Images by Steven Rojas
Phil Carmichael thrives on the chaos of the kitchen. Initially drawn to that intense camaraderie unique to back-of-the-houses the world over, the uniquely British chef found his real passion for food after nearly a decade working in the industry. Now, he’s in love with not only his creations but the entire theatrical production that defines contemporary dining.
These days, Phil is the executive chef at Berner’s Tavern, a modern restaurant that’s reintroducing British food to the culinary conversation. Though he has a Michelin star under his belt, Phil has no intention of slowing down. He loves the boisterous, rich good times that only a shared meal can bring. CONVICTS caught up with Phil to get his word on the synergy between the front and back-of-house, taking fresh approaches to classic food, and the touch of magic that shows up when a restaurant is firing on all cylinders.
Hey mate. To start, can you introduce yourself to us?
I’m Phil Carmichael and I’m the executive chef at Berner’s Tavern in the London Edition Hotel.
How long have you been cooking?
I started cooking part-time when I was in school, at sixteen. I didn’t really achieve what I wanted to achieve in school, so my dad said, “Ok you can leave school but you’ve got to get a job.” The head chef of the restaurant said they were looking for chefs and asked if I wanted to give it a go. I did and never looked back.
What drew you to the chef’s lifestyle?
It was the kind of camaraderie in the kitchen, the whole atmosphere of teamwork. It wasn’t until I’d been cooking for a few years that I really fell in love with cooking and food. When I was sixteen or seventeen it was pretty much a job. I enjoyed doing it but I didn’t really take it seriously. For the better part of ten years, I thought the restaurant industry wasn’t a mind-blowing industry to be involved in…then I worked at some really high profile restaurants and fell in love with it.
How would you describe your spot, Berner’s Tavern?
It depends whether I’m describing it to a guest or it’s a chef. The way I’d describe it to a chef is that it’s an absolute monster. But to friends who’ve never eaten here before I’d say it’s a big, bustling, loud, frivolous restaurant. You can come here and be brash with a big group of guys and just have a good time. It’s not a prim and proper restaurant where you have to be quiet and tread on eggshells.
This seems like a classically British establishment. Is that a fair assessment?
Ninety-five percent of our products are from the British Isles. We’ve got fish and chips on the menu. Yeah. Fish and chips. You can’t get more British than that. We’ve got the pork-pie trolley because it was an old British dish that was a very very lowbrow food, a working man’s food. So we took those flavors and elevated them.
We hear you became a father recently. First of all, congrats. Second, how has that affected your work?
Becoming a dad hasn’t really changed the way I think about food. It certainly makes you question the amount of time you spend at work. I see my daughter two days a week and in the morning for maybe twenty minutes if she wakes up and I’m not rushing out the door. So yeah, it makes you question things. On the flip side, it makes me more motivated to succeed and to continue being successful because there’s another reason for doing what we do, and running a successful restaurant and making sure that in another year’s time, we’re not scratching around trying to grab covers. So it’s a bit of both. It’s sad that I don’t get to see her as much as I’d like to, but it motivates me as well.
Describe the intensity in the back of the house?
Any kitchen at this level is tough. Cooking to the standard that we want to achieve is tough in any sized restaurant…but here we’re doing up to six, seven hundred covers a day. There’s a lot of pressure in that kitchen but there are no two ways about it: we couldn’t do what we do without the pressure and without that intensity. It’s not for the faint hearted. That’s why we’ve got such a big team.
Can you walk us through a usual day in your kitchen?
We’re literally always on the go. Guys are working flat out from eight o’clock in the morning until they leave. Then we’ve got a night shift that comes in to service the rest of the hotel, so being open all day adds another layer of pressure and intensity to the day. But in some sadistic way, we love it. The team all want to be chefs, sous chefs, and they understand the sacrifices they need to make and be able to stand the pressure they have to work under consistently. The pressure to perform and get things right the first time is another level. We get through that then go out for beers after work. We work hard and play hard as well.
How do you keep pushing your food forward?
You’re constantly thinking about how to improve it. Just maintaining the quality is hard enough, but how to improve? We introduced the pork pie trolley, then later this week we’re introducing a cheese trolley. Once we introduce those things, we have to start thinking about the next thing. Maybe we take one of the sharing dishes and elevate it, but how do we do that? Is it buying a new piece of service equipment, is it retraining the staff? The list goes on and on. It’s literally never ending
What’s the biggest challenge cooking at Berner’s?
It’s not difficult to produce one plate of amazing food. I could probably teach you to do that. The trick is to do that time and time again and replicate that consistently. Once you’ve got that as a base level, then you can start thinking about different service pieces, different plates, crockery, glassware, the music, the ambience. But that’s why we get up every day.
How is working in a hotel restaurant different than a pure restaurant?
When we were approached to do the job, Jason Atherton and I had had some very negative experience working in hotels. Those concerns were very quickly extinguished after literally one conversation with the brand team at Edition. It was clear that everybody wanted this to be different. For me, there’s no difference between hotel and restaurant. There’s no us and them. There’s no “I’m not doing that because it’s the hotel.” We’re not a separate entity. We’re in the same building. We just happen to be a restaurant in a hotel and that’s the relationship. There’s no segregation, it just is what it is.
What is the feeling you’re trying to achieve at Berner’s Tavern?
It’s everything coming together and people having a good time and getting drunk and just generally having fun. It shouldn’t be about having to focus and think about what you eat and listen to the waiter talk for ten minutes about explain a dish. It should be coming out and having some great tasting food, drinking some banging wine and drinking some good cocktails and just having fun.
What’s the best moment of working in a kitchen?
When the lights dim and everything’s coming together brilliantly, it literally feels as if there’s something magical going on. The kitchens are on point, the front-of-house team are doing their thing, the wine guy is doing his thing…it’s hard to pinpoint, but on a busy night when I look out from the kitchen into the restaurant and see two hundred people in the lights, it’s very enchanting.