Hywel Jones, Lucknam Park Hotel, Bath

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 1st April 2008

IN ASSOCIATION WITH

Hywel Jones is executive chef at The Park Restaurant at Lucknam Park Hotel in Wiltshire. One of the finest Welsh chefs spoke to The Staff Canteen today....

Hywel Jones is Head Chef at the Michelin starred, 3 AA Rosette Lucknam Park in Wiltshire where he has been at the helm for over 4 years. Hywel previously worked for Marco Pierre White and Nico Ladenis before taking the stove at Foliage, Mandarin Oriental, gaining his first Michelin star.

Hywel, thank you very much for seeing me today to do this interview.

Pleasure.

How long have you been here at Lucknam Park?

It will be four years in January.

Can you run through your day to day role here at Lucknam?

My day to day role

You obviously commute from Wales?

Yes, I commute but it's worth it to wake up in Wales! I get here, normally, for about 8 O'clock by which time we are normally already into breakfast service. Then breakfast runs until about 10/10.30. Then around 10.30 we usually have a Heads of Department meeting, it just tells us what's going on in the hotel; it gives us the opportunity to bring up any issues we have, questions, and any maintenance issues. So that normally lasts about 30 minutes. On a Friday we usually have a bigger one, where the Managing Director goes through the weekly forecast, so we all know where we are heading. Then back into the kitchen to get ready for lunch. Lunch is not our busiest time, but it is an area we are trying to work on.

You are in quite a remote location though, aren't you?

Yes, I mean our lunch trade is gradually building up but I don't think we will ever be full for lunch. The new Spa that we are building will certainly help as it will attract a different type of person.

Yes, I'm sure that it will.

So, anyway we get through lunch. Then try and get the lads out on a break in the afternoon and I catch up on a bit of paperwork and what-not. Then, obviously, we have afternoon tea in the hotel and that runs into dinner, then dinner runs until about 10 and we are out of the kitchen by about 11 (midnight at the weekend).

Do you do still do the majority of the cooking yourself? With the modern role of the Executive Chef and having to constantly be on top of the paperwork, the health and safety requirements, the financial side of running a kitchen, do you spend a lot of your time in your office?

No, I'm in the kitchen. I try to take Sunday and Monday off. Sunday is a family day and Monday is a day to catch up on what ever I have got to do. Tuesday I come in and try and get everything that I have got to do, office wise, out of the way. OK Then that leaves me to work in the kitchen Tuesday evening to Saturday.

What made you decide to become a Chef, Hywel? And did you always want to be a chef?

I did, but without realising it. I always liked helping my mum in the kitchen. Not one of these like grand friendships from the age of 2 with me and my mum making cakes. I always took an interest in what she was doing in the kitchen; my Nan was a good house cook so I used to help her when ever I could. Then from there I had the opportunity to do cooking at school which I did. I generally enjoyed it. I seemed to be quite good at it, so from there I applied to go into the Navy as a Chef because my Grandad was a huge Navy man. Applied and went through all my entrance exams and at the last second decided not to do the Navy route but go to Catering College.

So, you went to Catering College?

Yes, I went to Catering College in Cardiff; fulltime for two years.

OK. And when you left College, where was your first job?

When I was at College I started working part time in a restaurant called "˜Le Cassoulet' which was a new restaurant opened in Cardiff. It was a tiny French Bistro and I went and met the owner. He was on his own in the kitchen and his wife was front of house, so it was the two of them. I can remember the first day I went to work in the kitchen, I used to work Friday and Saturday nights, the first day I went in, I remember it was Summer and he was cooking a vegetable minestrone and the smell and flavour was something that I had never experienced in college. It showed me a different side of cooking, you know real French - concentrating on the quality of ingredients and simplicity "¦ and I forged a very good friendship with him and he's actually Godfather to one of my kids now.

Oh, brilliant.

So from there - that was part time, then he said to me "now that you're finishing college, the restaurant is making enough money, you can come full time, if you want to" So he offered me a full time role.

So after College you went full time at Le Cassoulet?

Yes I did 6 months part time; then left college and did 6 months full time. So I was there with Gilbert and he used to live above the restaurant. So in the afternoons we used to go upstairs to his flat and I used to read all his cookbooks. And I can remember him showing me a Pierre Koffman cookbook and that was sort of another step for me - I thought, right, where's this guy working? And he said "in London" so that's how I hatched the plan to move to London.

All because you saw a Pierre Koffman cookbook? Yeah, Ok, so then off you went to London?

Yes, I went to London. The plan was to go to London for two years, and then back and open a restaurant in Wales. And fourteen years later I was still in London. Because once you are there, it's like a magnetic field, you can't really "¦ it's very difficult to leave. There are so many opportunities there.

Yes, sure. So where was your first job in London? Was it the Royal Garden?

Yes, I went to the Royal Garden. I was fortunate really, apart from Pierre Koffman because of his book, I knew nothing about London. So Albert said "Buy the Caterer and Hotelkeeper" which I did and I was looking in the back of that and there was an advert for a Head Housekeeper, but it said "The Royal Garden Hotel 5 star deluxe" "¦... so I thought that if it's 5 star deluxe it must be pretty decent. So I wrote off to them and a few other places and they got back to me and said "Chef would like to interview you can you come up". So I went up to London on the train and had a look at the kitchen. I was used to working with just Albert before - the two of us in the kitchen, and there I was walking into this massive 5 star hotel kitchen, with 85 chefs. He showed me around and I can remember sitting in the office at the end and he said to me "Do you want to become part of it?" I said "Yes" He said "Right you can start "¦" I think I went up in the December and started in the January.

Fantastic! How old were you at that time?

I would have been 18.

To go from College to London must have been pretty daunting at 18.

Yes and no. It was but at that stage I was already into my laddish years! You know, for me it was a great opportunity.

If you were starting off in the industry today, what route would you advise a Chef to take? Would you advise them to go to college? Attend a full time course? Or a part time course with a NVQ in a workplace?

Yeah, we've got a couple of apprentices here now. We have regular apprentices coming from Bournemouth College.

Oh, so you use Bournemouth College then? That's fantastic.

Yeah, I mean Lucknam Park had a couple of year's history with Bournemouth College before I started here and we've continued it. We've taken one new student every year, and that way that pans out is pretty good. I mean they do a couple of months there to start and then they come to us for 12 months and then they go back for three months. Right, so it's not like a day release. They are actually in a full time job, for a full working week and they get to see the operation in full swing and then they go back to the college. Exactly.

That sounds like a fantastic system as you get the benefit of training them for hours and they get great experience in a real workplace.

I think it is a good system. I do think the hands on experience of working in the industry is too good an opportunity to be missed. We have other kids that go to Wiltshire College and Bristol College on a day release. So if I was advising someone, I would suggest that they do the hands on route.

OK, what are you looking for when someone applies to you for a position? What are you looking for in a young Chef? Enthusiasm? Passion?

Yes, passion. You know straight away when someone comes through the door. There are certain questions you can ask them and you will know if they are interested in food or not. And as long as they have got that enthusiasm it doesn't matter about their skills because at that age and level you don't expect them to be too skilled. But if they have the right attitude you can teach them anything. Passion to me is the key. It is hard work and long hours but if those kids that come to work for me are willing, on their days off, to go and visits suppliers - all off their own back or they go to visit other kitchens, that shows passion. That's what I used to do. When people are willing to give up their own time, well it's not giving it up, they are doing something they want to do......

They are investing in their own future.

Yes, they are just living out their hobby really, doing something they genuinely love and are interested in.

What motivates you, now? I mean, you've been to London; you've worked at some fantastic places; with some fantastic Chefs; you've got a Michelin star; what makes you get up so early in the morning in Cardiff and travel here?

I don't think I will ever stop loving cooking. It's not like coming to work; you know, I get up in the morning and actually look forward to going in. You see the lads in the kitchen "¦ that's why I do the office work on a Tuesday because on a Wednesday I like to be in the kitchen. I like to do the fish when it comes in. I like to do the meat and prep the veg. Working somewhere like Lucknam Park gives us the opportunity to work closely with suppliers. 

Yes, I think that it's very important to support our local suppliers and become involved in where the produce is coming from. I imagine that this is totally different from your time in London?

Yeah. In London it all tends to be done over the phone. You go to markets but it's not the same as "¦ I can phone my local vegetable farmer in the afternoon and say I need "baby leeks" and he'll pick them on the way up. Go over to the field and pick them.

You don't get that on the inner circle of the M25, do you really? It must be great to have such fantastic produce on your doorstep.

Yes.

Do you still enjoy cooking today as much as you did on the first day?

Yes, probably more if I'm honest. The more you understand about food the more you appreciate it. When I look at some of the suppliers we've got here; when I see the amount of work and effort they put in to it to produce the stuff, it's even more rewarding when you get it in and you can do your bit with it.

To get to the top in this industry is extremely difficult. What kind of person do you need to be to succeed?

OK. You've got to be prepared, determined and focused. If you want to get to the top, not just in catering but in any industry, you've got to be prepared to work extremely hard. This is probably one of the most demanding professions out there, but it can be very rewarding in return.

Yes, I think when you feel satisfied and proud at the end of the day when you leave the kitchen, it's not like you've been to work. You feel like you've achieved something.

Exactly, I think as you move up the ladder you get more out of it than just producing food - like training others, how you can improve a team and help develop individuals.

If you take a look at modern day kitchens, people want to be a Sous Chef by the time they are 21 and a Head Chef by the time they are 23. You know, I was still a CDP at 26/27, I was still learning. How did you progress through the kitchens?

Yes, well I think the most crucial thing is to have a long term ambition and goal. And I say that to them all. There is no point thinking what do you want to do next? Where am I going next? The idea is that you need to work out where you want to be in 10 or 15 years time and then work out a path to get there. So if you are 22 and you want to be a Head Chef by the time you are 32, you need to say"Right what do I need to learn before I take on that role?" You need to be able to run a kitchen - a good kitchen.

Yes.

So with me, like I said, I was very naive and I was very fortunate to end up in somewhere like the Royal Garden and met Dave Nicholls and from there I knew I wanted to go into restaurants and wanted to learn from the best, and at the time that was Nico; Marco; Le Gavroche. And I was fortunate enough to work for two of those - I started off as Commis, Demi Chef, Chef de Partie. Then from there the natural progression was to move up to Junior Sous, so I went to Le Soufflé with Peter Kromberg. I had talked to Dave Nicholls and said I was looking to become a Junior Sous and he said I needed to find somewhere that was going to teach me more. The difference between a Junior Sous and Chef de Partie cooking wise is very little, at that stage you need to start learning how to run/manage a kitchen rather than one small section. Management, some people are naturally good at, but it is something that can be taught a lot easier than basic skills.

Yes.

So that's why I went to work with Peter Kromberg, to work for somebody that could teach me how to manage a large kitchen; a large operation. Then from there, I wanted to see a completely different style of cooking. I wanted to see a large volume place then, but still doing great quality food. So that's when I went to Coast with Steve Terry. This was fantastic. It was when Coast first opened and it was a highly publicised place; the place to be in London and the covers we used to turn out and the quality we used to do was fantastic. It was a good insight to that level.

It's good because when I look at your background, I see the smaller places that you have worked focusing on the quality for example, we are looking at 3 Michelin stars with Marco Pierre White and then you go to the larger places to experience the volume side of catering - if you can get those strings to the bow, it's great.

Yes, I went to those places for specific reasons, rather than I saw a job advertised and thought it would be good! Like I said you before you need to have your long term plan and goal. Look at Lucknam Park, we are a small hotel but the restaurant will look at doing 70 covers at the weekend. We are a restaurant kitchen but there are occasions when we do weddings for 150 people and that's when the training I've had in bigger numbers comes in useful. As you know weddings can be a challenge because of the organisation involved, the large numbers and it's often all done off site in marquees.

Yes, it becomes a different operation then. OK, you talked about Marco and Nico. How did you get in to those places? Was it a case of knocking on the doors or word of mouth?

With Nico, I simply wrote letters to him. Basically I knew I wanted to get in to a top Michelin restaurant, so I did my research. I decided who I thought was the best and I wrote off to quite a few of them and then I had interviews at them. When I went to Nico's there was something I fell in love with there, it was at the time when he was still at Great Portman Street. I liked the family feel to it - still quite small.

Did you feel in awe of him?

Yes, very much so. You know I was walking up and down for about half an hour before I could walk in. When you look at him he is quite a man in stature. He's quite a daunting character. But as soon as you get to know him, he's brilliant. I had written off all these letters but I'd not told Dave Nicholls and I got called into the office one day and he said "you didn't tell me you were leaving". I said "I'm not". He said "Don't bullsh1t me". "I'm not" I replied. He said "I've had Nico on the phone." He said "I could have helped you!!" I thought to myself he's obviously annoyed. I was in the main kitchen that day and he came up to see me and said "So you want to go to Nico's do you?" I said "Yes". He said "Well Nico wants to see you again" So that's how I went to work for Nico. And then when I was working for Nico, when Marco was at the Canteen, there were rumours that he was going to go over to the Hyde Park and through a supplier that supplied both places, I got to hear that he was looking for staff. The supplier said to me "Look if you are interested, call Marco.".. "Call Marco!" "¦I thought. So I did and asked him if he had a job. I went for an interview, and had another of one those daunting experiences and got the job.

What are your plans for the future?

At the moment, the next stage is concentrating on Lucknam Park. We've got a hell of a lot happening next year with the new spa, new staff facilities. We still want to move the restaurant forward. You know, we're pleased at the level we're at but we're not satisfied. There is always something to improve and work on and opening the new spa will give us more of an opportunity to do that. What we want to do is make the restaurant more exclusive; more fine dining and with having a secondary restaurant (in the spa) we'll be able to do that. That's my immediate plans, but I have always said I will have my own business back in Wales.

Ok. And what would that be, a small restaurant?

Yes. Small enough to manage. The dream is that my wife will run front of house and I will run the back. And it would be nice if my two little boys would take over one day

Fantastic!! Do you see the boys as Chefs then?

Well, one of them is showing signs. I was cooking biscuits with him last night.

Have you got him working here yet?

Well, he does love coming up actually! But he's still only 5 so a few years to go yet!!

Hywel, thank you very much for giving up your time today.

It was a pleasure.

I wish you all the best.

Thank you.

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 1st April 2008

Hywel Jones, Lucknam Park Hotel, Bath

IN ASSOCIATION WITH