This month we’re interviewing Alex Weston, founder of LaBritannique, one of the top caterers of the moment.
Born in 1973, has lived in Brussels since 1998 and before this in Manchester, Vienna, London and grew up in the countryside near the sea in SW of England.
Apart form a great cook, he’s also a great entertainer, a combination for success!
Hi Alex, what is your professional background?
I run my own catering business here in Brussels, La Britannique which I started in 2009. We are currently growing at a rapid speed and work with a number of high-profile business clients as well as private individuals – doing everything from breakfasts, lunch deliveries, canapés and cocktails through to weddings and birthday parties. We have now started running a breakfast club at our atelier ‘LaBritannique HQ’ on Sundays and also at our atelier, we run cooking sessions for people who want to learn about new cuisines or techniques. So, it’s quite busy as you can imagine!
And how did you get into good?
I grew up with food – my family had a hotel and restaurant on the English Riviera, near to Torquay and I was always helping out in the kitchen – it’s in my blood! – when I came to Brussels, I was working for the City of Liverpool and the North West of England regional representation. We were very much engaged in running events around Brussels and I always found the choices from caterers so lack-lustre – classic and fairly insipid piped ubiquitous mousse of ‘I don’t know what’ and to what seemed to me as strange things to a British palate such as Tuna Mayonnaise with tinned peaches… I thought when the time comes to change career, I’d be more than willing to take to the culinary stage for events in Brussels..
How important are the people you work with?
They are hugely important to me – both clients and colleagues. Whether for business or pleasure, we are usually asked to work with people for celebrations such as a big birthday, a wedding or just a great get-together with friends, or in a business context, for a product launch or other festive occasion, and to be a part of someone’s happy moment gives us huge pleasure. To see someone really happy with the food and our service, gives us all masses of work satisfaction and this is something that I think most people don’t have in their work these days – it’s extremely rewarding personally. My colleagues are what make LaBritannique so successful and help us grow. We are between us a veritable diverse mix of personalities, a broad church of characters with all kinds of international experience, brining a whole range of spices and techniques to the table. We are a small team, relatively, and it’s crucial that everyone can work together as a friendly ‘family’ because sometimes the atmosphere is somewhat intense and when we are working against the clock it can be quite stressful and high-paced, but invariably it all works out well with everyone involved happy and content.
How would you describe your relationship to food?
Errh… I’d have to say close… 🙂 I live, eat, drink, sleep and dream food. It is on one hand a great honour to be able to work for myself and do what I truly wanted to do – which is to work with food, with ingredients that I love and share them and their various combinations with our clients. It isn’t so often that people are able to turn their passion into something that can earn them and those around them, a living. On the other hand, I am constantly surrounded by food and even for someone who likes eating as much as I do, it can get to be too much. I live above the kitchen atelier surrounded by the raw materials and equipment to cook michelin-style quality food regularly, but sometimes I just want something not touched or thought of by me or my team, just because I need to get away from it all once in a while…
Where are your roots in food?
Having grown up in Devon, on the South coast of England, I have probably got more influence from Britain than I might have admitted before. We ate very well in our hotel and restaurant when I was growing up and it was a long time before the ‘gastropub revolution’. I think that food in the UK has had a long (and once upon a time I’d have to agree a deserved) reputation for lack-lustre uninspired food where cooks took short-cuts or owners didn’t want to seek out quality produce. But to be honest in the past 10 years things have improved greatly. Of course, there are plenty of poor establishments and these are exactly the same as those that tourists would go to in cities like Bologna or Brussels or Barcelona – tourists don’t often eat well – full stop!. I love the roast meats and the flavour and abundance of vegetables used in British cooking – never just a garnish, but an integral part of a meal of ‘meat and two veg’… when done with more finesse, applying newer techniques and/or more sophisticated sauces, or say using mediterranean vegetables as well as our less ‘glamourous’ Northern European home staples such as parsnips, rhubarb and horseradish, I think that British inspired cuisine really can be great.
I use a lot of herbs and spices in perhaps a fusion style. I have travelled extensively through Spain, Morocco, France, Greece and Turkey in the South, Central and Eastern Europe, and northwards to Scandinavia and Russia. Each of these countries feature in our repetoire in one way or another and another. More further afield we take a lot of inspiration from Asia – from India to Thailand and Malaysia through to Korea and China. I have tried to take something away from the meals that I ate in these places be they on the street shacks serving decent honest tasty nourishing delights such as noodles or various meat and carb creations such as kebabs, pies etc… or from top notch suave restaurants in the finest locations. British people because of our considerable diverse ethnic mix in our cities have palates used to a range of spices and can take heat quite well. This combined with our linguistic proximity to all things American and Australian gives us a wider repertoire of styles and ingredients to work with and perhaps because we haven’t been so obviously patriotic about how wonderful our classic cuisine, we have been much more open to new approaches and mixing things up. It has given us a fresh confidence to try new things – sometimes not so perfectly, but generally, this willingness to ‘give it a go’ and get involved in learning about new cooking styles and ingredients and combinations has helped us at LaBritannique to become well known for Asian cuisine at events, or the fact that we have built up a successful clientele seeking excellent Ottoman / Eastern Mediterranean / Turkish food too.
In conclusion, I’d say that my roots are varied and complex, as much as any chef who has travelled a lot and who is curious and loves a good meal. Trying to recreate this at home isn’t always possible – the fish is never as fresh as in the villages around Santander, nor the fruit as ripe as on a beach in Thailand, but we can get almost all of the ingredients we want in Brussels and we can certainly do a great job at offering something from all of these places. Our key inspiration for recipes when we are looking for new ideas are invariably Australian – if people are looking for basic as well as sophisticated dishes with panache and zest, they should look no further than Australian Gourmet Traveller and Australian Women’s Weekly cookbooks – (actually well known to francophones as the Marabout range…)
Is food important to you?
Hugely so… it’s the focal point of everything that I do… so I’d say yes very much so!
Where did you learn to cook?
I started to ‘cook’ at the age of three helping our hotel chef, Cynthia, to make pavlovas – I would stand on a stool in the kitchen, thumb in my mouth and mimick the noise (a sort of ehhhhhnnnnnn…. noise whirring and whirring) and movement of the Kenwood Chef as it rushed to whip egg whites and sugar into this blissful sea of white meringue that glistened. I was hooked and knew I would become a chef in some capacity one day. From then on I became child labour in the family hotel and regularly worked when I was an adult with my sister in her restaurant and catering business. it was on the job in various places such as UK, Austria and Thailand, until I started LaBritannique where under Belgian law I had to go to chef school, CERIA in Brussels to gain the chef’s diploma.
Do you use family recipes?
Yes, plenty – our parmesan biscuits feature heavily, as do our Devon scones. My mother made a great Bolognese and I have used that as the basis for mine, likewise, strangely enough our hotel made a great black, sweet carbonnade back in the 1970s which wasn’t very common in the UK, but I loved it and have tried to recreate this here… it’s almost the same and delightfully rich and black… yum yum 🙂
If so which one is your sure favorite?
This has to belong to a strawberry and raspberry pavlova – it was handed down to me from various sticky and dusty collected recipe cards that were sent monthly as part of the 1970s Cordon Bleu cookery course – it’s wonderful and stands the test of time, whilst others from the time, clearly didn’t!
What’s your strong point in cooking?
A good sense of seasoning, an ability to create wonderful sauces that needn’t be full of flour, butter and eggs, an adventurous and skillful sense for spices and their combination.
What’s the next big thing in food according to you?
Hopefully it will be about creating a more tapas style to eating out – not always about moving from bar to bar, but eating lots of small dishes, sharing amongst friends. I love this style of eating – it helps us to enjoy new things and different tastes within a meal, but thankfully isn’t a free-for-all buffet, which I try to steer people away from. I just don’t love the way that invariably at a buffet people overeat and pile up all kinds of things that don’t necessarily go together in the same mouthful…
Ok to round things up here are a couple of quick fire questions:
Currently, it’s Bentley – a bar-restaurant in Sydney that I would one day love to go to…
Which famous person would you like to have dinner with?
Tricky – probably one of Delia Smith, Diana Henry, Silvena Rowe – I love their recipes… If we could exhume her and talk to her too, then Fanny Craddock would be great value… but ultimately it would probably have to be Delia Smith as long as we didn’t talk football. She is amazing and THE reason that any British person post 1950 has any interest in food or being able to cook it…
What’s your ‘best’ recipe?
That’s a tricky one, so I just asked my head chef, Leila, to tell me what she liked the most… it would appear that everyone likes most of all an Australian inspired Greek Pastitzio that we make… an aubergine encasing ‘cake’ filled with layers of Roasted Lamb in a tomato, cinannon and thyme sauce, with layers of crushed peas and spinach in a mint and bergamot infused bechamel with feta crumbled into it, and layers of rice-like pasta. When cooked you just cut into it a bit like a cake. It is served with a great herb salad and roasted red peppers. Divine 🙂
Your most important food ingredient you couldn’t live without?
Picking one is tricky – most obviously would have to be salt – so many amateur cooks and unconfident cooks don’t use it enough and it’s what makes food taste.. no salt usually means no taste… if we can assume a steady supply of salt, then my next ingredient I’d want is turkish red pepper flakes – it’s a great slightly moist spicy paprika, not exactly as hot as chili but more than standard paprika.
Best food travel destination?
Santander for wonderful fish, charcuterie and wines, Borough Market in London for all kinds of tasty morsels or a great Deli in New York.
Best Brussels food place?
It’s outside of Brussels, but I absolutely love L’Air du Temps – a wonderful restaurant between Namur and Brussels. Otherwise, I have 4 other favourites: La Roue d’Or for classic Belgian cuisine near the Grand Place but without any or few tourists; Roxy on Rue de Bailli when you have no idea what you’d like to eat but you want something with some friends that’s local and simple and all tastes are provided for. Otherwise, I also adore for the sure simplicity, price/quality no-nonsense pita restaurant Hellas on the famous Pita St and Lotus Bleu for easy cheap and tasty vietnamese meals… yum yum..
Best food shop in Brussels?
It’s super overpriced and ever so indulgent, but I’d have to say Rob – if you can’t get it there then you can’t find it easily anywhere else.
Worst food experience in Brussels? Belga Queen – great décor and amazing space, but on the odd occasion that the evening meal was good, the service was awful, but usually the food isn’t great and the service fairly ‘bof!’ – I was also very unimpressed to order a dry martini cocktail from the bar, and be offered martini, and not even a dry one at that… oh dear!
Any food addiction?
Somehow licquorice appears in a lot of our creations – from sweet gingerbread and sticky treacle sauces with PX Sherry and dried fruits to accompany cinnamon ice cream and individual pear tarte tatins to savoury renditions of crab, avocado and grapefruit salads with a liquorice dressings… Divine!
Last thing you cooked?
Brunch on Sunday – Pumpkin Bread, Homemade ‘Everything’ Bagels with Smoked Salmon, Red onions, Capers and Cream Cheese, Eggs Benedict with our own English Muffins and Hollandaise Sauce, a full English Breakfast and gorgeous muffins .
Best food place ever?
Tricky – best ever restaurant experience – Arzak in San Sebastian; Best food place to visit – surely San Sebastian too with jaunts to wonderful vineyards in Navarra and the Kukulu cheese just over the border in France 🙂
Thanks a lot Alex for the talk and next month, who are you interviewing for us?
One of our suppliers, Mig’s of Mig’s World Wines…