Paul Hannagen, the man behind Borough Plates, and head chef Justin Saunders talk passion, produce and Japanese food
Paul on Justin
I met Justin while working on a project in Covent Garden last year and we hit it off straight away. We have been friends ever since.
Justin is a real leader in the kitchen. Even though he is quite an old-school chef in the way he was trained, he has a very modern approach to running a team and takes a very nurturing approach to his staff. He really tries to give people a sense of ownership about what they do each day. He sets very high standards, but is not totalitarian in the kitchen and you can see the staff really respect him.
The passion for food doesn’t disappear when the chef whites come off; he is definitely still a chef outside the kitchen. He is quite chilled out off duty—until you start talking about food, then it all changes. It is a long time since I have seen a chef with so much fire in his belly after so many years in a kitchen. He still loves talking about ingredients and techniques and is still looking to learn new things.
If Justin was choosing somewhere to hang out after work, it would definitely be somewhere that you can have a chat. He is a very talkative guy. An ale in a nice pub with some good fish and chips suits him down to the ground. If I was organising a celebratory dinner for Justin, I would probably go for something hardcore Japanese. He is always looking to expand his experiences as a chef, so I would take him out of his comfort zone because I know that he would really enjoy the experience of trying something new. If he was choosing, it would probably be something French. He is classically French trained and I think that is where his heart lies.
When I approached him about Borough Plates, he was hugely excited about the idea. I remember him telling me that this is an opportunity very few chefs get in the UK—this is the premier place for food ingredients in the country and for him, getting to explore and work in it every day makes this the top job in his eyes. He is really looking forward to it.
He loves being a chef and that stems from a sheer, unbridled passion for food. When you talk to him, you realise that he has an encyclopaedic knowledge of food and wine, but it is not knowledge for its own sake: he loves applying it to what he does and seeing the results on a plate.
The best thing about working with Justin is that I trust him. I trust his palate. I trust that he is really pushing the culture we have as a company of developing people, ensuring that everyone has a voice—everyone has a place here, they are not just employees. People just want to be around him and enjoy working with him, which is a great thing to see in a head chef. I can’t think of a bad thing about him. None that we can print, anyway.
Justin on Paul
In the kitchen, Paul is very much like me in some ways: very passionate, very driven and he has an amazing food knowledge. We kind of bounce off each other when it comes to food. He likes to think outside the box, but at the same time uses a lot of classic combinations.
Outside the kitchen he is a really fun-loving person. Paul may be CEO of our parent company, Cuisson, but he is just one of the lads when he is with us. He doesn’t show stress, in what can be a very stressful position, which is great because it means you forget about work and have a good laugh with him on a night out. His choice for an off-duty drink would be a good bar that serves really good craft beer.
Where would I arrange a celebratory dinner? That’s a tricky question. My first thought would be a vineyard in Bordeaux, eating cote de boeuf while drinking an amazing red. He really loves his wine, so he would like that, but then he is a real champagne buff so perhaps somewhere in the Champagne region of France—overlooking a vineyard drinking great champagne and eating grilled fish. If he was choosing I think he would go Japanese, but it would have to be the real thing. He loves the country and really likes the food. His favourite cuisine may have been French once, but now I’d say it’s Japanese.
The thing he is looking forward to most with Borough Plates is the fact that we are dealing with some of the best producers in the world; true artisans who are there creating a great product and offering it to the public. I also think the fact that we have no set parameters excites him. Each morning we will head out into the Market to select our produce for the day and I think Paul is really looking forward to seeing what comes out of the kitchen.
Coming from a chef background, I think he likes the core ideas behind the Market. You want to know that the people producing the food are as passionate about it as you are. Everyone here knows the answers to the questions you ask them and that has really impressed him.
When Paul trained, cooking was a lot more regimented, but the rules have relaxed. You can use so many different ingredients. He loves that fact that there is so much room for invention in cooking, and you can change the direction of a familiar dish by simply adding a different spice or using a new technique.
The best thing about working with Paul him is that there is no ego: he is very open and forthright. He is a good leader, who gets the best out of people by the way he deals with them—a real general on the battlefield.