London's Best Chef, Brett Graham

Chef Brett Graham at the Ledbury
Brett Graham’s kitchen at the Ledbury has become a pilgrimage site for top chefs who come to sample his flawless cuisine. Courtesy of Ledbury

During the August riots in London, a gang of 30 youths smashed their way into the Ledbury, one of the most renowned restaurants in Britain, terrorizing customers until the kitchen staff rallied downstairs and—brandishing the tools of their trade—drove them out. Head chef Brett Graham, a 32 year-old Australian with two Michelin stars, was having a rare night off but was quickly on the scene from his home in Richmond. More than any other victim of the looting, he projected a defiant tone, vowing to remain open the next day, while other, more prudent shop owners in Notting Hill were hastily boarding up their windows and heading for the door. News of the standoff spread, and soon London officials—including Mayor Boris Johnson—were paying private visits to Graham to offer their help and praise.

Even without this unwelcome disruption, the Ledbury has been receiving considerable publicity over its creative cuisine. In the space of the past year, it has been voted top restaurant in London by Zagat, Hardens Guide, and The Sunday Times, and clinched the No. 1 spot at the U.K.’s National Restaurant Awards for the second year running. Such is the clamor for a table that it is rare for any to be unoccupied regardless of the day of the week; Saturday nights can have waiting lists four times greater than the restaurant’s capacity.

Just as important, a raft of leading chefs, including Alain Ducasse, Daniel Boulud, and Ferran Adrià, have all made trips to the Ledbury to see what the fuss is about. Recently, Graham cooked an eight-course charity dinner in an East London apartment, which Pierre Koffmann, a former three-star Michelin chef himself, declared was the best meal he’d ever had in a private home.

There is nothing radical or revolutionary about Graham’s food. It’s best described as classical with an emphasis on the seasonal and on the quality of raw ingredients, with a particular interest in various sorts of game.

The Ledbury opened in 2005, after Graham spent three years working as a sous-chef at the Square, one of the most highly regarded French-influenced restaurants in London. While he quickly gained a Michelin star, there was no particular buzz around the place, a former pub on the fringe of fashionable Notting Hill, until 2009, when word of mouth quickly spread that something special was happening there. It was not just the skill with which various ingre-dients were cooked, but also the intangible unity of the dishes as a whole. Diners praised Graham’s flame-grilled mackerel with cured avocado and shiso in terms normally reserved for far more expensive fish such as turbot or red mullet. It was also the unexpectedness of such humble ingredients providing such memorable flavors. Another dish that achieved star status was roe deer baked in Douglas fir and served with smoked bone marrow and beetroot (Graham could easily have shot the venison himself, as he’s an avid hunter). Then there are the more unconventional dishes, such as an obscure French beetroot called crapaudine baked in artist’s clay, or a dish of squid risotto, made from tiny globules of squid rather than rice.

Richard Vines, chairman of the U.K. branch of the San Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurant Awards, says, “All the chefs I have met belong to the Brett Graham fan club. I have never met anyone so obsessed with food to the exclusion of everything else. Every time I try to invite Brett out, he can never come—someone just brought him a new ingredient he has to try, some herbs need tending on the top of his refrigerator, or the chickens need feeding.”

Last month, Graham did leave his kitchen to pick up the top prize at the National Restaurant Awards, as well as one for best front-of-house service. Genuinely modest, Graham plays down the acclaim. “It was good to get those awards and good for the staff, but we don’t put them up on the wall, because they are just someone’s personal opinion and everyone has a different idea for who should be on such a list,” he says. “It’s more important to make your customers happy and look after them, as they’re the people who make great restaurants.”

This is something Graham truly believes—he would far rather have contented customers who return regularly than cater to an anonymous crowd of haute-cuisine foodies.

Perhaps it has something to do with his origins in a rural suburb of Newcastle, an industrial city north of Sydney, with no real tradition of fine dining. He spent his youth walking or driving motorcycles through the bush. When Graham was 15, he asked a neighbor for help killing one of the Rhode Island Red chickens Graham had been rearing as a hobby. “There was blood everywhere and it was flapping around, but we ate it for Sunday lunch. It was that experience that got me on track to become a chef, as I was taken in by the whole process of rearing it from birth and then actually eating it, even though it was very tough and my mother refused to eat it because the flesh was so dark.”

After working in the one fine-dining restaurant in Newcastle, he headed to Sydney at age 18 and less than two years later won the leading Australian young-chef award. He then moved to London, where he won the U.K. equivalent before he was 23. Nigel Platts-Martin, the restaurateur behind the Square, Ledbury, and several other top London restaurants, says someone of Graham’s talent comes along only once in a decade. “It takes an awful lot of skill to become a world-class chef, but Brett is now knocking on that door.”

The Ledbury, which Graham now co-owns, keeps him busy for 18 hours a day, but he has no plans to expand or return to Australia. The chef he regards as a “restaurant hero” is Alain Passard at L’Arpège in Paris. “He is 55 but still cooks every day, doesn’t have any supermarket lines or TV shows, and remains true to his beliefs—he is the real deal.”

And what about his own future? “I still have a long way to go yet, both with our food and the service,” he says. “I have no thoughts about trying to get that third Michelin star—I just want the restaurant to be full of happy and contented customers.” This may be true, but there is no one else currently cooking in Britain better qualified or more likely to gain that ultimate culinary accolade.