Alex Payne has undergone a meteoric rise from pot washer, via TV’s Masterchef and Michelin Star kitchens, to Head Chef at the Thames Chef's Table, Crockers Henley. We grill him on food trends, staying calm in the kitchen and how he creates an unforgettable experience around his tasting menu.
Tell us about your background
I never grew up loving food; I kind of fell into it. I failed college and was pot washing at a restaurant, and the Head Chef asked if I wanted to join the kitchen. I loved it from the moment I got in there, and combined work with catering college. From then on, every step in my career has been for a reason and got me to the point where I am today. At 19, I thought ‘I want to work for the best chef I know’ - so I went to London and worked for Gordon Ramsay. That was the job where I learnt how to cook; I was thrown in at the deep end. Next, I worked in Michelin Stars for six years - that’s when I learnt about fine dining and precision. Crockers is my first Head Chef job.
The Thames Table at Crockers Henley
How do you create the Thames tasting menu?
I love modern British and European food. I come up with each concept for the Thames tasting menu, eaten at the chef’s table which wraps around our open kitchen. Because it's a tasting menu, you have to have texture on the plate, you need acidity, variety and it can't be too heavy. I source all the produce; my priority is finding the best ingredients from around the UK. I’ll use local ingredients as long as it’s the best, such as organic Longhorn Beef from nearby English Farm or sparkling wine from Hundred Hills in Stonor Valley.
How do you make ‘experience’ the focus at Crockers?
It’s about creating an experience for customers from the moment they walk in - the most important thing is to make people feel at home, rather than being too formal or stuffy. We have to break that barrier straight away. We talk and interact throughout and explain what we are doing. We encourage guests to ask all the questions they want, like how to cook the perfect roast potato!
I'm a shy person in general, but when I'm in the kitchen in my playground, I can comfortably chat to people for hours. There’s an amazing energy in our kitchen and we are a close team. It's the opposite of what people expect - no shouting or stress. My ethos is organisation: we have to have everything prepped in advance as we are on show the whole time.
Chefs Alex, Luke and Liam in the kitchen
What food trends are you currently seeing?
Sustainability and zero waste. It’s reflected in what we do - we have a baby gem lettuce dish where we use one leaf. The rest would normally get thrown away, but instead we turn it into gel and use it as a dressing. As we do a pre-booked tasting menu, it’s impossible to over-order so there’s no waste.
What has been the biggest highlight and challenge to date?
Masterchef was a great highlight - the pressure of being on TV was huge but it gave me confidence. Also, being part of the team that gained a Michelin Star at The Latimer restaurant in Surrey was fantastic.
Getting the role at Crockers is a highlight, but it can be challenging as you are always on show. It doesn't matter if you've had a bad day, you put on a smile and treat every guest the same - you’re not just a chef here.
Do you have a nugget of wisdom for budding chefs?
The best advice for a young chef would be enthusiasm and patience. I never wanted to stay still and always wanted to be better. Have clear goals and break it down into how you’re going to achieve that goal. You need supportive people behind you to push you to the next stage.