YOU could be mistaken for thinking the chef brothers who have taken over the restaurants at the refreshed Caledonian Waldorf Astoria in Edinburgh are French – but you would be wrong, writes Erikka Askeland.
Les Galvins – elder brother Chris and Jeff, 12 years’ younger – have made their name, and their Michelin stars, expertly executing French cuisine at their wildly popular London restaurants and “bistrots de luxe”.
But sit down and talk to them and their accents have nothing to do with the left bank but are instead broad Essex. And it is in these tones that Chris, the more garrulous of the two, happily admits that it was down to his dad getting lucky on the horses that he got to know France at all.
With the Galvin paterfamilias’ £300 winnings, he bought a second-hand car and began taking the young Chris – Jeff was still a twinkle in his father’s eye – on long drives around France. It was here, perhaps helped along by the memories of meals made by a French grandmother, that the brothers developed a passion for the food.
“We drove around France for years in that car,” Chris muses.
He admits that where they came from in Essex was a “gastronomic desert”. Yet the brothers, who cut their teeth at the best restaurants in London, are the only brothers to have each won a Michelin star in their own right.
“Our mum is very proud,” adds Chris.
The Pompadour at the Caley has long been an Edinburgh institution, if arguably a faded one, which has lovingly had life breathed back into it by the Galvins. But – with its signature dish of a whole chicken cooked in a pig’s bladder and flavoured with Armagnac and foie gras butter – is now really the time to bring back such expensive tastes to the “Old Lady of Auld Reekie”?
Clearly the answer from both the Galvins – having invested a six-figure sum in the Pompadour and a new 140-cover brasserie on the ground floor – is a “yes”, but with caveats. The word on the ground is that Pompadour and the Galvin Brasserie de Luxe are both quiet, and there was little in terms of big champagne-soaked launches when they opened the doors. But that was part of the plan.
“We were well experienced with tough times,” says Chris. “We projected a very low forecast for our business here. We know we were coming to a tough, tough city – there are some brilliant chefs here.
“There was no way we were going to come in and automatically think we were going to get market share. We forecasted for that. It was much more of a slow burn for us.”
The brothers know tight times. Chris recalls an early job as a head chef at a restaurant with rooms in Shropshire. Jeff got a job there too, after his chef training. The owner – a “Lloyds name”, Chris says – attempted to ignore the writing on the wall as the height of the mid-1980s recession called to make a reservation.
“We could feel the ill wind blowing. We went from having a packed car park. We used to do shooting dinners. They started to dry up a bit. I remember saying we should turn our restaurant into a bistro. But typical of him, he said, ‘Chris, we opened with foie gras truffles and we will close with foie gras truffles.’ And he did.”
Jeff notes: “One by one the art was disappearing off the walls.”
Chris adds: “It was the worse day of my life when the administrators came. It is what has driven us, to be honest. I’m so old now this is my third recession.
“Financially, people think there will be a bounceback. [But] I think this is it. We have got to learn to work in this environment, I don’t think there is [anything] coming back. You just have to get used to this new world.”
Nor was the experience here going to be their only challenge. Having worked together off and on in a variety of places and also apart – Chris at the Ritz, the Wolseley and a long stint with Terence Conran, with Jeff working with the likes of Nico Ladenis, and at the Savoy and L’Escargot – the brothers knew they wanted to work together on their own project. “If you talk to any chef their dream is to own a restaurant,” says Chris.
Their first restaurant – the Galvin Bistrot de Luxe on Baker Street in the West End of London – opened five years ago on a “shoestring”.
“Jeff and I would sleep in the restaurant,” recalls Chris. “One of us would go to the market every day. “We thought if we could cut out a middle man and buy direct, even the flowers, we could pass those savings onto customers as well.
“We had a three-course lunch for £15.50 – we had a bulging restaurant and we still do. We have always tried to be great value for money.”
Their third London restaurant, La Chappelle, established in a former church next door to Royal Bank of Scotland’s offices in Spitalfields, opened three weeks before Lehman Brothers collapsed.
“We faced an agonising time – we had put every single penny we had in it. I’m very proud we kept the silver, the oak, the marble, the computer, but it was very, very scary. That is when I lost my hair,” Chris jokes.
“But we stuck to our guns. We never did discounts, but we just looked after people. By the end of the year we had a fantastic business, a Michelin star, we had won every award there was – 11 by the end of year one. It has grown and grown and grown.”
The duo started working with Hilton, which runs Edinburgh’s Caledonian, when they opened Galvin at Windows on the 28th floor of the London Hilton on Park Lane. They had been in discussions for a few years with the hotels chain to take over the Pompadour, but the project came back on track this year once the decision was made to plough ahead with a £24m upgrade.
The brothers now have seven restaurants and work with a third business partner, venture capitalist Ken Sanker. They are under no illusions about the challenges they face, but their hard-headed approach has seen them through some tights spots already.
“Even the greatest chefs in the world have gone under. We have to win our own respect,” says Chris.
“We have to work hard with the locality and prove our case in the market. It is not going to happen overnight.
“Also, when you are in the market in London you have eight to ten million people. In Edinburgh you have 450,000 – there are more restaurants per capita than the rest of the British Isles. It is going to be tricky,” he admits. “But we are not a flash in the pan.”
Name: Jeff Galvin
Education: Thurrock Technical College
First job: On the pot wash
Car: BMW X5
Kindle or book? Book
Can’t live without: My iPhone
Interests outside of work: Golf
Favourite place: London
What makes you angry: People who accept second-best
Best thing about your job: Working alongside our staff
Name: Chris Galvin
Born: Romford, Essex
Education: Comprehensive school, Brentwood
First job: Washing up
Kindle or book? Book
Can’t live without: Family
Interests outside of work: Sailing
Favourite place: The Isle of Wight
What makes you angry: Injustice
Best thing about your job: I enjoy being able to work with and meet so many interesting people and I love cooking, I would work for nothing