10 mins with: Liam Dillon, Chef Owner, The Boat Inn

The  Staff Canteen

Liam Dillon is the chef and owner of The Boat Inn in Litchfield, who in 2018 was named 'Best Chef' in the Midlands Food Drink & Hospitality Awards.

After working for the likes of Marcus Wareing, Will Holland and Tom Sellers, Liam Dillon has worked in some of the most prestigious kitchens in the UK. In 2017, he decided to strike out on his own as the chef-owner of Litchfield-based The Boat Inn. 

JBP 8519
Lemon sponge

Early Days

Liam's early culinary influences came from watching his nana in the kitchen. He recalls: "My nana was making stews and I was pinching spoons of cold stew out of the fridge."

Liam didn't enjoy school and was even considering a career in the Marines or the RAF.

He said: "I went to the College of Food Open Day and looked around and said, ‘Let’s give it a go’, because I do like to cook and I do like to look after people and it kind of went from there really. I just fell in love with it and it was the team spirit thing which I had been craving."

The importance of training

Training has been a huge part of Liam's career, he wanted to undertake the basic fundamentals of cooking in order to get a 'real basic grounding' which subsequently allowed him to progress to the Culinary Arts course at the College of Food in Birmingham.

He said: "I wanted to get as many skills as I could and it was the perfect opportunity to do that really – to work out costings, all the background stuff rather than just cooking."

This experience has allowed him to pass on his knowledge to his own brigade, he explained: "That’s the kind of thing I do with the boys in the kitchen now I say, ‘I am going to do this because of this’ and show them why. It’s a tight little team at the moment and they see everything – the struggles I am going through with the business. I think it’s good for them to see that so they can learn more than just standing on the stove, cooking all day."

An impressive career trajectory

Liam is incredibly unassuming about his impressive career trajectory citing that listening to mentors and being willing to start at the bottom has certainly helped with this.

"As soon as I left University, I went to work with Marcus Wareing at the Berkeley and that was a massive wakeup call," explained Liam. "I thrived in the kitchen and absolutely loved it - I felt like I belonged somewhere."

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Liam in the kitchen

Liam was offered the opportunity to join Quay Restaurant in Australia as a demi but instead, he insisted that he started at the bottom as a commis (but was promoted within a month of starting). However, it is working with Will Holland at La Bécasse, where Liam feels he had the biggest learning curve. Whilst Will was strict with Liam, he could see the potential in him and took him under his wing promoting him to junior sous within just three months of working with him.

Star Stages

As well as working at some of the UK's most prestigious restaurants, Liam has also completed stages and trials at the likes of Eleven Madison ParkLepuisette and the two Michelin-starred Noma in Copenhagen, where he worked with Tom Sellers (whom he subsequently went on to work with at Restaurant Story and working as a sous chef at The Lickfold Inn, West Sussex.

Culinary influences

Liam is unequivocal that working with the likes of Will Holland and Tom Sellers has influenced his culinary style. While he is not keen to put his food into a category, he feels that an accurate description would be 'Modern British'. The restaurant currently has five different menus including a Tasting Menu, A La Carte and a Set Menu too.

Liam explains his rationale behind his menu strategy saying: "I wanted to do a tasting menu as I enjoyed that kind of dining and the A La Carte menu will always stay. Sunday is always a bit of a different beast - people want to come in and have a different experience and over time no one is really interested in a set price menu (on Sunday’s) or a tasting menu."

Coming home

It has been less than 18 months since Liam opened up The Boat Inn which is located in Liam's hometown of Litchfield but what spurred Liam on to return back to his roots?

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Pigs head and burnt apple

"If I am honest, I never thought I would see myself cooking in Litchfield and I always wanted to get away. But it’s nice to come home - I have always loved the area."

The Boat Inn is located just outside of the town centre and Liam believes that the site has potential.  He said: "My vision moving forward is to have a kitchen garden to try and feed the restaurant as much as possible from its own land, but that might not be for a few years."

He added: "The last year and a half I have been changing the business day in and day out – it’s been an interesting journey. I definitely have plans for the restaurant – it all costs a fortune and has to be done with stages. I like change and I like things to be different."

Running your own business

Liam says that nothing in his life has prepared him for taking on the restaurant: "It is so far from anything that I have even been taught. I have learnt how to manage people – that’s the biggest thing. Everyone has their own drive and you really have to tap into each individual person to understand what drives them. You just want to nurture the people that you do have."

He added: "I am not the only person who is struggling with staff – it’s industry-wide but especially being somewhere like Litchfield. There’s only so far that my name and where I have previously worked can attract people."

He has changed his strategy to focus on staff retention and has implemented certain changes such as reducing the number of days the restaurant is open to just five. The reason why wasn't just to ensure that his brigade and team were well rested, but also to ensure a consistent level of service to customers.

Liam explained: " My thing is that if you come one day and have the sommelier give you a lovely bottle of wine and you have a great time and then you come another day and he’s not there – you are kind of already disappointed with the experience."

With regards to front of house, Liam admits that hiring his restaurant manager has taken a lot of the pressure off of him. He revealed: "I have been quite lucky to find Corin Ireland who is our restaurant manager – he is a trained sommelier and has worked at the likes of Sat Bains and Simpsons – he has got a really good pedigree."

The Michelin Guide 

The Michelin Guide UK has described Liam's  food as 'using ‘fresh ingredients, capably prepared: simply a good meal.’ Naturally, he is delighted with his inclusion in the Michelin Guide and says:  "I am very proud – that’s the perfect word I am proud of what we have achieved here. I grew up here and want to offer Staffordshire a really decent place to come and eat at.

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Michelin UK: 'Simply a good meal'

"I think a restaurant would be lying if they said accolades didn’t matter especially the way the industry is at the moment – people need bums on seats and obviously accolades help with that. I am not going to go and chase accolades. I believe in what we do, where I have been and my knowledge and my cooking and can create an amazing place without accolades."

He added: "Nothing would be better than getting a star but for the time being, I am going to concentrate on getting the business running and working."

He recently won Best Chef at the Midlands Food Drink & Hospitality Awards where he won 'Best Chef' where he was shortlisted with the likes of Sat Bains and Andy Waters.

"I didn’t expect to win if I am honest," said Liam. "To win it was awesome and to be in the same category as Sat and Andy – they are great chefs and have been around for a long period of time and at their top of their game so it’s really nice to be recognised for that."
 

By Emma Harrison

@canteenemma

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 12th July 2018

10 mins with: Liam Dillon, Chef Owner, The Boat Inn