Five minutes with… Dan Kenny

Chef Dan Kenny took over the full F&B offering at The Artist Residence hotel in Brighton earlier this month having run its restaurant The Set for almost three years. The Midlands-born chef moved to Brighton eight years ago from Vietnam where he’d lived for several years, to work at The Gingerman restaurant.  After five years at The Gingerman he left to launch The Set with co-founder Semone Bonner with the aim of showcasing the best British produce at affordable prices. Following Semone’s exit from the business last year and Dan’s takeover of The Artist Residence’s F&B, he talks to Hospitality & Catering News about the new challenges he faces.   

Why did you decide to take over the entire F&B of Artist Residence?

I like a challenge and it was good for me to bring the two bar areas and the restaurant together so they have some synergy and make more sense to the customer.  We’re now doing a cocktail menu at the bar The Fix using the same ingredients that we have at The Set, for example.

Having all the staff (we’ve gone from seven to 25) under the same umbrella makes it a lot easier to run and there are no divisions, everyone is pulling in the same direction. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to push The Set, so it makes sense for me to take over the F&B so we can take it in the direction I’d like.

Now you’re a few weeks in, how is it going?

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We had a good solid start and we’ve got a lot of ambitious people here. None of us are ever satisfied, but in a good way. We’ve got a long way to go to hit the objectives we’d like to, but the new cocktails are being really well-received by hotel guests and things are going really well at The Set restaurant.

The Set bar is where there has been the biggest change: It’s a lot more relaxed with a tapas-based menu and some local cask beers. We’ve also ramped up our wine offering thanks to our new restaurant manager who has a lot of knowledge in organic wines. We’ve had a lot of switching about with management as well, so now everyone has had a few weeks to work with each other and it’s running quite well, although it has been a bit stressful at times.

Now I’m in charge of the hotel’s breakfast offering, I want that to be taken as seriously as the restaurant is. We’ve got some classic dishes as well as some more unusual combinations like Pig on Toast – homemade black pudding and home-made charcuterie with a fried egg and hot sauce – and an Arnold Bennett, which is smoked haddock bechamel and parmesan with a poached egg, instead of the standard eggs Benedicts. I’m looking forward to turning that into a real stand-out offering and one that will be interesting to non-guests as well as guests.

What has been the biggest challenge in hotel F&B for you so far?

Definitely paperwork. The level of paperwork required has blown me away. I was used to running a business within a business, so I knew where I was with book keeping, VAT returns and a small payroll but the takeover of PDQ machines and going to a huge payroll, plus having to open an account with everyone – from hand-soap suppliers to wine merchants –  has surprised me. I realise I had it pretty easy last year.

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Have you had to adapt your cooking style or tailor your usual approach for the hotel market?

Not really. The hotel was quite keen for us to run with what we’d already created. The Set restaurant had already become a lot simpler and more focused. We were probably putting too much on a plate and trying to impress everybody, so I think the kitchen had already got a better identity.

The one big change has been the cocktails. They used to be quite component-heavy and have lots of garnishes, so we’ve stripped those back to make them simpler and to make them a little cheaper.  The idea was to make our cocktails similar to the restaurant’s offering – using seasonal fruit and vegetables which give a good clarity of flavour. We offer all the classics and you can also go off-menu, which the hotel guests seem to like.  It all fits together a lot better now. It’s a little more apparent that the bar and restaurant are by the same people for those diners who go for drinks before or after their meals.

As someone who now works with food and drink, what’s your dream food and drink pairing?

Probably the most interesting combination we have is a teriyaki cauliflower dish which is a first course. Instead of pairing it with wine, we pair it with saké and it has gone down very well. It sounds a bit weird, but it really works and is our most popular pairing. We’ve done a mackerel dish with a local beer as well. We’re quite open-minded with our pairings. We’re less about wine matching and more about drinks matching.

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The Set was recently listed as number 5 on the list of Brighton’s Top 20 2018.  How do you view awards and accolades – good, bad or indifferent?

 It’s great to be recognised, but also we’re quite grounded and aware that you can go up and down fairly easily on these lists. Our main ethos is to make little improvements at the restaurant, which we do constantly throughout the year and if we’re recognised for it that’s lovely, but also if you’re not in the Top 20 it doesn’t mean you’re not a good restaurant. We were surprised to become fifth. We thought we’d drop down because there were lots of new openings last year.  The awards are brilliant because there’s a friendly competitiveness in Brighton. I’ve never been to an awards where everyone is rooting for each other.

I think you have to take it all with a pinch of salt. If you get a Michelin star or an AA rosette it’s amazing, but  I’m not going to pin my hopes on getting one.  As long as the restaurant’s doing well and we’ve got enough customers to enable us to keep doing what we enjoy and all the staff are happy and motivated, that’s the main thing.

Who has been your biggest inspiration in your career and why?

Probably my mum and sister. I started cooking at a young age because they were brilliant cooks.  I think my sister should work in the industry, because she’s probably a better chef than me. Some of the meals she’s cooked have been the best I’ve ever eaten. Inspiration starts when you’re a kid I think, so the love of food and getting in the kitchen definitely came from those two.

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Where do you enjoy going out to drink and eat?

 I’ve been lucky to travel quite well in the last few years. I went to Copenhagen last year and that was a real eye-opener. There’s such an emphasis there on using quality ingredients and really simple cooking.  I try and eat out in Brighton as much as possible. My favourite places are Bincho Yakitori and Chilli Pickle. I’ve been eating at Chilli Pickle since it opened eight years ago. I’m from the Midlands so I love curry. Growing up we’d have a couple of curries a week.

What does the future hold for you and the business?

It’s hard to say as this is all so brand new. We’ll focus on making small improvements and try and improve every facet of the business and what we’re doing. We need to be a lot more streetwise now with the current financial situation in the industry. There are a lot of closures because of food and drink prices  rocketing and various other outside factors, so short-term we’ll be focusing on keeping the business smart and simple.

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