Ashley Palmer-Watts Dinner by Heston Blumenthal

The Staff Canteen


Having started at the bottom of the pecking order, working for Heston Blumenthal at the world famous Bray restaurant The Fat Duck, Ashley Palmer-Watts has risen to the top and now enjoys the head chef position at Heston’s latest Michelin star restaurant, Dinner by Heston Blumenthal. In fact, under Ashley’s leadership, the thriving restaurant has earned a second Michelin star and was named by Tatler as the Restaurant of the Year 2011. The business venture, to open his first restaurant since The Fat Duck, was quite a risk for Heston and the brand attached to his name, but has shown great faith in Ashley. The young and talented chef has more than proved his worth in the kitchen of Dinner by Heston Blumenthal and the Knightsbridge restaurant has been an immediate hit with critics and customers alike. With humble beginnings, coming from a small Dorset village, Ashley has made his presence known in the restaurant world and looks set for a prosperous run at the helm of Dinner by Heston Blumenthal.

Let's start by you giving us an understanding of the concept behind Dinner. The concept here at Dinner by Heston Blumenthal is... it's obviously a large restaurant. It's based on historically inspired dishes dating back around 1200, 1300 it goes back as far as that. Using that as an inspiration to create a modern, simple, produce-driven menu that shows seasonality and sustainability in a very relaxed, yet with nice buzz in the room, and slick service, if the Fat Duck were to do a brasserie then this would be it.

Now it's Dinner by Heston Blumenthal but I want to talk about the journey you've been on. In your career you've worked at two places, The Petit Canard and the Fat Duck- What makes a lad from a very small rural Dorset village suddenly end up working in probably the biggest restaurant in the world? Yeah I know what you mean. The journey was, I was working for a Canadian chef and his wife who was English in the village, I was 13, so I wanted a job and money. I came up with various schemes how to make money when I was younger.

Any that you can go on the record with? ((laughs)) Well yeah I didn't get caught, they weren't terribly ethical most of the time whilst at my school but it was a good money-maker. I come from a background where my family have always worked really hard and I guess around the time where I was 12, 13, I wanted a little job to pay pocket money and that was great but when I started working at the restaurant you'd go in through the front door and it was like a different world. I used to go every day after school and just hang around, I used to do my homework on the bus, straight into the restaurant, stand around, "Do you need me tonight?" If not then I would just watch, have a little taste and when I showed an interest in what was going on Geoff Chapman, the chef, who's now one of my best friends and almost second parents really, kept feeding the want for knowledge and it ended up that I used to spend pretty much all my spare time at the restaurant, being a pest. When I finished my last exam I started as an apprentice there and I actually wrote to eight of the top chefs in the country.

Who did you write to? I wrote to Nico, John Burton Race, Marco, Pierre Koffmann, I think it was Sally Clark, Michel Roux Jnr at Gavroche

And being honest who did you want to go and work for? No see I only wrote to them to ask them what should I do, to go to college or should I not. I was thinking about going, and I actually did start doing a day release thing.

Was college in Weymouth? No it was at Taunton but it was a complete and utter waste of time so we stopped that after about three or four months, it was just pointless, but actually most of the chefs wrote back and it was split 50/50 in terms of their advice, and I would say I adopt the same approach now here at Dinner. There's two ways to skin a cat, whichever way it is you can learn and you can learn badly and you can learn really well. So I chose not to go to college but to be honest I don't really look for the qualifications when I look at a CV I look at experience, I look at the time line, I like to meet the person and get a feel for how they are because I know that we can, with our kitchen and the way that we are I know that with the right person we can take them on from anything really at the right level and for the right position.

How did the Fat Duck come about I used to work on a watercress farm in Dorset in the morning because we weren't open for lunch.

Which one? Hurds watercress farm over in St Nicholas.I went out for my birthday dinner to the Fat Duck in January 1999 it had been open four years, somewhere around there.

It had one star at this stage? It had just received the first star that year but I'd read about it in Food Illustrated before Waitrose bought them and there were five guys and one of them being Heston. There was this picture and I was like, that's pretty cool, they look really good, the food looks interesting so I'd like to go there for my birthday. So we went for dinner and there was something about it, it was just kind of magical and I just had to go and work there and so I worked in a stagé for 10, 12 days.

Was that a paid stage? Unpaid in my holiday. And then I wrote to Heston saying, "There's only one place I really want to work and that's the Fat Duck, have you got any jobs going?" On the last day in Dorset when the Chapman's were selling the restaurant, I left the restaurant, my friend James and his two cousins were in for dinner that night, I left, I walked across the street, walked into the house, there was a note on the bed saying, "Listen to the answer machine, Heston phoned." And so I switched on the machine and it was Heston on the phone saying, "Yeah I do have a job give me a call." And I was just like couldn't write this. This is brilliant. And so I phoned him up and he said, "There is a job coming I'm waiting for someone to leave," and it was very, very tight back then, the Fat Duck was very different than it is now he said, "Just keep phoning me every other day, whatever, don't worry about pestering me just keep phoning me for an update." So I phoned him every other day for about eight weeks and eventually I thought, do you know what because the restaurant had sold and I just worked all the time on the watercress farm and did a lot of shooting and fishing and playing golf in the afternoon and I went to Le Manoir to do a stagé there in pastry.

With Benoit (Blin)? With Benoit yes and I went through the story with him you know they must see 100 million people like we do and they offered me a job in pastry and I sort of said, "Well I really want to work at the Fat Duck," and now when I say about this it's unbelievable that I said that but it was meant to be. Things are meant to be and I went to the Fat Duck for lunch on the way home back down to Dorset, walked in, Heston came out and he said, "Oh yeah I have got a job," and so I thought brilliant. And he said, "Can you start Saturday?" and like this was Wednesday. We were shooting a new free watercress recipe booklet on the Friday, I was doing the cooking for the photo shoot, so I had to come up Thursday, sort my place out and stay, drive back down Thursday night, shoot the cookbook on Friday, got up to Bray about 1:30 in the morning, started work at seven in the morning and here we are.

Let's talk about your journey at the Duck then. I mean it was very different back then there were five people, obviously Heston was there, I kind of didn't really know what was going on there at the beginning.

And the food style was a lot different then as well wasn't it? Yeah it was and I mean I was thinking about this the other day, I was talking to the chef's table and they were saying, "What was it like back in the day?" and where Dinner is now is obviously 11, 12 years on it's a pork chop with cabbage, and slightly before my time it was steak and chips, it was really good risotto with a difference.

It's kind of almost like the Hinds Head isn't it? Yeah it was different but it was bold and it was simple but there was different techniques that I'd never seen before and I'd never read about. There was this guy that was just incredibly driven and just quite amazing.

What made you stick at it because that's a big question and you were there ten years? I don't know I think we're all made in a certain way. It's incredibly hard but it's just hard to explain it's almost like you've been there before, you fit in and you just work and never complain and never moan. Did you have an objective when you went there? That's what I generally do I mean I set goals now, we're a lot more structured but I just went and I was like wow this is amazing. This is just incredible and it was just at the time where things started to happen at the Duck and things started to really rocket and I've never been part of anything like that before and it was just a roller coaster.

And you don't think that not having a college background or a day release background or even a classical background has been a hindrance to you at all? I don't think so I think you make your own luck, you make your own circumstance and you earn your next bit. As I say to the chefs here if you produce what you need to produce you'll always be recognised and good will always float to the top and you'll be rewarded for that and that's been the way at the Fat Duck. I was always rewarded for really special things we flew down to eat in Alain Ducasse, Gary and I the old head chef we opened the restaurant for some filming for Martin Clunes one Monday and earned 500 quid each and put it in the pot. Heston sold a big table that he had, it was a cheese table, for 500 quid and Nigel did something else and we all put 500 quid in the pot, flew down to Paris, had lunch and flew back, you know, that's not the lifestyle of a Dorset boy from a small village in Dorset. Throughout the whole time at the Duck the amount of travelling and opportunities to learn and see things, meet people, experts in all fields it's just amazing.

The Fat Duck is obviously Heston, Dinner by Heston, is there a desire to make a name for Ashley Palmer-Watts in a standalone environment as yourself, and that's not taking away anything you're doing here, Yeah I think what we're doing here now is right for me right now and as time goes on, as every day goes on, the freedom that Heston gives me and the trust he has in me, this restaurant. I don't get up in the morning to go, "Right I want to become Ashley Palmer-Watts that everyone knows," I get up to do what we do and what comes on the back of it is recognition and, you know, whatever accolades, write-ups, come on the back of this is great and at the same time very important. But it's important to have this the right way around.

Is there a chance like an actor you could be typecast? Possibly but I think also our style of running a restaurant and our style of running as you can see yourself today, it's very different than a classic rule with a rod of iron, closed to any ideas, it's a very structured, controlled, self-disciplined kitchen that does have discipline there for finishes. If you don't get that discipline from the person but produce what you produce and create what you create and you'll be known for it but it takes time. It's like you can't just give someone respect they have to earn that respect and be a role model to those below them and inspire younger people. I think over time and that's always been the thing here Heston's been very honest that I'm the one cooking here and we work together on everything. I'm working with one of the most creative people that this country has seen as a chef and whether people have the same opinion as me, some do, some don't. It's all horses for courses but it's a real privilege to be able to work with somebody like Heston and the scary thing is he says I'm more Heston than he is.

Do you think it's a two edged sword with Heston, you're guaranteed you're going to be full on opening night but are you under the microscope of the world? We never thought we would have a review in the New York Times, a restaurant in England. I mean it's the Fat Duck, yes, but the Fat Duck's a very established restaurant that is so unique in its way, like the other sort of four or five restaurants in the world that have their uniqueness that everyone looks to but this isn't that and it is different it is for 200 covers eventually at dinner and 120, 130 for lunch. It's a different thing. The Fat Duck is 40 covers.


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The Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 1st August 2011

Ashley Palmer-Watts Dinner by Heston Blumenthal