Mark Dodson, chef/owner, The Mason’s Arms

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 22nd October 2015
Mark Dodson is the chef/owner of Michelin-starred The Mason’s Arms in Knowstone, Devon - a village pub with a fine dining restaurant attached. He began his career on a North Sea ferry, in the galley and after a year he went to Colchester Catering College. He then went to InterContinental (now Radisson) on Portman Square, London, the Old Court House hotel, Jersey and Michelin-starred Le Talbooth restaurant in Dedham, Essex. After a stage at The Waterside Inn he worked for Michel Roux for 18 years – 12 years as his head chef and then spent three years working as Executive Chef at Cliveden House in Berkshire before taking on The Mason’s Arms. The Staff Canteen spoke to Mark about working with Michel Roux, how difficult it is to achieve and attain three stars and how he thinks the industry has changed in the last three decades. mason's arms outsideYou’ve been in the industry for 37 years, has it changed since you started? It has, we’ve been through the chef shortage, sous vide – food has changed, the industry has changed and I think generally it has changed for the better. My first job in 1978 I was doing straight shifts, everyone describes the early years in their career as awful, too many hours, but my first job was very civilised, with an excellent chef who was very organised. I’ve never worked in a shouty kitchen, I don’t believe that’s the best way to get results out of people. My career hasn’t been a horror story turned good, I tried to pick places I felt comfortable in. I’ve made the environment here the kind of environment that I would like to work in. What do you think you need in place to achieve three stars and keep them for a long time? It’s about consistency and moving forward gently. Your given stars for what you’ve done in the past not for what you are going to do. So I think the key is evolution not revolution – I always say here, if we change anything it has to be changed for the better. Whether it’s a dish, a piece of china or a booking system, we will only change if it makes it better.cheesecake When I worked with Anton Edelmann at the Savoy, he had just taken over as head chef and he said he would change one thing every day. You think that should be quite easy to change one thing every day but by the end of the year you’ve changed 365 things and you’ve started to make progress. People don’t like change so you have to gently move things forward. Is it the fast pace of today which is hindering places getting the third star? Three stars is the ultimate accolade, it’s not given away lightly. I’m sure Michelin think long and hard about it and it’s their decision. Do you feel younger chefs are taking style over substance? I think like anything you want to build on you need a good foundation, the classics will never go away, why would they when they have perfect flavour combinations? But everyone wants to cook a bit lighter and experiment they just have to respect where food has come from. Those great flavour combinations have worked for hundreds of years and they still work today.
Your top five restaurant meals: Fredy Giradet, Crissier, Switzerland The Waterside Inn, Bray Georges Blanc, Vonnas, France Harveys, Wandsworth Common Le Manoir aux Quatres Saisons Five most influential chefs in your career: (in chronological order) Michael Nadell Felix Muntwyler Anton Edelmann Michel Roux Michel Perraud Top 5 comfort foods: Roast Chicken, Bread Sauce Toad in the Hole Fish and Chips Bacon Sandwich Steak with Bearnaise Sauce
Your first Michelin kitchen was Le Talbooth, would you say it was a very different kitchen to where you had worked before? I had always worked at the top end but that was an eye opener. The kudos of working with a Michelin star in those days, in the 1980s, there weren’t a lot of jobs at places that had the stars. It’s different now but it was definitely prestigious to be there at that time. It was a great kitchen and a lovely place to work. I learned a lot. It’s that extra five per cent sometimes which makes the difference. I’d worked at the Savoy, the Portman – I’d had a good grounding first which is what I think you need to do. Michelin food is obviously very refined, working with a small repertoire of dishes whereas at the Savoy the menu had 50 dishes on it and changed daily which is not for everyone but that’s the great thing about catering – there’s a job for everybody. Once you work in a Michelin kitchen do you get the bug for stars? Yes and it was from there that I applied to go to The Waterside Inn. I did a few jobs in between because in those days they had a waiting list, so I did my days stage and I was offered a job in the future but not given a start date! It took about seven months to actually start work there. Was The Waterside Inn somewhere you always wanted to work? I went there to eat actually and it was a completely different standard to anything I had seen or eaten before. Having eaten there I really wanted to work there, I could see there was a lot learn.

>>> Read: Alain Roux, The Waterside Inn, Bray

Did you notice a big step up from a one star to a two star kitchen? Yes but Le Talbooth was English so we served things like liver and bacon or steak and kidney pie on the menu. The Waterside was very French so it was a different style of cooking. From one to two star it’s about consistency, having the right number of people and The Waterside is a discipline, it’s regimented. Beef Fillet with Oxtail RavioliIt achieved three stars while you were there, was that the highlight of your career? There’s many, many highlights but to be in the brigade that goes from two to three, yeah let’s face it, it doesn’t happen to everybody! For Michel, he was driven to get that third star and obviously he achieved it which is amazing and to still hold it now 30 years on – what an achievement! What’s Michel Roux like to work with? I loved every minute of it. It’s a strict kitchen but it’s a creative kitchen, its well organised, you’ve got the resources, you’ve got the staff – we were spoiled there really. When you are there doing it and thinking this is hard, it’s tough – when you take a step back and look at it, I feel very privileged to have been there, spent a long time there and everyday was a learning day. Everybody had their input which is good and unusual for a three star. Normally in a three star its’ the chef or the owner coming up with the ideas. There it was open to suggestion – not everything would go on the menu but, and I think it’s something you appreciate as you go through your career, if someone comes to you with a good idea you should take it – it’s one less thing for me to think of! Michel is a very creative chef and he gave us all room to grow. You left The Waterside and moved on to Cliveden House, what then prompted you to go it alone and open your own place?Arancini with Beetroot three ways I’d been head chef at one of the best restaurants in the UK if not the world, then head chef of a beautiful five star hotel – where do you go from there? My wife wanted to go back to work so I think it was the right time for us to try our own thing. For any chef it’s great to do your own thing at some point and if you don’t do it you never know. The Mason’s Arms fitted the bill – we needed somewhere to live and work. You achieved a Michelin star six months after you opened The Mason’s Arms and you’ve held it for 11 years – you obviously know what you are doing? Now, the Michelin Guide is very varied. I think the food has to match the environment, there needs to be value for money and creativity with consistency. I think if you look at the definition within the guide, as long as what you are doing is the pinnacle of that field then you are worthy of a star. I think it’s harder to define now what gets you a star and there’s never been a formula or everyone would have one. I think you have to cook the food you want to eat because otherwise how can you be excited by it? And you need to work hard every day - there’s no easy route! Mark Dodson 2How has The Mason’s Arms evolved since you first opened? Looking back, yes it’s changed – I started off with me and one guy in the kitchen, today we have five working. More customers equals more staff, it doesn’t always equal more profit. The dishes, we still have a few old favourites which we bring back but we do try to move forward. Food has developed in the last 10 years as well – I couldn’t just keep writing the menu I wrote in 2005 and still deliver it now, it would look too simple. Although I still believe in simplicity, not too much garnish on the plate and letting the ingredients speak for themselves, you’ve still got to keep it interesting. The Mason’s Arms is a unique little place and it has developed its own style. Our brief when we came here was to create a place that we would like to eat if we were on holiday in Devon or Cornwall – cosy, friendly and good food. I’d say it’s French cooking with English ingredients. We observe the French rules of cooking but we want to use local produce. You’ve started a consultancy business? It’s something for the future. I’m 58 now and I think at some point in your life you have to look at what else you can do using your knowledge and not being on your feet 18 hours a day. And what about the future for The Mason’s Arms? I’ve got a good young team here, I’m bringing them on but I’m still hands on and while I’m still enjoying it I’m still here! To find out more about Mark Dodson click here or for more information on The Mason's Arms click here  

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 22nd October 2015

Mark Dodson, chef/owner, The Mason’s Arms