Graham Garrett is the head chef and owner of West House, a Michelin-starred restaurant in Kent, amid wide-open fields, windy country lanes, and lush vineyards, you’ll find a 15th century weaver’s cottage with an inglenook fireplace, timber frames, and a thatched roof.
The biggest difference to how it was 700 years ago is that Graham Garrett, owner and recent best chef in Kent, is cooking sumptuous dishes in its kitchen. Visiting The West House just before it opened for lunch, we talked candidly to Graham about moving out of London, getting home alive on a moped, the truth of locally sourced ingredients, and staying on farmers’ Christmas card lists.
TRULY: Hi Graham. How is today treating you?
Graham Garrett: Like most days – it’s going all good then you come down in the morning and one of your fridges has gone out and then you’re in trouble.
I can see why that might be a problem. You’re not from round here are you?
I’m from east London, came to the West House twelve years ago. When I was working in London my kids were young and I got to that stage where I wanted to do something for myself. Finishing in the kitchen at one in the morning when the trains aren’t running and a cab costs £60, I had to get back and forth in all weathers on a little moped. After that I just wanted to do my own thing and I couldn’t afford to do it in London.
Back then I was working under Richie Corrigan at a restaurant in Chelsea and the property agent was trying to get me to take it on but I knew its worth and didn’t want to be there. The agent then said to me, “Why don’t you come out to Kent?” and I said, “Where’s that?” He showed me a few pubs around here and we came upon this one. It was a little small but I thought we could make it work.
Took me ten months to sell the house in London before coming down here, and I’m now living upstairs, just above our heads. I first had it at seven tables and stuck my wife out the front – she didn’t have a clue – and got some friends down from London to help me. A year after that is when we really got going.
That’s when you got your Michelin star. Did it feel like the West House went up in the world at that point?
Massively. Twelve years on and I’m still doing it and we’ve still got the star. Did the first eighteen months with the odd friend in the kitchen, but after exhausting all those possibilities it was just me. I just think you have to do what you’ve got to do, and just do it. People say you’re lucky and you’ve got this great reputation and you do this and do that, but how did you do it? By loaning quarter of a million pounds without much to your name and working 20-odd hours a day is how.
Not even any time off at the weekend?
We shut on Mondays, so that’s when I try and keep a day off. When it’s your own business you’ve got to try and not look at your emails or your phone – someone’s always looking to get a hold of you. But on Mondays I try my best not to go in the kitchen and start prepping, even though it’s a natural thing.
So what was it like trying to settle into somewhere in the Kent countryside when you’re so used to east London?
Really strange. Too many fields. Though I loved it from the start I needed to go back once a week to sniff the city air. In London I would finish work at midnight and on my way home I’d go past Chinatown and someone like Corrigan would ring me and say, “Oh, come by on the way home” and we’d have a beer or two, ending up in Chinatown before getting home at 4am to go into work the next morning. Getting on a moped early in the morning and thinking ‘phew, made it’ when I got home is not healthy with two kids. Not a good frame of mind.
Do you get many people coming down from London to eat here?
You’ve got your local customers who we see come back regularly which is great because we know we’re doing something right. But the fact we are fifty minutes away by train from London Bridge is as convenient for us as it is everybody else – over the hedgerows you can see all the wealth here. It’s funny that the people I used to cook for in Chelsea now travel the other way on the train to come in to eat and have a chat and turns out their country residence is just round the corner. Now that was something I didn’t understand at the time. But I’ve since adapted what I’ve done to that fact.
At first I thought I should be the little convenient local restaurant – like a bistro – because I didn’t want to frighten anyone off, but when they came in they didn’t want to spend more than £7 on a main course. They want big plates of food, with side dishes of boiled veg, and I knew I wasn’t going to be happy cooking for these people and they weren’t going to like what I do, but I noticed there were a few that came in wanting more expensive wines and asking why we don’t do nice little dishes and we thought, great, we’ve got this right on our doorstep.
Then I thought I’m just going to cook what I cook and do what I want to do and we’ll see what happens. It was like turning on a light switch. The people that we were interested in serving started coming in and that’s when your reputation spreads. Some people will still come in and be pleasantly surprised by what’s put in front of them, not having eaten that kind of food before, and they realise they’ve been spending a lot of money on bad food all their lives. In short, I try to keep things relaxed and informal and just do good food.
So I guess you’re passively educating those that come in not always knowing what to expect.
Sure, but thanks to them your reputation spreads and you end up on TV, and we’ve been quite lucky with that. It brings people in from just about anywhere. Sunday lunch people might want to see the kitchen and say hello because they’ve seen you off the telly and I ask them if they’ve travelled far, expecting London or something, but one guy said he’d jumped on a plane from Japan and that he’d always wanted to visit.
The Michelin guide is a good reason too – if I wanted to go on holiday I know I’d want to plan it around restaurants to visit and food to try. So we do get on the radar of foodies from other parts of the world as much as this one. Some people visited from Singapore especially to stay one day in Kent and eat here. Stuff like that is nice but the general pool is from Tunbridge Wells, Canterbury, Surrey, et cetera. I’d be lying if I said the winter months didn’t deter anyone but it’s important to keep a good relationship with your local trade because they’re the ones that you’re going to stick with at those times.
Speaking of local, how do you source your ingredients? I’ve heard you’re very… selective.
I’m one of those people the nearby vineyard hates because I don’t get wine from them. Working in London we cooked what you’d call country food and we’d buy from all these great producers around the country and have proper foraged ingredients to cook with which was fantastic. This was about fifteen years ago, but now you can’t turn the telly on or open a paper without everything saying local this, local that – it gets on my nerves because things should be cooked seasonally.
In days gone by we always had to have strawberries on the menu and asparagus no matter when because you can get it everywhere, but it’s not that great and it’s expensive – I don’t want to cook with sub-par asparagus in December. Around here we get amazing asparagus growing six weeks in a year and I look forward to those six weeks, but when they’re gone, they’re gone and you change dishes and you get inspired by what’s next to come in season.
Do the other pubs in the area share your philosophy?
The pubs round here aren’t like that – you’d struggle to see game on the menu when we’re surrounded by partridge and pheasant. We’ve also got Kentish apples, Romney lamb, local flatfish and Rye scallops on the coast, and it was like a larder on my doorstep – I loved it – but none of that was really served up in the restaurants here. That’s why it was so difficult sourcing those things from the farmers, as they prefer to do what they do and ship it all off.
So we had to buy and butcher our animals ourselves and it was fairly tough because you’d spend half the time sourcing ingredients. It’s great when you’ve got those ingredients naturally around you, but loads of these pubs put local grub on their menu, but I know it isn’t. I know the guy that supplies some of these pubs, and he supplies nothing but Argentinian beef. It’s good beef, fantastic beef, but I can’t really justify selling that when we’ve got these ingredients on our doorstep because everyone will start wondering why. And I’ll get the local farmers turning up and kicking the door in.
The other one was a pub around the corner that said they had locally grown asparagus in November. Turned out he bought it from the greengrocers down the road, and buying it from the grocers who buys it from the market who buys it from Peru does not make it local. They weren’t lying, it was just ignorance. If you go down the road and see a farmer selling a great product, you’ve got to support him, because it helps you both out. Local for local’s sake doesn’t work.
It’s about finding the best where you can. Local is a bonus and you build up a network of local farmers. It’s the same with the wine. We might have award-winning wines here and there, but they’re winning awards against other bad wines. There is however a vineyard in Horsmonden which has a stunner of a wine that we’ve got on our list. There are some really great wines that I don’t want to sell people because you can just pick them off the supermarket shelf anyway.
I suppose this all means, in terms of competition, you’re not terribly perturbed by these local gastro pubs?
Competition’s healthy and obviously you have to keep your eye on everything that’s going on. My philosophy is that you’ve got to constantly evolve and change what you do – if you make a dish again, it has to be better than the last one. That’s how I’ve always worked. A lot of people find something that works and sit back and don’t like to fix anything that’s broken but then you become stout and complacent.
If you constantly try to do better, you’re going to keep going up rather than staying flat. Also it doesn’t really bring people back if the menu says the same thing every time. In London they used to say ‘if you’ve lasted three years you’ve done well’ and that ‘the lifetime of a restaurant is seven years,’ that kind of thing. It’s different here obviously but the fact we’ve existed twelve years means I can safely say we’re established. Still, it took us a good seven of those before we were accepted.
What about for the future? Any developments?
There have been things come up, like consulting and some work for Eurostar, but nothing for long. I still think we can build on our infrastructure here or it won’t be how it should be, which damages your reputation, and I’m nervous about doing things before you’re ready. So far I’ve spent £10,000 on planning and architects that are going to help extend the place but that’s not easy in a rural area and a listed building.
We’ve had some work done in that we sit thirty-five now. We thought about a cookery school but the planners wouldn’t allow it. So we’ve got planning for demonstration tables and some luxury bedrooms to be put upstairs and down and we’re thinking about moving the kitchen to incorporate a chef’s table. Maybe that’ll sit eight.
Despite the rooms we’re building, we don’t want to compete with the B&Bs. There will always be B&Bs for people looking for them, but there isn’t really a smart boutique hotel around, which is why we’re hoping for the new rooms to complement the restaurant. Even with all that we’ve got going on, there is still the fear that whatever you’re doing might be undoing the last twelve years of hard work.
Sebastian is a former hedge fund trader who worked only to indulge his true passion – food.
He has dined at over 240 Michelin-starred restaurants around the world, savoring culinary masterpieces and understanding the stories behind them. He now advises restaurants on menu design, decor and holistic diner experience.