream and butter in Britain because it’s a lot colder.
I’m looking forward to eating here.
Oh yes. Well we change the menu every two to three weeks.
Well we don’t change the whole thing; we change two or three things at a time. I always find that when you do really big menu changes; change the whole menu, its’ so hard for the kitchen. So much pressure and stress. So I like to just keep rotating it. And trying out some other things with specials as well. A lot of the specials are trial and error. If it works, we’ll put it on the menu.
At then end of the day, it’s cooking. It’s not what we want to cook though, it’s what the customers want to eat. There’s no point doing foams and all that sort of thing if people just want to come in and have a nice steak and frites. That defeats the object.
We want to do a whole lot more seafood here as well. We’ve got a seafood platter we’ve put on the menu.
You can’t beat eating seafood while looking out at the sea. That’s my dream.
Yeah, I want to put oysters and things on the menu and have more fish on the menu for summer. But again, this place is great in winter because you see the storms rolling in across the sea. We’ve got a fireplace here. It’s nice.
We’re very lucky. Every day is a different day here.
The Baths Middle Brighton
251 Esplanade, Brighton
Mon – Sun 7am – 11pm