He’s cooked under Gordon Ramsay and Marco Pierre White, worked in Michelin starred restaurants, and earned three AA rosettes in his own name. Now heading up Guernsey’s newest restaurant La Reunion, Simon McKenzie is making waves on the west coast.
Tamara Timothy spent some time in his kitchen to find out about his life and his plans for the restaurant, and discovered a man with an absolute passion for perfection.
Simon McKenzie has a dozen different vinegars in his kitchen and uses them all. It’s a small example that sums up his drive to get absolutely everything right every time. “Your palate has four different sections; hit one area with salt and something will taste nice. But if you can manage to get all four sections to light up that’s when you get the wow factor. That’s what I’m trying to do. I’m trying to incorporate all those different things with every mouthful, so with every dish we produce I’m looking for acidity, I’m looking for salt, I’m looking for sweet and sour.”
This is a man who is always looking to improve. His new restaurant is receiving rave reviews for its dishes, but that doesn’t mean he’s relaxing. “I’ll never be happy. I have people saying they love some of the food we’re serving, and I already hate it, I already think it’s not good enough. Everything we do I’m constantly looking at. I see our mackerel dish for example and I think I’m bored of that now, I’m better than that now; that was six weeks ago, I’ve moved on.”
That passion is something that has driven Simon from a very young age. He grew up watching his father cook, and whenever asked as a child what he wanted to be when he grew up, his answer was always a chef. Looking back now, it seems impossible that his dream was almost derailed at fifteen when a career in IT temporarily beckoned. Luckily the need to prove a girl wrong intervened.
“I had a girlfriend at the time who asked what I was going to do. I told her computers, but that I had been going to be a chef. She burst out laughing at the idea and told me I could never do that, so clearly I went and did it. I’d broken up with her by the time I went to college to study catering, but at least she’d steered me away from computing!”
As soon as Simon finished his course, London beckoned, along with a job at five-star hotel The Lanesborough under Paul Gayler, where he stayed for three and a half years. At the time it was the most expensive hotel in the city and that was reflected in the standards in the kitchen. It’s an experience Simon partly credits for his constant drive for perfection. “It was drilled into me from the age of 17. In a hotel like that everything has to be perfect all of the time, nothing else is acceptable.”
Perfection isn’t, however, how Simon describes his next job after the Lanesborough – working for Gordon Ramsay at Aubergine. “It was really difficult. Gordon was fairly unheard of then, he’d finished his first book but it hadn’t yet been published, and his first television series hadn’t aired. The restaurant had one Michelin star when I started and got its second while I was there.”
“Everyone asks if all the drama is really set up for the cameras. Absolutely not – things were actually calmer and nicer when film crews were in there recording. Those were the easy days! The whole experience was just insane.”
Simon stayed at Aubergine for almost a year, but doesn’t look back at the experience with much affection. “I used to sit on the wall opposite the restaurant at 5.30 in the morning and just look at it and think should I go in? Should I not? I’d force myself to go inside and do another day. Unfortunately I didn’t even learn that much from it. I can’t remember any of the recipes or dishes. Every day you were just really doing what you could to not get in trouble and not get noticed and recognised. It wasn’t a kitchen where you wanted to stand out.”
But Simon was someone who wanted to stand out for the right reasons, and his next move proved far more successful when he headed to work for Marco Pierre White. “That was a lot better and I learned much more from that experience. The head chef really took me under his wing which was just what I needed at that time. It was a long time ago but some of the methods I learned there I still use today. Obviously things have moved on but some of the recipes still work, the parfaits and dishes like that are still outstanding.”
After a year in Marco’s kitchen it was time to move on, and again influenced by a girl Simon spent some time working more sociable hours in a contract catering job. But the restaurant world was clearly always going to call him back. “I missed the buzz, the excitement of restaurants. I can’t describe exactly what it is, but it’s like asking someone who’s an alcoholic or who takes drugs, what is it that makes them carry on. I know I’ve got a problem with work, my friends tell me I’ve got a problem with work, but it’s all I want to do.” Simon returned to the restaurant world at Seaham Hall in Durham, but after his time there struggled to find a good fit until he took a job as sous chef at the two-Michelin starred The Vineyard in Newbury. “I took a step down to become sous chef, but it was the best decision I ever made. I was number three in the kitchen with 20 chefs under me, and it was the perfect job. I could spend 100 hours a week there and still be happy.”
“The executive chef who held the two stars was ultra-focused and intelligent, and I learned so much from him. The first eight months were incredibly difficult and then it just clicked. We were ranked number seven in the UK at the time, and everybody I knew wanted my job. The head chef would be busy on the computer and I’d be walking the kitchen, teaching people how to cook, running the pass, and just checking that everything was being done absolutely correctly. I loved it.”
From The Vineyard Simon moved on to an exciting opportunity at Lime Wood Hotel in the New Forest under Alex Aitken, but family circumstances intervened when his partner Claire became ill with cancer and he gave up that job to care for her. Sadly left as a single father to five year old Evie, he moved into catering recruitment.
You don’t need to spend too long with Simon to know that an office job wouldn’t really suit him, no matter how closely connected to the industry he loves. And it was an opportunity he spotted in his recruitment role that beckoned next – at the five-star Isle of Eriska.
“The restaurant had three rosettes and we were trying to source the right person for them, but we just couldn’t find anybody that they were happy with. I couldn’t resist the chance and it was perfect for us at the time. Eriska is a family business so they were very sympathetic to Evie, and she was always in the kitchen helping me. The only downside was the need to have au pairs, and they seem to be worse than chefs. Between Evie and me I think we burned through seven or eight of them!”
It was at Eriska that Simon earned his three AA rosettes in his own right. It was an impressive accolade, but change was calling – this time with a move to Guernsey. From remote Scotland it seemed an unusual choice, but he has a very simple explanation.
“I’d always wanted to work here. My great aunt used to own a hotel here called Greenwood Trees and I’d always spent time over here seeing her. My parents then actually moved here in 2007 to be with her. Evie had always visited and loved it so she was really excited to come.”
Simon and Evie relocated in July 2013 and after a couple of months at St Peter Port’s Urban Kitchen he moved on to help with the redevelopment of Guernsey west coast institution the Rockmount and oversee the opening of his kitchen at La Reunion at the end of 2014.
For him it’s been a busy but incredibly exciting period. “I just love it. I go home early on Sunday evenings at about six o’clock, and by seven I could easily be back here. I can always find something to do whether it’s cooking or paperwork. On Mondays I’ll pop in on my day off. This is my life, and I spend anything between 85 and 120 hours in here every week.”
“I’m shocking to work with because I want everything to be perfect all the time, and I can’t get in my head why it can’t be. I walk round the restaurant every time, every service before we open and check everything. Everything we do, I’m always looking at it, and I’m always trying to see how I can improve it. My belief is that you should find something every day to improve on, so when you leave you know that something is better, no matter how marginal. It all makes a difference.”
From designing every detail of his perfect kitchen to drawing up his menus, Simon has poured a huge amount of energy into the project, and he wants others to be as passionate about it as him. “I try to inspire everybody from my guys in the kitchen to my suppliers. I want them to buy into my dream and help me build it, and one day it might be their dream.”
For Simon, the success of La Reunion is as dependent on his staff as himself. He describes his restaurant manager Charley as absolutely crucial. “The place simply wouldn’t function properly without her.
She’s the face that people see when they come in. Having the right front of house staff makes such a difference, and I’m very lucky with her.”
For those who don’t live up to his exacting standards, he admits there can be problems. “I’ve mellowed a little and I don’t throw things any more. I don’t go out of my way to upset people or to be nasty, I don’t like doing it. But I’m on a journey and I’m running at it and if you’re in my way then you’re going to get trampled on. I don’t do it intentionally, but I’m focused and it’s got to be right all the time.”
With Simon’s experience, the food at La Reunion is clearly something special, but it’s also something he wants to let speak for itself.
“I cook the same as everyone else. My menus look the same as everyone else’s and they’re written really simply. When you read a menu that says the egg has been cooked for 28 minutes in 38.7 degrees, so what? We do all that, but we don’t tell you that. If you want to know the science come in and sit in the kitchen. There’s foam guns, there’s water baths splashing everywhere – if you’re interested, come in here and I’ll talk you to death about it all, but I hate people pushing that in guests’ faces. But if you do come in here the science that goes on is unreal.”
For Simon, a visit to his restaurant should be about more than just the food; he wants the whole experience to be outstanding. “From the minute you decide to come here to the moment you leave I want to think of every thing that can make your visit a little bit more special. That can be a visit to the kitchen or the hand-made boxes of chocolates we give to guests for birthdays and anniversaries, I want those details to make the difference.”
That drive to be different includes the chef’s table that sits in Simon’s kitchen, offering guests the opportunity to eat while watching and learning about the food being prepared for them. It’s the first one of its kind in the island, and it’s something he’s very excited about. But it’s not the only way he wants to stand out.
“Like all chefs I’m very competitive, and I have to confess I’m big-headed. I want to With Simon’s experience, the food at La Reunion is clearly something special, but it’s also something he wants to let speak for itself. “I cook the same as everyone else. My menus look the same as everyone else’s and they’re written really simply. When you read a menu that says the egg has been cooked for 28 minutes in 38.7 degrees, so what? We do all that, but we don’t tell you that. If you want to know the science come in and sit in the kitchen. There’s foam guns, there’s water baths splashing everywhere be the very best here. I want other people to look to us as to where they need to be. But while they’re striving to get to our level, we’ll be constantly looking to improve, so by the time they get there we’ll already have moved on.”
It’s a bold statement. But seeing Simon in his kitchen kingdom it appears absolutely achievable. It turns out the world of IT’s loss is certainly Guernsey’s gain.