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How a global trip and early start inspired Palace’s new Head Chef

Features

Will Britton joined Crystal Palace as Executive Head Chef in August 2021, taking responsibility for every meal served at Selhurst Park’s lounges and events, the Training Ground and Academy.

It’s no small task, with hundreds to feed and a range of requirements to fulfil across multiple sites. But, having started his life in the industry aged 14 and more recently spent months discovering different cuisine across Asia, Will is able to bring a considered touch to every meal.

“There is only ever 20 Executive Chef jobs at any one time in the Premier League, so you can imagine how little the chance becomes available,” he says. “When it came about I was quite excited by it and then every single conversation that I had in the interview process I got that bit more excited.”

Will began life in the kitchen aged 14, when he got his first job as a hotel’s glass collector curious to know more about life behind the swinging double doors. ‘I’d ask the chefs if I could come in and do something,” he remembers, “but they were keen not to have a 14-year-old kid in the kitchen!”

He then moved to Canada with his parents aged 16, and began a co-op scheme to train as a chef having set his mind on it years before, which, in his own words, meant “never fully applying myself in school. Looking back now, that wasn’t my brightest idea.”

And so, with such an early entrance into the industry, Will collected his first AA Rosette aged 27 after returning to England and working in a range of restaurants and hotels in London and Kent.

Will’s next step was to further broaden his horizons. In 2016 he and his partner travelled Asia and Australia and, “wherever we went,” Will says, “I’d ask if I could jump in a kitchen with someone and learn a bit about their cuisine.”

He explains more about the trip, saying:

“We started off in India, which was the biggest culture shock I’ve had in my life… We flew from London into New Delhi and our eyes just completely opened up.

“The food was amazing. The first night we got three different curries, some rice, some bread, and for two of us it was the equivalent of about £1.50. And we had loads, so much we couldn’t finish it all, but the food we ate was amazing. The majority was vegetarian.

“From there we went to Nepal and it was very different to India, but very nice food. The flavours are similar in terms of spices but the way they cook things is different. From there we went to Thailand where I did some cooking and Thai food has always been one of my favourites. I had a lot of street food there.

“Then we did Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos before coming back to Thailand. I did lots of cooking in those places and it was very different. Even though these countries are very close together, their cuisine is very different.

“Finally we did the Philippines and Malaysia before heading to Australia. The Philippines was the furthest away from all of the other cuisines. It was very heavy food; they do a stew cooked with peanut butter, very rich and very heavy.

“[When we got to Australia], we’d eaten spices for five months and I was craving a roast dinner!

“Before I went away my emphasis was on fine dining; everything was very refined. What I found from Asia was that flavour is king. You need to get your flavours right before you start making things look pretty.

“In Australia things like fermenting and curing is something I took away, using as much local produce as possible. Western Australia particularly is so remote that to get ingredients is not as easy as it is here in the UK... It drove home that local, in-season focus.”

Both the AA Rosette and Michelin star experiences at home and discovering new cuisines abroad have shaped Will’s approach to cooking, something which can be seen at the club today. Menus change with the seasons, and guests in our Premium lounges are treated to the freshest local produce.

But his approach to the role goes beyond what dishes get served when and to whom, with Will also establishing an Academy programme to support young players more holistically.

“We’ve started a cooking class with the Under-18s... The idea is to give them some life skills, but also to be able to understand what they need to put in their bodies and why. Sometimes it’s very easy to say: ‘Eat chicken, eat salmon, eat pasta.’ But why? Why do you need those things?

“When we have them in front of us, we can explain: ‘This is what this does, this is what that does, this is how you should cook these ingredients.’

“You can see they really enjoy it and are learning something new. They really take interest in what they’re doing. Also, they’re all young lads and want to be the best so they all want to make their food the best. I’m lucky to have inherited this role at a time where the Academy was launching, so I was in a position to be able to make the Academy experience my own.”

We ask if Will has anything he wants to get across in this interview, and there’s a unique request for a man with three sites to run, and hundreds of people to feed. He wants to be stopped in his tracks:

“I’m very open and like to think I’m very approachable. If people do ever want to stop and chat, whether it be about food, football or whatever it is, I’m open to that.

“I do try to talk to people as much as possible. If anyone wants to catch me on a game day, I’m always in and around the restaurants.”

For a man who entered the industry at 14 and travelled a continent to refine his approach, there’s always something new to learn, no matter where it comes from.