Listen to this article
As chef Chris Galvin approaches his 60th birthday, he has been hoping he can perhaps take things a little easier. For the past 40 years, he has worked long hours, mastering his culinary skills, initially in the kitchens of the Ritz and Lanesborough hotels in London, then at the Orrery and Wolseley restaurants. Thirteen years ago, he joined younger brother Jeff in launching Galvin Bistrot de Luxe in Baker Street — the first of a number of Galvin restaurants.
In London, you can find them in the Hilton and Athenaeum hotels, there’s La Chapelle by Liverpool Street and a café in Harrods. There are also Galvins in Edinburgh, St Albans and Dubai. Along with the Green Man, a restaurant/pub in Essex, they constitute a small group over which the brothers can only maintain quality by travelling constantly. This has not made for a quiet life.
Chris has sought to impose a strong identity across the group via two distinct methods. First is the clarity, and apparent simplicity, of the menus. A Galvin menu is a combination of the best seasonal ingredients, cooked in the French tradition. “When I started in hotels in London in the 1980s, that was the only style of cooking that was then being taught,” says Galvin.
The second is the importance of a family-oriented ethos and robust infrastructure to support not just the brothers themselves but all the staff. Galvin felt relieved the day we met, because Dan Lee had just taken over as head chef at the Green Man. “He met his partner, who is from Essex, while working for us and she wanted to come back here to be with her family. One day they want to open their own place and I said that if they give me a few years, I will teach them everything they need to know.”
This open approach, which Galvin exemplifies but that is also characteristic of British hospitality in general, has been severely tested since the Brexit vote. A number of European staff have decided to leave the UK; the fall in sterling has made imports more expensive; and customer spending has been squeezed. It was “the perfect storm of factors”, as Galvin puts it, which led the brothers to shut Galvin Bistrot de Luxe this month. This closure marks the beginning of what could be an era of consolidation for the Galvins.
Still, the location and history of the pub they took over in Essex in 2016 are encouraging: it is close to a new 4,000-home development, and the building is supported by 15th-century beams. It all seems highly attractive. On Sundays, they can serve more than 300 customers, although the early part of the week can be very quiet.
“I believe that a lot of restaurateurs like us are being forced to look at their opening hours and the situation here might come, quite soon, to mirror that in France, where lunch is served only from noon to 2pm and dinner from 7.30pm to 9.30pm, which would be very sad,” says Galvin.
The final contributory factor in his more cautious approach is the growing presence, and cost, of what he refers to as “third parties”. By this he means the cost of using OpenTable or any other online reservation system and the charges imposed by the likes of Groupon, the deals website. “Everyone today has to accept them and I, for one, embrace them and urge our staff to turn them to our advantage. But they do eat into every restaurant’s bottom line.”
At the Green Man, the Galvins have invested £2.7m to cater for the widest possible clientele — from a garden where middle-aged cyclists in Lycra are welcomed to a glass-fronted restaurant that looks down to the Chelmer river over a scene that is pure Constable.
Here Galvin can put into practice all that he has learnt. There is always a very good, keenly priced set lunch and dinner menu. There is a choice of half a dozen or a dozen Colchester rock oysters, a soup, and a refreshing first course of buffalo mozzarella with blood orange and a citrus dressing. On the day I ate there, blood oranges reappeared in a hollandaise that admirably suited a wood-roasted plaice. A duck cassoulet is another dish I always associate with Galvin.
Classics appear on the dessert menu too: a rum baba; a tarte tatin; and a Valrhona chocolate fondant; as well as the Anglo-Italian combination of a vanilla panna cotta with Yorkshire rhubarb. Although Galvin was born in Essex, his menu always evokes a corner of France.
Galvin Green Man
Main Road, Howe Street,
Great Waltham, Essex CM3 1BG