“I didn’t really have much of a plan,” says Brett Graham of going to England with just one interview lined-up before he got there. Graham started out cooking at a local fish shop in Newcastle NSW, where he’s from, before moving to the kitchen of Sydney’s Banc restaurant. “I thought I’d be here [in London] one year, max. But things happen, don’t they? I was very lucky, it all fell into place.” That first interview went well, with Graham appointed junior sous chef at London institution The Square at just 22 years old. Twelve years after taking on that first role, the same owners of that restaurant are now his business partners at The Ledbury.
“We didn’t try a concept when we opened, it was weird. I was so young. I hadn’t written a rota before, I hadn’t even written a menu,” says Graham. It’s no matter, since his relaxed approach and focused work ethic has defined the restaurant’s path and atmosphere since opening in 2005. “I think at some restaurants it’s too pretentious, too [much of] ‘eat like this’, ‘yes, sir, madam’. We wanted to pull that back a bit. We’ve tried not to make it too precious,” he explains.
Graham and his team have picked up two Michelin stars along the way, and have just been named number 10 on this year’s San Pellegrino Acqua Panna World’s Top 50 Restaurants list. The accolades flow for his modern French dishes, noted for featuring game and unusual fruits, vegetables and herbs. “I’m definitely inspired by Australians and Australia, but I’d also say I quite like a slight Japanese touch to the food,” he says.
It wasn’t always smooth sailing. “The dining room was a million miles away from what it is today,” he says, reclining into an upholstered chair in the elegant but restrained Notting Hill space, tucked away between a mix of stately residences and public housing. “Everyone said it wouldn’t work – ‘it’s not a good site, there’s no passing trade, you’d see ladies of the night on the next corner’,” he says. “I thought, what are we doing here?”
The gravitas of British restaurant reviews only heightened that uncertainty. One write-up by the late Michael Winner, former restaurant critic at The Sunday Times, suggested a carpark would be more beneficial to locals than The Ledbury. “To a 26-year-old kid, considering that millions of people read it … It was tough,” Graham says. “The food wasn’t great when we opened. We struggled a bit.”
Despite those rocky beginnings, Graham’s calm form was steadfast and his dishes evolved over time. “We’ve taken small steps, we haven’t rushed anything or run out and said, ‘we’re going to do molecular!’” he says. “Our struggles are also part of our success, it made us stronger.” While the exposure accompanying the award of culinary honours spurs the business on, it also builds creative pressure. Graham admits it can be difficult to revel in that success while engaged in the restaurant’s demanding daily grind. “I was slightly fretting customers’ expectations,” he says. “All the accolades we’ve won, it’s been really good for the staff and for me to employ great people, but we need to stay there.”
These days Graham is not just running the kitchen, but is a partner in the business. Tables now booked well in advance, he can dedicate more energy into sourcing local, premium produce, mostly from the UK – its grass-fed beef is a mix of Scottish Belted Galloway and Dexters from Cornwall – plus some from Spain and near Paris. “I was just in Devon overnight meeting our butter producer. That’s the sort of stupid thing I do on my day off,” he says. Plating up most of the mains himself is still standard for the evening service. On this late spring day, he’s most excited to showcase wild strawberries on the current menu, and to soon welcome a crop of summer’s first tomatoes. “We pay £33 for a three-kilo box, because that’s how special they are. They’re amazing, from one little grower.”
While such kudos might prompt chefs to expand into new venues and projects, Graham is content. “We’re just going to keep our head down really, keep on going,” he says. “It’s a huge way from Newcastle.”
127 Ledbury Road, Notting Hill, London
+44 (0) 20 7792 9090