How Brett Graham became the highest ranked Aussie chef in the world.
Newcastle native Brett Graham, who helms The Ledbury in London, is the highest ranked Australian chef in The World’s 50 Best Restaurants. On the eve of the awards in Melbourne, DAN STOCK spoke with him
Like countless Aussies before him, the bright lights of London beckoned a young Brett Graham. But, unlike most transplants, it wasn’t a crowded share house in Fulham, cheap flights to Reykjavik, or Glastonbury mud that was the biggest drawcard.
Rather, with a Young Chef of the Year award tucked into his back pocket, London was the place a 21-year-old Graham went to buckle down and graft, working long hours to hone skills learned at Sydney fine diner Banc.
That letter of introduction opened doors that included The Square, where he landed a job working with wellknown chef Philip Howard.
Fast forward 15 years, and Graham is arguably the most critically acclaimed Australian chef cooking anywhere in the world. He’s the highest ranked Aussie on The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, where his restaurant, The Ledbury, is currently pegged at number 14 (it’s been as high as number 10). He also has three Michelin stars – two for The Ledbury and another for The Harwood Arms, London’s only Michelin-starred pub.
Impressive stuff for a boy from Newcastle who started his career at 15, as an apprentice at a seafood restaurant called Scratchleys on the Wharf.
Even so, you won’t see Graham’s cookbook in stores anytime soon, and you rarely see his face on TV, because he shuns the trappings of the celebrity chef. Where you will see him is working the pass of his Notting Hill restaurant nine shifts a week, alongside his team.
“The most important thing for me is that I still work in the kitchen, that I’m full-time on the rota (roster) and do the same as my other staff,” the 37-year-old says. “There’s a handful of chefs around the world who are so talented, they can just turn their hand to anything at any time. I’ve got to keep working hard at it.”
Modest, meticulous and focused, Graham’s dedication is firmly centred around his customers. The Ledbury has a months-long waiting list to secure one of the 55 seats. The chef has also just opened a 27-hectare deer park in Oxfordshire to supply the restaurant with venison.
“People have big expectations when they come into my restaurant and I don’t want to let them down,” he says.
Graham is heading back to Australia next month for The World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards in Melbourne on April 5. It is only the second time the influential awards have been held outside of London. By coincidence, the same date marks 12 years to the day since The Ledbury first opened its doors.
“Twelve years is a big achievement, but the cornerstone of the whole thing is our customers.
“It’s amazing how many people in this trade don’t consider their customers as their number one priority,” he adds.
As for the 50 Best ranking, Graham says it’s simply an honour to be included. “You’ve got to make sure you don’t take it too seriously,” he says.
“A measure of a good restaurant is not so much if you’re number 1, 2, 3 or 20 but that you’re on the list somewhere.
“If I got bent up at not being a certain ranking, or got upset if we slip five places, that’s not where I want to be.”
The food that comes out of his kitchen has roots in classic French but is now a journey through Britain informed by singular produce – sea bream with frozen English wasabi, Herdwick lamb with tea-glazed aubergine, or Scottish langoustine wrapped in shiitake.
When not cooking, Graham can often be found hunting deer that ends up on the plate. “It’s not that I love the shooting part so much, it’s more that I love what comes out of it,” he says.
“Compare the life of some farm animals to a wild deer in the English countryside, living relatively stress-free. There’s no question what’s the most ethical thing to serve.”
Graham hopes to grow the herd at his park to about 150. The deer will be fed with leftover vegetables from the restaurants’ suppliers, while a local brewery will supply spent grain.
It’s part of a move by Graham to establish closer links between the restaurant and the ingredients used. Diners can, at the end of a meal, now take home bags of compost made from kitchen waste.
Though the countryside calls often, and he’s proud of his heritage, London is where Graham calls home. He lives in the city’s south-west with his wife, Natalie, their nine-month-old daughter, Romilly, and their pug, Winston.
“I have nothing that would make me go anywhere else,” he says. “Who knows? When I get too old to be a chef, I might move to the country. But, for now, The Ledbury is where I’ll stay.” The World’s 50 Best Restaurants will come to Melbourne in conjunction with Tourism Australia’s Restaurant Australia campaign. It coincides with the 25th Melbourne Food and Wine Festival, March 31-April 9. Eight chefs whose restaurants have appeared on the list will hold masterclasses on April 1-2. For program and tickets, mfwf.com.au.