Restaurant Stage: The Perfectionists' Cafe

Remember, happy chefs cook good food. Stress and shouting, to me, is antediluvian.
— Julian O'Neil, head chef
 5am at Heathrow Terminal 2

5am at Heathrow Terminal 2

“Sorry, you can’t write that down.” Julian O’Neil, the head chef of The Perfectionists’ Café had come hurtling over to me as I stood watching a commis chef place an entire tray of eggs, cardboard and all, into a combo oven.

“We spent 10 months creating all sorts of secret recipes for the restaurant, and our poached egg is one of them!”

It was just before 5am at Heathrow Terminal 2 and I assumed that the sun had not even barely begun to rise outside. Final prep was underway for a breakfast service starting at five on the dot. Around eleven chefs flittered this way and that making sure that Heston Blumenthal’s fifth restaurant was once again raring to go for the immense wave of airport diners that relentlessly descend every day, regardless of season.

Just for a bit of perspective, The Perfectionists’ Café has 149 seats and serves an average of 700 diners for breakfast every day. Around 800 more arrive for dinner.

I followed Julian back to the pass, already feeling utterly exhausted before the day had even begun.

 the perfectionists' cafe exterior

the perfectionists' cafe exterior

Along with The Fat Duck, The Hinds Head, Dinner and The Crown at Bray; The Perfectionists’ Café is part of Heston’s very small armada, with the first three sharing six Michelin stars between them. The Fat Duck, being the jewel of the crown, holds three and has frequently been named the best restaurant in the world.

That it is under the banner of such star-strewn company, and also based in an airport, makes The Perfectionists’ Café the most unique stage that I have ever done. But unique not only due to the location and expectation of quality, but also due to the approach of the restaurant in terms of food and staff, the working hours, and the security.

My day had started at 1am. That was when I gave up trying to sleep, grabbed a coffee, a taxi, and headed for the airport. I was to meet Julian at 3am to start the process of going through security, which was absolutely no small matter. I was heading through the staff entrance at the back of the terminal, and once inside, I would have an escort at all times. The vetting process to be able to work back stage at an airport is, as you’d imagine, excruciating in its depth.

For a visitor, it was two separate security checks and a complete investigation of all my items, shoes and all. 

I did eventually emerge unscathed, my chest now sporting two separate security badges, and I re-joined Julian who led me into the labyrinthine depths of Heathrow Terminal 2. 

“It really is the most challenging restaurant in terms of negotiating deliveries,” Julian told me as we walked through for what seemed like miles of eerily empty corridors full of empty cages on the way to the staff room.

“All deliveries that arrive at the airport are first placed into a consolidation unit at the perimeter, x-rayed and then sealed. They are then placed in a van which enters the airport, then placed in quarantine for four hours before reaching the kitchen.”

 julian O'neil, the head chef, takes us through the airport catacombs 

julian O'neil, the head chef, takes us through the airport catacombs 

No one can go to The Perfectionists’ Café unless you’re about to board a plane, with the entire concept based around Heston’s “In Search of Perfection” TV show which aired in the mid-2000’s.

In the show, we saw the intrepid three-star chef search the British Isles for a route to creating the ultimate versions of British staples. Perfecting British classics, to distil it further. The Perfectionists’ Café is the result, and while plenty would assume, being a Blumenthal establishment, the menu would be full of ground-breaking, alchemic dishes costing a fortune – the reality is some of the best classic comfort food you’ve ever had in your life, the Heston way, and at very reasonable prices.

We’re talking sausages with the perfect percentage of fat so as they can be kept warm without losing any of the quality, smoke-infused butter for the burgers and steaks so as to provide a flame-cooked flavour despite the lack of an open grill in the terminal, pizza dough perfected in Naples and combined with a high salt content and strong gluten to ensure diners leave without a bloated feeling.

The pizzas themselves are made in one of only two wood-fire ovens currently operating in an airport (the other being in LAX, Julian told me, clearly irritated as to not solely have that accolade).

But the morning was about the all-day breakfast menu, which is exactly how you’d imagine. Full English, bacon and sausage sandwiches, eggs benedict/royal and a heap of extras. Simple and classic, but thought out to staggering extremes behind the scenes, the details of which remain shrouded by confidentiality.

 julian plates at the pass

julian plates at the pass

This has to be the most consistent restaurant imaginable, as the head chef Julian told me, which is clearly why the menu was poured over for over ten months, making sure that not only the food was perfect, but also that the delivery of perfection was easily replicated on a large scale.

“Everything down to the hollandaise has been broken down to its core properties and brought back up again. This is a Heston restaurant so there is a huge expectation of quality and skill. But this is also a café, which means speed and a sense of simplicity at the same time.

“The ten months developing recipes at Tectonic Place (a development kitchen under the banner of The Fat Duck Group) was shrouded in secrecy. No one outside a small group of the upper hierarchy, including Jonny Lake and Ashley Palmer-Watts, knew what was going on in terms of our end goal.  

“But while the food is hugely important, we found that having the right chefs for the job is just as crucial.”

Breakfast started with a bang, with a ticket for two eggs benedicts coming through at 5:04am. They were plated and on their way to the diner at 5:06. I was on eggs with a commis called Ben, who had been through catering college in Portsmouth and used to work in a local pub.

He was tending to a giant vat of scrambled eggs which was cooking agonisingly, beautifully slowly when the ticket came through. The brigade told me that Ben was amusingly known as the guy who was always eight eggs ahead. Considering the speed at which the egg bennys went out, I wasn’t about to doubt it.  

 eggs benny

eggs benny

The Perfectionists’ Café employs around 23 chefs in total, from all walks of life. There are two main shift patterns for those chefs: 4:30am to 1:30pm, and 1:30pm to 10:30pm – and Julian has handpicked (and reared) the lot.

Due to the working hours (all chefs have to be available to work morning shifts every week), the chefs have to be sourced locally due the simple fact that public transport doesn’t start in the morning until 6am.

While this severely limited Julian in his recruitment drive, it also pulled focus to the attitude and personality of the applicants. Julian has created a family, rather than a workforce of expendable chefs, of malleable chefs and former KPs. And they are charged with consistently creating the food of a world famous, three Michelin starred chef.

“We have guys who have worked in places from McDonalds to The Slug and Lettuce,” Julian told me.

“We have a fair few former KPs, and a lot of young commis. There isn’t really a hierarchy in the kitchen, but I am training a few to take on more responsibility.

“They’re such a good bunch, I couldn’t ask for a better brigade. They’re so willing to learn, know their stations inside out and, most importantly, have an amazing bond. Without that, in this intense environment, the kitchen would crumble.

“Remember, happy chefs cook good food. Stress and shouting, to me, is antediluvian.”

 all systems go at the crack of dawn!

all systems go at the crack of dawn!

This is a very different environment for Julian O’Neil. Executive chef at The Wolseley for five years, Julian is an old school chef with his eyes fixed on the future. The Perfectionists’ Café is his baby, with the first margarita made here in the wood-fire pizza oven set as his laptop wallpaper, which sits with him on the right of the pass.

He is a father figure to his young team, and quite wonderfully knows them all personally. And just to add to the personable nature of the restaurant, Heston Blumenthal himself comes by to check on proceedings every two months.

Working with the Perfectionists’ team saw me come into contact with the kitchen equipment, which was practically space age. This is no half-baked airport operation, rather a platform for the best Terminal 2 has to offer, with everything from the holding ovens to the plancha ensuring the chefs have the best possible tools with which to serve their army of diners. It’s a treasure trove for a chef, and they all seriously know what they’re doing.

Rarely have I seen service run so smoothly, made all the more impressive by the sheer number of tickets pouring out at the pass. Julian kept everyone’s heads, dictating with precision. I took a turn on the plancha with a young commis who was being reared by Julian as a pseudo-sous. Then onto the pass with Julian who helped me plate a full English to spec, at speed.

What struck me from the word go was the amazing colour and texture of the food, especially Ben’s eggs. Perfect whites, a deep, rich swirl of scrambled eggs, and the poached, well, let’s just say there’s an age old recipe driving each and every one.

The Perfectionists’ Café is about as modern day as you’ll find, driven entirely by the classics. Everything from the siphoned beer batter for the fish and chips to the liquid nitrogen-made ice cream; Heston is here in spades, but its Julian O’Neil and his crew that are the real perfectionists. Diamonds in the rough, every one, with Julian as caring a mentor as you’re likely to find anywhere in international waters.

 early birds...

early birds...