- The Ivy’s former award-winning chef talks to Nick Rainsford about opening his own restaurant in the heart of Smithfield
“Sorry to keep you waiting”, Alan Bird says with an apologetic smile. He shakes my hand and sits down opposite me; he’s dressed in his chef whites, apron still on. We’re settled on the ground floor of his new venture, a first for Alan in that it’s his own restaurant, Bird of Smithfield. Set over five floors, the restaurant is the realisation of decades of ambition.
Though perhaps not a household name, Alan’s career has seen him work along side some of the most respected names in the industry, from his first break with Nico Ladenis to working with Chris Corbin and Jeremy King at The Ivy, where he spent 19 years before being appointed executive chef for the Soho House Group. Now, he’s doing what all chefs dream of and opening his own restaurant.
Growing up in North London, food was always a presence in Alan’s life: “My grandfather was a cook in the army – when he came out, he became a baker. My grandfather on my fathers side, he was a butcher for 45 years.” At school, Alan’s passion for food began to show: “When I was at school I got into home economics. I was the guy that made his own apron and turned up his own trousers, as much as it was an embarrassment! Not thinking I could have been a tailor rather than a chef, I carried on down the culinary route.” By the time he left school, Alan had started an apprenticeship at the West Lodge Park hotel. “As I finished, the head chef said ‘You need to leave, move to London and get experience… Develop. You don’t want to stay here and vegetate’. That was the best advice I’ve been given.” Alan moved on to the Goring Hotel, where he worked with George Goring, perhaps the most recognised hotelier in the industry.
It was during his time at the Goring that Alan got the first real break of his career: “I read a book called called My Gastronomy by Nico Ladenis. It inspired me; I wanted to achieve and do better things, so I wrote to Nico and told him how I felt after reading his book.” Surprisingly, Nico wrote back and invited Alan to do a week’s trial in his kitchen. “I worked my tits off! It was probably the toughest week of my life, but I was determined and at the end of the week he said ‘You’ve got the job’. Alan was now working in a Michelin starred restaurant under the guidance of one of London’s most celebrated chefs.Above: Crispy Suffolk pork cheeks and bitter leaf salad with green sauce
After two years working at Chez Nico and Simply Nico, and ready to make his next move, Ladenis pointed him in the direction of a couple of friends who’d recently opened a restaurant in Covent Garden… “I sat down with Chris and after about two or three minutes of talking to him, I thought, I’d like to work for him”. Chris, of course, is Chris Corbin of famed partnership Chris Corbin and Jeremy King. With Alan in the kitchen, The Ivy would go on to be a mainstay on the international culinary scene: “It’s hard to believe now, looking back; accepting an award when The Ivy came 7th out of the top 50 restaurants in the world. I was sharing the stage with Thomas Keller , Heston Blumenthal and Ferran Adrià ; they were the halcyon days of The Ivy” Alan says, eyes bright. Of course it wasn’t luck that got Alan on that stage, and whilst The Ivy was an old name on the restaurant scene, it was Corbin, King and Alan that got them back on that accolade.
After nearly two decades at The Ivy, it was time for a new challenge. Overseeing the relaunch of Pizza East, Alan joined the Soho House Group as executive chef and implemented an overhaul of their menu. But it was a chance meeting on holiday a few years later that allowed him to fulfil his ambition of opening his own restaurant, by introducing him to Steve Collins, Sian Austin and Giorgia Muir, the investors who’d previously worked with the Conran family. Fast forward 12 months, Bird of Smithfield, Alan’s own British cuisine restaurant is now a reality.Above: Temple Guiting soused vegetable salad with crispy Burford brown egg with soft centre
“For a chef, this place ticks all the boxes. It’s like having three or four restaurants under one roof; you need that variety. There’s a lot of time and effort that has gone in to what we do here, but you don’t have to spend a fortune to appreciate it.” The brief was simple: “We wanted to design a space that felt like a members club but without membership.” Elegant and tastefully designed, the restaurant features an ever-changing seasonal menu, exclusively including the first British farmed caviar.
- At an Ivy caviar and vodka event, Alan met Kenneth Benning of Shah Caviar, who told Alan of his plans to farm British caviar. “I said, ‘When its ready I’ll help you promote it.’ Raymond Blanc and other chefs were falling over themselves, but Kenneth being a man of his word went with me.”
In such an industry, suppliers can make or break a restaurant, no matter how good of a chef you are. Alan has worked hard to obtain and work with the best “I go to the butchers, the fishmongers. I go to the coast and meet the guys at the sharp end who go out on the boat to land the fish. It’s important to know your supply chain; for your own peace of mind, you need to know the guys you get produce from.”
This mixture of hard work, dedication and passion has seen Alan succeed in all his previous ventures and there’s no reason why Bird of Smithfield should be any different.Words Nick Rainsford
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