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Chef features and interviews

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Shaun Hill, The Walnut Tree, Abergavenny

This month's Featured Chef...

Shaun Hill

He breathed new life into The Walnut Tree Inn, in Abergavenny, Wales, when he took ownership in 2008, after it struggled for a long period. Shaun, whose Michelin star-studded experience offers the restaurant a strong foundation for quality and business, has previously won two Michelin stars – one for Gidleigh Park in Devon and later one for The Merchant House in Ludlow. Now, Shaun’s Midas touch has given The Walnut Tree the revival it needed, along with its own Michelin star to boot.

Shaun honed his culinary skills working in kitchens at The Capital Hotel in Knightsbridge and Blakes in South Kensington before going on to own a string of his own restaurants, running the kitchens of all three. In the case of The Merchant House, he was the sole member of the kitchen bridge, entirely responsible for its decade-long success. There is no doubt that Shaun, a chef since 1966, is one of the best chefs in the UK today. Experienced, talented and hard-working, Shaun Hill has consistently provided patrons of the Walnut Tree with memorable dishes that prove why his restaurants have been so popular.

Shaun, thank you very much for meeting with us today. Can we start by talking about the Walnut Tree.

OK.

Obviously, you have had a hugely successful career and most people will remember you from Gidleigh Park and also the Merchant House, and then you take on the Walnut Tree. Again, steeped in tradition. Hugely successful and then it fell on troubled times - a well documented "Kitchen Nightmare".

It was! (Laughter)

And, now, I read somewhere that the locals embraced you with open arms when they heard you were coming to the Walnut Tree. What was your rational behind coming here?

There wasn't one. I have never worked to a plan. I do what I think seems like a good a idea at the time. I have never had a big plan to do anything, except I tried to retire after I closed the Merchant House. I was going to make money consulting and writing. I took a weekly recipe writing column in the Telegraph magazine; started writing reviews for the Guardian "¦ all of which was quite nice; I had no plans to open a restaurant. I took a small share in a Brasserie that opened in Worcester; they suddenly started pretending that I cooked there, so I withdrew my stake in that. I knew the Walnut Tree was in trouble; it was repossessed by the bank; I looked at it and the roof needed replacing, the floor needed replacing and it had fallen on hard times. I'd enjoyed eating here over about 30 years - not often but regularly, about three times a year. I felt sad that it had gone and after it had been closed for a few months a boy that used to work for me, he has an hotel in Abergavenny, he came to me and asked if I would consider doing it as a 50:50 arrangement and as his contribution he would take care of the admin; payroll - all the bits that get on my nerves!!

Yes.

If I set it up. And I thought - that sounds alright. I will get a good Head Chef in and good crew; put the menu in and that's it. Starting a company up here must be quite difficult because it is quite rural.

Yes, it is. Also I am an outsider and I don't have the "network". But what I did have going for me was that Ludlow is only 30 miles north from here and I had a base, if you like, of people that enjoyed eating at the Merchant House during the 11 years we had been open. I had planned to set it up and then come in a couple of days a week, but it didn't work out like that because the place needs you to be here all the time. And although I am not here all the time it has worked out very well. The Head Chef. Roger Brook, does all the unpleasant work. He runs the kitchen, does the ordering, he does all the things a normal Head Chef does but he has the added horror that I turn up at service time and shake the pans; cook and get on everybody's nerves!! (laughter) and change what I don't like on the menu.

That's your prerogative, isn't it?Shaun_Hill_Interview-3

We work on the dishes and, in fact, most of the time I quite enjoy it.

Now, you mentioned the Merchant House and you were there 11 years. Very different from Gidleigh in that you actually owned the Merchant House?

Yes.

At that time when you sold the Merchant House and you said your plan was to retire. Was that driven by the fact that you felt you had achieved everything that you wanted to achieve?

No, I don't think anybody ever feels that they have finished otherwise they would just go to Dignitas and take the medicine and do it. (Laughter) No, the real thing is that I felt I had done enough within that format.

OK.

Now, it's not a question of whether you can cook or not but what works in one circumstance doesn't necessarily work in another. And I thought that after 11 years of working alone. Not quite alone, my wife Anja made the bread a big chunk of the time and quite a few of the desserts by the time we closed, but in effect I was on my own.

So it became a life style business, then?

Well, after a while you get things to work and they work well; it fits in with the number of customers and the prices you charge and it all comes together. But in the same way, a bit later down the line, you start moving round and round in circles because you have done what you can and at that point it is good to stop. It got to that stage, 11 years is a long time and I hadn't put a seriously different dish on the menu for a year. It made a healthy profit - the only time I'd made a profit because there was no payroll to speak of. I closed when I wanted to go away somewhere and I only opened for the times that I could cope with, which was 5 evenings and two lunches. So that gave me three days where I had a good run at the mis-en-place and two days when I did a lot of service and not a lot of mis-enplace; and on the sixth day (Monday usually) I did all the admin; the books.

You said that you didn't change a dish in over a year and I remember reading a long time ago, when you were at Gidleigh Park, in the Caterer and it had a picture of one of your dishes, it was a Ravioli dish and I think you were quoted in saying it took you 10 years to develop a dish. Do you think, nowadays, there is a lot of pressure on chefs to continually keep changing their menus?

What it is, is that management get bored. Shaun_Hill_Interview-12 Yes.

And because they have seen the dish for six months they think it's dull and they would like something new. But it's not their business. I felt that when we put on new dishes both at Gidleigh Park and the Merchant House, and we put on several, but I felt they were a great idea at the time but they didn't stand the test of time. Very few dishes do and what you have got to do, over time, is to home the dishes and combinations that work so that they are spot on and discard the bits that don't work. And I never know what will work and what won't until I try it.

Yes.

So when I moved from Gidleigh Park to the Merchant House, that dish that you are talking about I thought because it was cheap to make, especially if you use chicken livers, I thought it would make an ideal starter but it required four different pots at the same time and there I had a six burner stove, so every time it went on I was in trouble. So it went very, very quickly. There are dishes that I have been doing for 20 years that reappear periodically even here because I like them and they work. And what you need to do, really, is to build up a repertoire of dishes that you like and are confident with and then try and add to it each year.

Absolutely. Shaun, when you are putting stuff together, are you thinking Michelin?

No.

Are you thinking guides? Or customers?

No, I'm don't think of customers either (Laughter). I think if you move onto that idea there lies as much madness as worrying about Michelin.

But critically, you have been well acclaimed by Michelin.

I have but I have never gone out to please them specifically. You have to work to your own judgement otherwise you don't know that you have arrived and the dish is finished and you don't know if it is any good or not.

True.

Being a Head Chef, initially, a lot of it is craft skill and ability to run a kitchen, at a certain level you have to leave that; you have to assume that. Like an aircraft you assume the engine works and that the pilot can work the controls and you move to an area of taste and judgement. It's at that point that separates most Head Chefs. So I work to what I like, it's not a vanity it's a practicality because I have to know when I think the dish is finished. Now if I am wrong then the Ronald Reagan magic of the marketplace will see me into the bankruptcy courts quite quickly.

Yes.

And if I am right then enough other people will come along. But the idea that customers should make your menu for you is just risible. The idea that someone really comes in and wants Melon and Parma Ham (nothing wrong with that dish) but there are a thousand places that will do it for them so you have to aim for a specific style of food and hope that there are enough people that agree with it to make it a commercial proposition.

Yes, fair comment. In the last twenty years there has been a huge shift in gastronomy in the UK and we have now got this so called Moleculous Gastronomy. Where do you see that, do you see it as a fad or niche?

It's a bit of both. It's a bit like Nouvelle Cuisine, it came in and it became ludicrous; it became a bit like the Chef: an Artist and it didn't work; but it did free us from what went before.

Yes, I think the concept of Nouvelle Cuisine was very good - a more lighter cuisine and more modern approach but it almost got jumped on.

Yes and I think then there were not as many Chefs that were capable of using their judgement and style. Instead of looking it up in Escoffier or the Repitiore and keeping to it and doing it either well or badly they had to make a judgement and a lot were found wanting.

Do you think there is a danger with that and Molecular? Heston is obviously a master at what he does.

Well, Heston is very good at what he does and I went to two of the conferences in Sicily before Heston did and I was fascinated by aspects of it. There was about 20 of them there. And you would have Harold McGee, who writes books on food science and umm, Pierre Gagnaire one year the rest were physicists who wanted to play with the food a lot. So one year I was there doing flavour and you had physicists who were able to pull out strawberry flavour from chromosomes from liver and they were doing that, so it was interesting but it's not as good as what strawberries taste like; they have got the right strawberry flavour. So although I was interested in the science aspect of it I only ever turned up out of vanity because I failed my science O Levels and I was there to speak ahead of the Nobile Prize winner for Physics and I thought that repaid a score from ancient history. (Laughter) But it wasn't what I wanted to do. Heston came after me and did some work with a chap called Peter Barham, who is a Professor of Physics at Bristol University, who is very keen on food and keen on exploring the possibilities. The possibilities, by the way, are nothing to do with flavour they are always to do with texture. They are turning things into jelly, into balls, into unexpected formats.

It is very much theatre driven too.Shaun_Hill_Interview-4

Yes, a lot of what we do is theatre driven. The whole business of eating out is more cabaret than nutrition. People come out to be entertained for the evening through what they eat.

What about modern cooking techniques, Shaun? You know, you almost don't need an oven in the kitchen now because of these wonderful things called Water Baths.

Oh, Water Baths they are exceptionally boring and they produce very, very boring food. They are the new toy, so whilst they are an interesting addition, the same as microwaves, to what's possible they are not the second coming. So the Pigeon Breast that has been cooked at low temperature for six hours will be the same red from top to bottom and more or less cooked but I want the crisp outside texture and the difference that high heat has made. I have very, very hot pans so I brush the meat or fish with an oil, Olive Oil sometimes because it has a low flash point and colours more quickly than Sunflower Oil, and it will produce colour very, very fast so it hasn't dried out the meat. Your enemy is dryness in food. So you have got the colour and you can then finish it somewhere else on a different tray in the oven at a low temperature. And I think you get a better, what suits my palette, a good result. Yes.

Quality starts with the shopping. If you buy a product and don't wrap it properly; if you don't protect it from air or water and let it dry out then you will get a c**p raw material, then nothing you can do will repair it. If you buy carefully and cook carefully and it tastes good, in fact you have done 99% of the work all the bits of garnish and spicing is just the icing on the cake. If you get your piece of lamb so that it is cooked perfectly - crisp on the outside; the fats melted; it's moist; it's a nice piece of lamb; you've bought really good lamb - good variety and well fed, that's the bit that gets glossed over in recipes but it's the bit that you remember having been any good or not. Shaun_Hill_Interview-9Yes.

So I think that if you concentrate on that then the window dressing of sauce work, of taste combinations is lovely and that's fun. Most restaurants that I eat in, that don't work have ignored that; have spent all their time playing with the food afterwards. They have tortured the vegetables into funny shapes; a colour scheme that doesn't work or the proportions are not right. People that are well bought up assume that what is one the plate you are meant to eat; so if you have got too much protein and not enough starch then that will disjoint the dish. You have got to think about that sort of balance, so you end up with a clean plate and it has all worked. So I always put any veg that is garnish already on because I want to try and manipulate that.

You mentioned there, how important buying is. Do you feel that local and seasonal are becoming fads?

The core idea is brilliant. But the bandwagon, this sanctimonious attitude to buying locally is .. . is, well it gets on my nerves frankly. Things have to be the best they are.

Absolutely.

In theory that ought to be what has gone through the least hands, but you have to find people who care about what they produce. Pork is the easiest because Pork is rubbish in wholesale markets and supermarkets. It's dry, it's nasty, it's been bred to get big quickly and to produce the right number of chops with the right lean meat.

Yes, housewives want to see it perfect and packaged, unfortunately.

Yes, but what they need to do is have it so that it actually has some flavour.

Absolutely.

So with Pork you have to seek out those who are doing something different and that way you can take the credit for their hard work. (Laughter).

Very true. Over the last twenty years, the Chef has become far more high profile.

He's become centre stage. Yes, the Chef was someone that you used to hear mumbling and grumbling in the kitchen and throwing pots and pans. Then the TV came and bought the Chef into the living room and that drove, I guess, the term "Celebrity Chef". What are your views on Celebrity Chefs?

Sadly, I think they are mostly good for the industry because they keep the spot light on what we do. I don't love all of them, equally but they reflect an interest in the mechanics of producing restaurant meals, so to that extent I am all in favour. That was Nouvelle Cuisine because once you had abandoned the Repertoire with Chicken Marengo meaning that it had a deep fried egg and tomato sauce underneath and Tornados Rossini meaning it was a piece of ham and imitation truffle, usually, from Landsend to John O'Groats and that left you entirely in the hands of the waiter because nobody in their right minds knew what this stuff meant. A few people might know that Véronique meant grapes on fish but not many. So I think that it suddenly moved from a Waiter who could guide you and tell you things in those days because he only needed to explain three items because otherwise he would be there all night, and those were the three that the Chef wanted selling and so that guided people towards it. There was then a lot of theatre with setting fire to things and other silly rubbish but then when it moved towards the Chef thinking it was taste and his opinions that became much more important. I think in certain types of place, not the Walnut Tree, it's wonderful to watch someone who knows how to carve. To watch someone carving in front of you is fantastic. These are great skills, which we are in danger of loosing.

Yes, I was very fortunate to eat at the Waterside once and have duck carved at the table and the skill of the Waiter was phenomenal.

Yes, it's wonderful and under rated. I think there is a bit of equalising to be done before food moves on.

Was there ever a point in your career, at Gidleigh Park or the Merchant House that you looked at your food and thought "Yes, that's the best I can do".

I always think that, and I am always wrong! (Laughter). I always do stuff the best I can; I wouldn't put it on the menu if I thought it wasn't, but I have been wrong almost every time - there is always something you can do to it to make it better. So it is always work in progress, sadly.

Shaun, thank you very much.

You are very welcome.Shaun_Hill_Interview-7

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