This is an extract from a posting in my monthly series of LA-focused food articles for The Staff Canteen website.
British-born David Hands is the chef de cuisine at Bouchon Beverly Hills, Thomas Keller’s French bistro in Los Angeles’ most exclusive neighbourhood. He talks about his journey from winning student competitions at Birmingham College to working with one of the most celebrated chefs in the world and what it is like to live and work in LA.
Tell me about your background and starting your culinary career in the UK.
I attended Birmingham College of Food [Tourism and Creative Studies], where I was entered into a number of competitions. I won the Egon Ronay Student Chef of the Year in 2001 and Birmingham College of Food Student of the Year in 2002 and I also won a gold medal in the Culinary Star of Europe national finals in 2002. The competitions opened a lot of doors for me and while I was studying I worked at a number of different gastropubs. But my first real experience of fine dining came when I moved to Gidleigh Park in Devon. I spent almost five years there, starting as a commis and leaving as a sous chef. I learned everything I needed to know about being in a professional kitchen and understanding flavours at Gidleigh Park. Michael [Caines] was a huge mentor, who really set the path for me.
When did you decide to move to the USA?
Gidleigh Park closed for an 11-month refurbishment at the beginning of 2006 and I went to New York on holiday and knocked on the door of Per Se offering to work for free until my money ran out. I spent five weeks at the restaurant and then they offered me a job as chef de partie. Of course I jumped at the chance!
How did you get a US work visa?
I was one of the last people to get a J1 visa [a visa for cultural and educational exchange] for two years. I had to return to the UK to sort out the paperwork and it wasn’t until August the following year that I got to go back to New York. I worked on every station at Per Se, which was an incredible experience, and then just as my visa was about to run out, Thomas Keller asked me if I’d like to move to Los Angeles to open a new Bouchon. I had to go back to the UK for eight months while my O1 visa [a visa for outstanding abilities], which Thomas sponsored, was being processed. Bouchon Beverly Hills opened in November 2009, with me as a sous chef. Two months later I was promoted to executive sous chef and in 2012 I became chef de cuisine.
What’s it like working for the Thomas Keller Restaurant Group (TKRG)?
It’s a very special company. If you don’t buy into its culture then it’s not for you but if you do then it’s an incredible place to work. It’s a chef driven company and there’s a philosophy of only buying the best produce, no matter what the cost, which is fantastic. Thomas is an incredible role model who really gets the most out of people and empowers you without being controlling. He really enables me to be creative and let my talent come through but I also get to have him as a mentor and a guiding hand and someone I can bounce ideas of.
What kind of restaurant is Bouchon?
The first Bouchon in Yountville was designed for chefs from the French Laundry to come to after a busy service and eat well. And it’s still like that. The menu is classic French bistro fare, modelled on the bouchons in Lyon. It changes four times a year according to the seasons, although there are core items like the roast chicken, the pâtés, the mussels and the steak frites. Right now we’ve just launched our summer menu with dishes like tomato consommé, asparagus salad with hollandaise sauce and swordfish with pepper stew, fennel bulb, summer squash and olive tapenade. It’s not fine dining but we really focus on getting the best possible ingredients and letting them shine.
What are the main differences of working as a chef in the USA compared to working in the UK?
Not just in the USA but in TKRG things seem a lot more structured. We have power in numbers and never struggle for staff and it’s very organised in the sense that money is spent where it is needed. The biggest difference, of course, lies in the labour laws. In England it was all about the long hours – as a young chef you had to work 16-hour days and that really drilled into me the importance of getting your job done before you go home. In the USA with the eight-hour labour laws, it’s different. Half the jobs take eight hours to do and you might be in the middle of teaching a young chef something and then his shift is up and he has to go home, which can be tough.
LA is known around the world for its great weather, which also means that there is phenomenal fresh produce here. But are there any ingredients from the UK that you miss?
The strawberries here don’t compare. I still love English strawberries – they’re the best! Things here are pretty much available all year round and I can get strawberries even in December. In England having that wait and anticipation for the season to start around Wimbledon is what makes it so special. That’s the only thing I really miss here: if LA could be perfect it would be seasonal.
LA’s food scene has, until recently, not had a particularly great reputation but there seems to have been a real transformation. What do you most love about the industry here?
The food culture in LA has exploded, which I am extremely relieved about. When I moved here five years ago, I looked at it thinking: “Wow, there’s nothing here!” But it’s changed so much. There’s competition now, which is great. It’s friendly competition and I love that there are more and more chefs coming in and we all share the same passion. The scene in LA is very casual, it’s refined food in a relaxed setting. To me that’s amazing because it breaks the boundaries and people aren’t intimated to come through the doors. The other side of it is that without all the frills the costs are reduced so you can really concentrate on the quality of the food and service.