After 14 years behind the stove at one of the City of London’s most acclaimed restaurants 1 Lombard Street, we caught up with Herbert Berger at his brand new home in the city – Innholders Hall.
On a cold but fresh October day we were welcomed into the warmth and grandeur of this magnificent building tucked away along College Street in the city. Before we entered we had no idea of what was to greet us on the other side of this fairly unassuming but highly polished and decorated black door. While we stood waiting for Herbert to join us we had an opportunity to take in the magnificent reception rooms and in particular the fabulous Great Hall which we could only start to imagine must have played host to some of the most magnificent functions and dinners in the past. The Innholders Hall is the home of hospitality in the City and is one of a hundred Livery Companies and the one most closely linked to our industry. There is no doubting that this establishment was steeped in history and everything around the building suggested this but what for it’s new future with Berger at the helm, the first Michelin Chef to be associated with a livery company.
At this the man himself arrived, an imposing figure but straight away he put us at ease with his calm tone and Austrian twang. Our first question, having had time to absorb this wonderful venue, was simply why here, as there must have been plenty of opportunities and propositions for him to consider?
“When I left Lombard Street I took some time out, had lots of lunches, many interesting meetings and quite a bit of fun too, most of all I did a lot of thinking. I was amazed and honoured how many people were so supportive and encouraging for which I am very grateful”. Berger continues, “I looked at hotels, almost bought one with a friend and partner, considered gastro pubs with rooms in the country side and there is always ‘that’ fast food concept I had in mind for many years. I may still do it one day. Whatever I did next had to work at this stage in my life, after a hard divorce and parting as a partner from 1 Lombard Street after almost 14 years. It had to be financially successful as well as enjoyable, satisfying, making use of my knowledge and long career, giving something back and most of all I wanted to be in control of my own destination. I had too many experiences whereby I made companies very successful, gained the M=star for three establishments, but unfortunately too many times I lost out due to takeovers, sales and changes beyond my control. However I am not complaining as I held some amazing positions, met incredible people and every time it lead me on to another, even better and more exciting project and by all accounts this move looks the same.”
So you decided on staying in the city, all be it in a very different environment. How did the opportunity come about?
“I happened to sit next to the Clerk, Dougal Bulger, (of Innholders Hall) at a Reunion for the Gastronomes dinner, chatted and one thing led to another. At the time I knew things were coming to an end at 1L, I was looking for a move and he invited me round for a look at the livery hall as they were considering outsourcing their catering and they were clear that they wanted someone dedicated and not just another outside caterer. I handed in my proposal, went through the beauty contest and won the bid. It is an amazing place with incredible history dating back to 1473 and on top of it, it was the Innholders, the home of hospitality. It has three beautiful rooms, the size suited me and I was attracted by the idea that it would be almost catering in a large grand private house, no a la carte to deal with, just total focus on each party. I have always believed that Michelin star food can be done for large numbers, it is only a question of menu design, logistics and resources. Of course I also saw a hidden gem and a unique business opportunity too. Everything is there, I just had to bring in modern chefs equipment and some nice china and glasses plus a few other little touches. To be fair and honest I did not want to enter the fickle world of trendy places and all that is associated with them these days. After 44 years in the industry I felt I have done that, enjoyed it, loved it, made many wonderful contacts and benefited from it having gained the Michelin Star three times and held it for many many years. I was also looking for a better quality of life style.”
You are the first Michelin Star Chef to be associated with one of the Livery Companies and the one most relevant to our industry – what is your ultimate goal as Chef Director of the Innholders Hall?
“I believe so and I am amazed that it has not happened before. These are unique places, absolute gems and could not ever be recreated. My aim is to make Innholders Hall the Livery Hall with the best food and service for all and any occasion and attract a much wider audience. Livery Halls have traditionally been very secret and inaccessible. I want to open the doors to the public to enjoy and eat great and real food although it will be events only. However we can do a table in the Old Court Room for as few as four or six people but going up to thirty”.
You have been recognised for bringing a lot of young chefs over the years through the ranks, for them to go on and have their own success. How much of an importance is this to you in addition to creating the very finest dishes.
“There are many great chefs, famous or not who have worked for me and have gone on to do very well. I don’t want to single out a few, but my biggest satisfaction is having helped, guided and trained many young chefs, put them on the right track or helped them along, often from difficult backgrounds or having come out of horror kitchens. I enjoy creating a healthy environment, teaching real skills, real cooking, consistency and running a civilised kitchen. Thinking as professionals with the ability to work with management and understanding the business side of cooking is also very important to me”.
Please can you tell us a little about the brigade you have at the Innholders Hall and how it differs from the normal restaurant environment you were used to at 1 Lombard Street.
“Well, I am very fortunate, Elena Leva the sales and marketing manager, head chef Tim Richardson and pastry chef Arnaud Viatte have all joined me. David Campbell, the front of house manager, will arrive shortly. Together we clock up over 32 years working together – that makes an incredibly strong team with unparalleled experience, passion and knowledge. Just what is needed for this place. We will cater for all sorts of events and cook a huge repertoire from very modern to seasonal, lots of game and all the amazing old classics. The difference and real beauty is that when we prepare for a party that’s all we concentrate on, it’s cooked by us alone, I love hands on cooking and we are not distracted with a la carte and other interferences. It is also an incredible learning ground for youngsters as they will be working with us directly.”
Thank you for your time today Herbert and allowing us the privilege of exploring and learning about the Innholders Hall. For more information visit www.innholders.co.uk