Simon Hulstone, Elephant Restaurant, Torquay

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 1st August 2008

IN ASSOCIATION WITH

Simon Hulstone is chef patron of The Elephant in Torquay, one of the best fine dining restaurants Devon has to offer.

Simon is the Chef/Proprietor of the Michelin Starred, 3 AA Rosette Elephant Restaurant in Torquay. Simon is a past winner of the Roux Scholarship and to date is the only British chef to win gold at the World Chef Championships in France.

Simon, tell us a little bit about your current operation - The Elephant?

Ok, the Elephant is a two tier operation. We have a 60 cover Brasserie on the ground floor and a 24 cover fine dining restaurant on the first floor with a Champagne and Cocktail Bar.

OK. And how many kitchens do you have?

One kitchen and there are six of us in the Brigade, including myself. Wow! The fine dining is only open for dinner Tuesday to Saturday. The Brasserie is open six days a week but closed on a Sunday night.

OK, and you've had great success in the fine dining restaurant - a star and three rosettes.

Yes, unexpected but we are happy to have it. And we've kept it now for three years. Fantastic. I don't know whether Torquay needed a Michelin star but we've got it and we'd like to keep it.

Does it bring you more business?

It does, but it also scares some people away because they think we're a bit too posh - we are doing exactly the same food as we were doing before but initially it scared people. Friday and Saturday it's a celebration restaurant; Tuesday to Thursday it tends to be people who are foodies that eat here.

OK and what made you want to become a Chef?

My father's a Chef.

That's two interviews we have completed recently who have fathers who are chefs. 

Yeah, it was the initial "have you got any work, dad? Where can I work?" - wash up, yes I'll do that. It was easy to get a job and then it was the camaraderie of watching the lads doing it.

Ok, and did you go to college or start off as an apprentice - how did you train?

I did an apprenticeship at Selsdon Park in Croydon under Freddy Jones. Freddy's son was an apprentice with my father so they swapped sons and I went to Westminster College on a day release but didn't enjoy it. It was my day off I thought it was a waste of time.

OK,

Chef actually paid me more to caddie for him on my college days, so I did that! (Laughter). I failed all my exams, so I've got no qualifications

But you know what iron to use if you got a 20 foot shot to a Green, do you?

No, I got a Bollocking for missing college from the Chef even though I was caddying for him!!! (Laughter)

And if you were 17/18 years old again and you were embarking on a career as a Chef, what would you do - would you do an apprenticeship or would you go to college?

We only take on day release students. I personally don't agree with what they are training them at college - I don't believe they are benefiting from college. A lot of them are using it as an excuse not to work for another three years. We want to get chefs in that are willing to work and that are straight from school. I think 16 to 19 is a crunch time for them - loosing their friends; loosing their weekends - I think if they can cope with that, they will stay at it for life.

Fair comment! When a CV arrives on your desk - what are you looking for?

I don't really look at the CV's to be honest, mainly because CV's are a piece of paper and you can write what ever you want on them; you can big yourself up. We get the guys into work and I actually speak to the rest of the chefs about them and see how they gelled with the team and not just what I thought of them, because 90% of the time they are working with them. We look at what can they bring to the team; if they have concerns that we can iron out and we go from there.

OK, and Simon, when you started being a chef was a Michelin star part of your plan?

It's not something I have looked at every year. Obviously, we've been aware when we have had the inspections but I have never been down the route of working in Michelin starred restaurants. The real interest in Michelin came at a restaurant I was working at after I'd won the Roux Scholarship; it sort of took me up to the next level.

Who got you involved in the Roux Scholarship?

That was my own entry.

And where were you working at the time?

Originally I was at the Bacchanalian in Cheltenham and I reached the final there and I got a bit of a bug for it, so I did it again when I was at Cotswold House and won it at the second attempt.

And is that when your whole competition bug started?

No, no. My father was a big competition chef - he competed against Freddy Jones, they were the two main competition chefs of their era. And when I started doing competitions it was through Freddy Jones when I was 16. As I moved on I met different chefs through the competitions and made more contacts. I moved away from it for a couple of years when I moved into the Country House scene but people dragged me back into it. Even though the chef there didn't do competitions I was invited to do the European Championship - under 20's. And then the Swallow Royal in Bristol took me forward from that and I moved into the bigger competitions with Mickey Kitts.

Mickey Kitts was always a big competition man, wasn't he?

Yes, he had 5 guys who were pretty much the team of British Chefs. They pushed me forwards and there was no jealousy in the kitchen because everyone was doing equally as well. At that point Mick Kitts was in the final of the Chef of the Year; Paul Bates was in the final of the Roux Scholarship; John Savage in the Final of Pierre Tattinger; Stan Baxter was in the Young Chef/ Young Waiter and I was going out to the Olympics in few months.

Fantastic - but it was all good publicity for the hotel and the team. It raises every ones profile.

Yes, as long as it doesn't take it away from what's going on in the kitchen. No, sure. We treat it as a hobby; we have to do a lot of it in our own time. The hotel/restaurant has always provided the ingredients (within reason) as long as you aren't taking the mickey!

And the rest you do on your days off, you know the practice etc.

Yes. The competitions are always set up on days off. We only do Olympia on a Monday, which is our day off. We are not there Tuesday or Wednesday because otherwise the business will suffer. We pay our own petrol and the guys keep what ever they win. As long as they stick the trophies in the restaurant for a while - it's up to them.

Yes, I mean I can remember when Hotelympia used to be at Olympia, then Earls Court and now it's at the Excel, isn't it?

Yes and a pain to get to.

Years ago at Hotelympia you used to have the likes of the Savoy, Dorchester - they would all have a team.

The Ritz?

Yes, why do you think now it's not so big? Is it work restraints; time?

A bit of both I think. It's also money. I think a lot of chefs that are interested in competitions are also contract caterers - they have a lot of money to throw at it because it's good PR for them, they are all fighting against each other: Sodexho, Compass etc.

Yes, that's what I was going to say. You tend to see Sodexho, Compass "

Yes, but they do tend to only do the static side of it, where as in the hot live kitchen a lot of it is own personal pride; people from the larger/ more prestigious operations are often scarred to enter as they are embarrassed at the thought of being beaten by someone from a supposedly inferior operation.

That's a fair point, yes. Where as it shouldn't be looked at like that. Surely, that's all part and parcel of competition work, isn't it?

Exactly.

Not everyone can win.

That's right, Man United get beaten by Bolton every now and again! (Laughter)

Yeah, there is a big cheer when that happens! OK, let's talk about your early career, you were at Selsdon Park, where did you go after that?

From Selsdon I moved to Hanbury Manor, I was only there for about 8 months.

OK, why was that?

It was very expensive to live where I was. My rent was £5 less than my wages and that was it!! More than anything I was struggling to survive. I enjoyed it, it was a different set up; it was a golf club, it was banqueting - but it wasn't the sort of route I wanted to go. I wanted to move away from hotels. I was more interested in the restaurant side of it; I hated the kid's food, the afternoon teas and sandwiches.

OK

But I still had to do all that to learn to be a Head Chef.

Do you find that there are two different types of chef: the restaurant chef and the hotel chef?

Yes, I think so but I think it is good to actually know both sides, as well as pastry. You can't be a good Head Chef without knowing about Pastry. You can't tell the guys what to do if you can't do it yourself. It's about getting respect in the kitchen.

So after Hanbury, where did you go?

I went to Ston Easton Park which was my first Country House set up.

Oh, yes. Who was the Head Chef there at the time?

It was Mark Harrington. He was there for about 12 years. Ston Easton was a Relais Chateau property with 3 rosettes, individual plating using quality ingredients - I'd never seen food like it. We did 30 to 40 covers in the fine dining. It was very very good but in the middle of nowhere. I was a young lad with no car, living in staff accommodation and a million miles from anywhere! That was it, it was pretty boring on days off.

Yes, unfortunately a lot of these Country House Hotels suffer because of that - even today.

Yes, you know, it was 2.5 miles to the nearest garage just to go and get a packet of crisps. There were no shops in the village. You rely on other people, then tensions start because you want a lift everywhere.

Yes, if it hasn't got a pub in the village - chefs are not going to survive!!

No, that's right - it's always a problem. I competed in the European Championships while I was there and Peter Griffiths contacted me and he said you have got the chance of going into the Youth Skill Olympics in France but you need to have someone to back you and that's where Kittsy came in with the Swallow. I competed against a small Salon Culinaire in Bristol; I approached him and he accepted me as a Chef de Partie in the Fine Dining Restaurant. I only wanted to be in the Fine Dining, I didn't want to do Banqueting or anything like that and he gave me the backing, we did the practising and the training and I went out to France with new skills.

OK

Yes, and it all went on from there really. I got a bit of a boost from Nigel Marriage, I think Nigel helped my career a little bit. The week before I won the Youth Skill Olympics he was on the TV kicking the sh*t out of young chefs - one week it was doom and gloom for young chefs and the next week I won the competition and the Caterer got on my side and basically said this is what young chefs are about so Nigel Marriage is credited for part of my PR.

Giving you a foot up on the PR ladder! Why not? I think at the time there was a huge thing about trying to promote the industry and it's not all about kicking your own chefs.

Yes, that was all well and good but all of a sudden there was a massive pressure on me - I was getting offered jobs left, right and centre; Head Chef jobs, money that was obscene, you can choose your own terms etc etc etc...

And how old were you at this stage?

I was just 21.

Right, that was quite a young age.

Yes. I was on the cover of the Caterer on my 21st birthday, and I got a little bit of jealousy from work for the first time. They put me then onto the Brasserie section which didn't go down too well because I didn't want to do that, but in some aspects it was also to knock me down a peg or two and also to give other people a chance to work on other sections - I understood why, but that wasn't what I was about at the time. So I was getting a lot of PR. I was getting asked to do demos - I wasn't ready for that either; I didn't have a bloody clue. Also doing other competitions meant that you had that added pressure that you had to win "¦ so I went off to New Zealand for a year.

OK.

Which turned out to be a good move. I worked at the Regent which changed hands the day I arrived and turned into the Stamford Plaza. Michael James was Exec Chef, a Welsh boy from Celtic Manor. Different food again, the emphasis was more on presentation than taste which was my only problem with it, and it still is. I went out there last year - they still have the height and the colour, but they don't really know how to match flavours. It's trendy food, it's trendy food to look at rather than eat.

Yes, But that's a bit like Australia, There's no real food culture, so they can get a way with more out there.

Yeah, and it's the English and the home-nation chefs who are sort of pushing it - Justin North and people like that , who have been through Le Manior. So, Michael James left - he opened his own restaurant "Essence", and I went with him to open that and was there for 7 months. I did a competition (as you do!!) and won New Zealand Young Chef of the Year and the prize was to go to South Africa to do the World Championships. I had asked before I entered the competition if I was allowed to enter the competition because I was English, and they said yes. I won it and they then told me that I couldn't represent New Zealand being English. I said that I had already asked this question before entering to which they replied "OK you are now a joint winner and we have promoted number 2 to go because he is from New Zealand."

Ok fine, I got a phone call from Stan, who was back in Bristol and he said to me "Do you want to go to South Africa representing Britain?" (Laughter) I said "Yeah, no problem!!" So I flew back to the UK a week later and took a flight out to South Africa and won the competition! I took a photo of the medal and sent it to New Zealand and said "Thank you very much; it could have been yours!" (Laughter) Then basically I had a six month sabbatical in the sense that Brian Cotteral from the British team had all these competitions coming up and he said "I'll pay you to compete" so I was a bit of a mercenary and I went to Luxemburg; Malta; Canada; Korea; Australia.

Did you ever do a competition with a guy called Claudio?

No, So any way I just bounced around and just travelled really.

I imagine it was great experience as well wasn't it?

Yes, the contacts I bumped into and made - it was amazing.

Yes, we get asked quite a lot because of what we do "I'm thinking of going to Australia for a year - what do you think?" they are 19/20 years old, and we say "go for it!" because you will get to 30 and think - I wish I'd done that! And equally you are seeing new cultures; new flavours - it's a great experience for your career and life.

I still would like to go back to New Zealand but with two little kids and a wife, I can't. But it's there for the taking New Zealand without a doubt.

How do you balance running a Michelin starred restaurant with a family, then? Because the persona of this kind of establishment is that you're in at 7am in the morning and still there at 1 o'clock the next morning.

It's not that bad at all.

Do you get a good work / life balance then?

Yeah, we do a normal day. 9 - 3 back at 5.30 and we are out by 10 o'clock. We get Sunday nights and all day Monday off.

So you can have a star and be normal?

Yes, we're not in the hub of London where it's going crazy. I've got a good team, a reliable team and we've got good ingredients and the Michelin star, for me it is all about consistency and quality. It's not about banging through as many as you can and working all day for the sake of working all day. It's what goes out on the plate. Yeap. And we won the star with steak and chips on the menu and Caesar Salad and we've still got that. It's the quality ingredients and cooking that matters. People can argue about that all day and every day - it's silly. One of the comments that always comes up is "you can serve the food in a bus shelter" as long as it's certain standards

Yes, I don't quite believe that but

I don't know - I've seen some places that look like bus shelters (Laughter) as long as you go in with the perception that it's all about the food and we don't give you a separate table for your handbag then "¦ You know, we don't even do an amuse bouche or predessert. We've only just started doing canapés as such. We don't make our own breads. It's three courses and what we put in front of the inspector is what we are judged on. Yeah, OK. And I think people need to try and forget running before they can walk.

Yeap, absolutely. So where did you go after the Swallow?

From the Swallow I went to New Zealand, then I came back and did a very short stint - 1 day, at the Royal Crescent.

OK, with Steven Blake?

Yeah, it really wasn't my kind of kitchen at all.

OK. Where has he gone now?

God knows. No I didn't stay there because it was very unorganised and I just couldn't work in a kitchen like that.

No fair comment.

From there I got offered my first Head Chef position over at the Mirabelle restaurant within the Grand Hotel in Eastbourne.

Oh yes, with Keith Mitchell? Yes, he's been there a long time hasn't he?

For ever, yes. He's done really well.

That's part of Elite Hotels now isn't it?

Yes, it was De-Vere when I started and then went into Elite half way through. It was my first Head Chef position; a free reign with seven staff in the kitchen doing exactly what I wanted them too. But I was running before I could walk. I read the books and it was the first time I really had taken an interest in food; I started eating out because as a young chef you were more interested in going to the pub and for a kebab! I started eating out because I needed the knowledge and wanted to see what was going on. I think that one of the most important things that Head Chefs and all chefs for that matter can do is eat out, and for some reason they don't Yes, not enough do that. We started eating out and trying things ourselves. We started to get recognition. We got 8 out of 10 in the Good Food Guide, which was amazing. There was only Marco, The Waterside and the Fat Duck above us at the time. We were on par with Hambleton Hall. Everything we did was really good at the time. You know, I thought is was great that we were doing 6 canapés, amuse bouche, starter, sorbet, main course, pre dessert, dessert, 12 different petit fours - it was just being over the top!

Yes.

I left there and went to Bailiffscourt Hotel in Sussex and got knocked down a peg. First time a Head Chef in a proper place really.

Yeap. Was Martin Hadden there then? No, Martin was, Steve Crane was at Ockenden Manor, no the one at Midhurst "

The Spread Eagle.

Yes.

Martin had already left I was at Bailiffs and they were a hard bunch to work for. They wanted a lot and I wasn't ready for that. Still had a bit of an attitude, you know, a young chef and this is how it's going to work. I got a good salary but it didn't work for me so I left there after 7 months to go back to the Bacchanalian in Cheltenham.

Oh ok.

Head Chef and assistant!!. That was it, just the two of us. We stripped it down and went back to basics. We couldn't mess around because there was just the two of us. It was a seven days a week, breakfast, lunch and dinner. With both of us off two days a week, it ran with one person for 4 days. Christ! Yes, so back to basics and that's where we first got our recognition for food. It was three rosettes. It sort of woke me up. We got rid of the crisps on the plate and all the deep fried veg. Things were on the plate because they had a reason to be there; they had a place on the plate. That's where I really woke up and matured in a sense.

And after that? Was it Cotswold House?

Yes, There for three years. We didn't pick up three rosettes there but we started getting a lot of recognition from Michelin so much so that I think we had 5 visits in one year! And then when I came here, after the first visit we were awarded the star so they were obviously watching me. And then after I had left they put Cotswold down as a rising star. Yes that's right. So they were keeping an eye on him.

So was Jamie Foreman your Sous Chef?

Yes, and Kenny Atkinson was my first Michelin protégé

He's a good lad, Kenny - I like Kenny.

Yes, a very good chef and hard working.

Yes.

Yes, I like Kenny although he screwed me over when we went for the Scholarship but I'll let him have that one! (Laughter) He left when I was doing my Stage and he went back to the Greenway but not to worry. He's a good lad.

So how would you describe your food style now?

Refined I would say. We've taken it back; like I said before every thing on the plate is there for a reason. One place I ate that woke me up to food was Michel Guerard - it wasn't what I was expecting. I had eaten at 20 odd places in Spain and that was my first venture into France and it just blew away anything and everything I'd eaten in Spain. Mainly because he wasn't trying to hard; it was a nice piece of meat, cooked perfectly with a perfect garnish of one or two items and a sauce that was to die for "¦ and I just thought this is what it's all about. You know we are not messing about with jellies and things. They all have a place and they are exciting but people get bored of it. A lot of it is chemical cooking "¦ a bit over the top.

But food is like fashion there are always trends and you get the band wagon jumpers.

Of course,

But you will always have the things that stay true to the core.

Yes, but you need to be able to understand it before you cook it. Yes, a lot of the time people are just jumping in. They are buying these jellies and sticking them in; they do not taste their own food and a lot of the time it just doesn't work.

Derek believes jellies should be Rowntrees, don't you Derek? Yes, I mean what is a liquid jelly? A jelly is a jelly at the end of the day. Yes, it's a contradiction in terms. A jelly is a jelly.

Yes, but it makes us sound like old people when we say it, but to be honest it's a bit of fun it's a bit of this and bit of that but

Like you said before, you still had Steak and Chips on the menu and those dishes will still be around in years to come but liquid jelly won't!

Yes, exactly. I am happy with what I put on a plate, people come in and say "I could do better than that" but I am not bothered. They are trying to beat me not the other way round - I am happy with what's on the plate. You know, if you want to go around and criticise me then go ahead, you are only fooling yourself. Yes we have experimented with jellies and we have got them in on the menu in certain forms but when you eat it yourself you sometimes think "well it doesn't really do anything"

No. So what does the future hold for you, Simon? You've got a Michelin star and 3 rosettes, what is your motivation?

The Elephant is long term. I've got no problems with the restaurant we just need to put the Elephant in different light somehow. Almost rethink where we are really.

Is there another Elephant somewhere?

I don't know. There's the Blue Elephant and there's the Pink Elephant in Amsterdam (Laughter)

You're going to Google that aren't you?!

No I've been there! The banana show is great!!

No, seriously I'm sure I went to one in Brussels once. I think there is a Crocodile. No, I don't know. I may be wrong.

One of the things we had to overcome was the restaurant had been open for 6 months before I came here and I had never heard of the Elephant. My parents had eaten here and said it was awful and I thought well if it's awful it can't get any worst so we had a look around and I liked what we saw. It had a smart kitchen and was a nice set up. I brought my own team from Cotswold House and we came in and hit the ground running really. Fantastic. But people were phoning up thinking it was a Thai restaurant because of the Elephant name.

Right, where is the Elephant Thai restaurant then?

There is a Blue Elephant and Thai Elephant in London.

Yes, so you associate the Elephant with Thai yes, and there is also one in Brussels then as I am sure that's where I've been. It was a Thai.

Yes, so that was what we had to get over and I desperately wanted to change the name. Then we got the star and all that and people know it now and it's just one of those things.

Yeap.

Yes, if you can name your restaurant after a vegetable, like the Aubergine - it can't be that bad, can it?

No absolutely. And, last question for you. You have one meal left to eat, what would it be?

I am a big fan of Beans on Toast with cheese and truffle to be honest. You can't go wrong with it and there's not much washing up afterwards plus you get to go out with a bit of gas!

Fantastic. Thank you very much for you time, Simon. Simon is very proud to be captain of the Great British team of chefs at the culinary Olympics to be held in October and is representing the United Kingdom at the prestigious Bocuse d' Or competiton in 2009.

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 1st August 2008

Simon Hulstone, Elephant Restaurant, Torquay

IN ASSOCIATION WITH