Oliver Stephens at the Priory Bay Hotel, Isle of Wight

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Oliver Stephens is a 27-year-old chef from the Isle of Wight with a career that has taken in some of the world’s best restaurants. Now he is back on his native island running a kitchen at the Priory Bay Hotel and putting into practice all the things he loves and has learned about food. The Staff Canteen spoke to him to find out how it’s going. You come from the Isle of Wight originally and you worked at The Priory Bay earlier in your career. How did your career path bring you back here? After a brief stint as a kitchen porter in Cornwall I came back to the island and started at The Priory Bay on an apprenticeship. After a year here I went up to London to do a two week trial at Rousillon and I got the job. I was there for just under two years and worked my way up from commis to junior sous running the meat and fish. I was 19 at that point. From Rousillon I went to France and worked at several places including Guy Savoy, Astrance and Fouquet’s, before ending up at Les Ambassadeurs under Jean-Francois Piège where I stayed for two years. And from there you went to Noma. Can you tell us a little about your time there? It was a life-changing experience. Everything I’d ever wanted to do and appreciated about food – seeing it being done and achieved at that level and still always pushing to go further, for me that was incredible. I got to work in every position both in service and mise en place, first as a stagier then as chef de partie. René is simply awesome, I learned a lot from him and the whole team. I stayed at Noma for just under 2 years until I fractured my back and while I was out of action, I started thinking about how I wanted to run my own kitchen so in June 2012 my wife and I left Denmark to come back to the Priory Bay. Would you say Noma has been the biggest influence on you so far? My first big influence was Alexis Gauthier at Rousillon. Finding the Michel Bras book and the first Noma book showed me what was possible and inspired me as a young chef. Working four and a half years in Paris was also a massive influence on me. Then everything changed when I started at Noma. It has a different way of working and thinking than a traditional French set-up. So overall I would say Noma is probably the biggest influence, not technically but philosophically in terms of going out and finding the absolute best produce we can, whether it’s from this end of the island or the other. And how do you translate that philosophy into what you you’re doing at The Priory? Well, we’re really lucky here. We’ve got 70 acres of land and we’ve got everything from wild garlic to razor clams. We also use limpet; we use slipper clams; we use winkles; we’ve got about 80 different herbs growing within about 20 metres of the kitchen door. We’ve got our own vegetable garden which is about 300 square metres. We’ve actually got monks growing vegetables for us and nuns in a closed order growing us apples and pears! We have fish being brought up that have usually only been caught 45 minutes ago - so in terms of produce that’s how the philosophy is coming into practice. And was it difficult to persuade the owners of the hotel to see your vision? Well, my restaurant manager and head sommelier, James Trevaskis, is also my best friend. We’ve known each other since we were eight and he was best man at my wedding. We’d always talked about the potential of this place because James worked here too, after I did. When we used to meet up on the island we would sit on the beach and get drunk and talk about what we could do with it. So when I decided I wanted to run my own place I spoke with Andrew Palmer, the owner, and I told him everything we wanted to do and he said yes. So then I called James and he called me back within five seconds to say yes. And what does a typical day at Prior Bay involve? My day generally starts at about eight thirty. We get in, have a little staff meeting in the kitchen and think about what we need to pick and whereabouts on the island it is. Maybe we’ll have to look at going to help one of our farmers or go and pick up a pig on the other side of the island. We’ll have a quick meeting about that then go off to the various parts of the grounds or the island to get what we need for the menu that day. We try to get back to the kitchen for about eleven thirty where we’ll write the menus for the day then we’ll crack on with the mise en place for lunch depending on what we’ve got. Then we work throughout the day until about five o’clock when we sit down for a family meal, then it’s dinner service. On top of all that, throughout the day I’m constantly in touch with suppliers. At the moment we’ve got about 60 individual suppliers who are all based on the Isle of Wight so logistically it’s a bit of a nightmare. So in terms of the future, are you working for a star? Working for a star? No. Would I like to win a star? Yes – if that makes sense. I don’t know if what we do here fits in with the criteria of a star. We have a very personal, very relaxed service, but yeah, I haven’t spent ten years working God-knows-how-many hours a week in some of the places I’ve worked to not want to continue working at that level. Would you say you’re living the dream here? Ha ha! Ask me in ten years’ time! But yes it is very exciting to be part of the start of something and drive it forward. When you come in in the morning and you see the grounds – you’ve got the sea; you’ve got the woods; you’ve got prairie land; you’ve got fresh springs with wild watercress. It’s quite a way to start your day. Want to run a restaurant like Oliver? Then check out our Jobs board for current head chef vacancies. 

Photographs courtesy of

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 4th April 2013

Oliver Stephens at the Priory Bay Hotel, Isle of Wight