The new head chef of Pétrus, Neil Snowball, has learnt from Gordon Ramsay and Heston Blummenthal: now it’s time to see what this prized chef protégé has to offer at the top London restaurant. This is what he has to say about is new role at one of London’s most prized restaurants
Situated in the heart of the Belgravia/Sloane Square nexus, Pétrus is both one of the best-situated restaurants in London and a place with quite a history. In its third location, after stints in St James’s Street and at the Berkeley Hotel, it used to be run by Marcus Wareing and owned by Gordon Ramsay. However, a schism arose between the two in 2008 that saw Wareing continue to operate at the Berkeley (in the restaurant which is now called Marcus) and Ramsay open the new restaurant on Kinnerton Street, initially under former head chef Sean Burbidge and now under Heston Blumenthal protégé, the excellently named Neil Snowball. The chef has form with Ramsay – he used to work at both Gordon at Claridge’s and the three Michelin-starred flagship at Royal Hospital Road – and word on the street is that he’s been hired to elevate Pétrus to the two-star level it once had.
If he’s feeling at all pressurised about it, he’s not showing it. Coming in on his day off, we sit at the chef’s table of the gleaming and immaculate kitchen, where every single counter looks as if – no pun intended – you could eat your dinner off it, and where everyone is working quietly and methodically in the period between the lunchtime and evening service. If it’s calm and yet entirely professional, then that reflects Neil’s influence. Completing his fourth month at the restaurant, he describes his work as ‘a challenge, but a good challenge. I wanted to come in to raise the standards, make sure that the food’s as delicious as it can be.’ He’s started to put his own stamp on the menu already, not least with a delicious-sounding dish of lobster and macaroni cheese stuffed with lobster claw and foie gras.
Of course, any Gordon Ramsay-owned restaurant is overshadowed by the presence of the big man himself, and Neil acknowledges ‘there’s quite a contrast between where I worked previously, at the Fat Duck as development chef, and in the Ramsay empire, but a lot of my friends always worked with Gordon, so I stayed in touch with them and saw what was going on.’ As if on cue, Clare Smyth, head chef at Royal Hospital Road and the first woman to run a three-Michelin starred restaurant, wanders over to say hello and to arrange a later meeting with Neil.
Unsurprisingly, given their friendship, the relationship between the two restaurants is close – ‘we discuss menu ideas and the chef from there comes in sometimes to help, and Clare’s our spiritual mother’ – and it’s obviously hoped that some of the stardust rubs off on Pétrus, which Neil is the first to say ‘has been slightly adrift over the years – and it’s time now to make it a destination restaurant again.’
When it comes to discussing his relationship with Ramsay and Blumenthal, Neil is a master of diplomacy, he says ‘Gordon’s a master of nurturing talent, and he’s great at pushing you to the top of your game. Heston’s philosophy is a bit different – he’s fascinated by how food works, right down to molecular level and what compounds pair together.
‘Gordon’s more into management. And ultimately what I want to do is to synthesize the idea of a really well-run restaurant with a concentration on the science and make-up of what you’re eating. It’s experimentation, of course, and for every hit there are a dozen misses, but I hope that I’ve learnt a huge amount from both Heston and Gordon. We’ve got a foie gras dish cooked in seaweed, which really brings out the umami taste, and that’s something that my work at the Fat Duck gave me the courage to explore, and Gordon’s happy to let me explore my own style as long as it always comes up to expectations.’
Unusually for a head chef at a top restaurant, Neil didn’t come from a restaurant background, but instead went through the traditional school and university route before deciding that his interest lay in food, something helped by a stint working as a washer-up, which gave him an insight into ‘the buzz of the kitchen’. He points out one of his sous chefs as an example of someone more traditional – ‘her parents ran a restaurant and it’s what she always wanted to do, she’s only 25’ – whereas his own parents were an artist and scientist, both careers that have fed into his cooking style.
When he’s not plotting innovations in Belgravia, he’s a big fan of what he calls ‘good, wholesome’ food – ‘my wife’s Indian so she really knows what’s authentic and what isn’t, and I love a good curry’ – and is making sure that 2015 sees Pétrus put on the map again as somewhere synonymous with ‘high quality food that everyone’s going to enjoy, nothing too wacky or out there but just delicious cooking that isn’t over-complicated for the sake of it.’ Under the stewardship of the unflappable and likeable Neil Snowball, it looks like the restaurant should be maturing as finely as the wine that shares its name.
1 Kinnerton Street SW1X 8EA; gordonramsay.com/petrus
Words by Alexander Larman