Kenneth Culhane, head chef, The Dysart in Petersham

The  Staff Canteen

Kenneth Culhane is the head chef at The Dysart in Petersham. A Roux Scholar, he is from Ireland and trained at the Dublin Institute of Technology.

Kenneth has worked in several two and three Michelin starred kitchens, including Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud in Dublin and restaurants in New York, Sydney and France. He has developed his own fresh and distinctive style of cooking which encompasses the very best of British and French ingredients, traditional techniques that rely on classical skills and Asian influences.

The Staff Canteen caught up with Kenneth to find out more about his style of food, his passion for experimenting with unusual ingredients and the produce which is grown especially for the Dysart.Mackeral

The Dysart and the food style

Tell us about The Dysart and the style of food?

What we are about here is taste and understanding the taste profiles of food and produce and how to put them together in a harmonious way. We have brainstorming evenings where we will try out dishes and it helps the guys to hone in on flavours. I’m fortunate, by choice, that I’ve worked with a few chefs that love the flavours of Asia, subtly used, so I like to experiment with some more exotic ingredients like young ginger, different mints like ginger mint, we have 12-14 different chillies and mara des bois strawberries when they are in season.

The reason I like those strawberries is they remind me of the ones I would have growing up. They are the closest you can get to wild strawberries in a cultivated manner. They are also beautiful with their colour and small form.

Becoming a chef and career to date

You grew up on a farm back in Ireland, has that always influenced your cooking and the need to know where your ingredients come from?

Yes, it definitely had an impact on my getting involved in food. But I didn’t know a lot about food then, it wasn’t until I worked in some good places that I found out about flavours, combinations and things like that. On the farm it was about growing stuff, the back to basics stuff and we always worked in the old traditional ways, which are so important to me because they are best for flavour and best for looking after the land and the future.

What drew you towards the hospitality industry?

DysartIt’s different now, in the past ten years chefs have made it a more appealing industry to be a part of. Back then my family wanted me to go to college and do pharmacy or veterinary studies – I studied science at college in Dublin for two years but it wasn’t for me. I wanted to stay in Dublin so I got a job at the Shelbourne Hotel, for so long an essential feature of Dublin.

You went on to work at Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud while doing a degree in Culinary Arts, did working in a two-Michelin star kitchen change the way you thought about food?

Even going to the Shelbourne was an amazing thing for me because I’d never seen a lot of those things, from patisserie and pastry to making ice cream – it seems like a simple basic thing but when you are young and you’ve never seen it, for me it was a big thing. Guilbaud was so disciplined, organised and real top-end fine dining. It was a big shock, everyone is focused and they are delivering a top-end product. It was exciting though, when you are part of something like that you feel like you are going into a higher league. What makes these restaurants different is the creativity of the chef, the team and I’d never seen group creativity like that. Guilbaud was the initial building block for my wanting to be a part of these restaurants.

From there you worked at Le Choiseul in France, was working in France something you always wanted to do?IMG_4561

I think it’s something most chefs want to do. The reason I wanted to go to France was to develop my understanding of the connection between the producers, working in a city environment yes, you know your suppliers but it’s nothing in comparison to being in a rural location. We’d go to a big market every week and suppliers would tell ‘Maitre Cuisinier de France’, Pascal Bouvier that he had to wait another week until he could have certain ingredients so he was always aware of and certain to get what was at its best. It was very market driven food and I saw things I hadn’t seen before for example making sweet dishes from savoury ingredients.

So, now you’re at The Dysart have you implemented those ideas there?

Yes, and building upon all I have learned and taking it further - with total support. My next step was always going to be to make sure that I work only with the very best produce in season from suppliers I know and have selected personally – some of the best in the UK and France, and try to grow as much of our own produce as possible to get as close as possible to that way of cooking.

We have one grower who is only growing for himself really, he grows in a natural and traditional way because of his love of produce and nature and the excitement of being part of what we are doing.  I make sure that our meat only comes from organic farms and that the animals live natural open air lives – which is of course now very much the emerging standard but was not always so until very recently. I unite these with classical ways of preparing food, avoiding all the clever gizmos that are ubiquitous in the top kitchens – I have interviewed senior chefs who have said quite openly that they would not know what to do without these and earnestly suggest to young aspiring chefs that they should learn the key skills before coming to rely on these pieces of equipment which I will not have in my kitchen.

Ingredients and dish inspiration

IMG_4576What products do you use at The Dysart which embrace older techniques?

At the moment we are using Cornue Des Andes tomatoes, they are the original variety of the plum tomato. We also use old varieties of beetroot, like crapaudine which is a long variety of beetroot. Also violet potato and lots of varieties of courgettes. Friends and regular customers have recently brought in to us some wonderful early Autumn season produce from their garden. Initially we sat down with the grower to talk about what we wanted, he has to think about what is feasible. Some things take a lot of work and time so he mixes those up with products that can be grown more quickly.

There are difficulties you have to consider for example, some of the heritage courgettes have been going mouldy or getting blight this year. He also has a huge selection of flowers and herbs, I’d never used flowers much in cooking but it’s become really fashionable. He explained to me why he was growing them, I mean it makes sense that if you don’t have flowers then you don’t have bees, or pollen. It’s a natural cycle he is trying to build. So for me not putting these things on my dishes wouldn’t make sense. So we make nettle bread, rosehip cordial and a marmalade from courgette flowers.

How do you come up with uses for these lesser known ingredients?

Sometimes it can take a year before I think of a use for something! I just keep thinking about things and try to work with them in different ways – we have a blackcurrant sage which has a wonderful flower but it’s so bitter, I haven’t figured out what to do with it yet. Bitter foods are great at the start of a meal, it’s like Campari, we’ve tried syrups but we need to work with it a bit more.

Do you enjoy the challenge of not always knowing what you will have to work with?IMG_4578

Absolutely. It gives the guys great excitement as well, coming in and seeing produce that’s just been picked like courgettes or asparagus. We also forage and are confident this year is going to be a good year for that. The foraged ingredients create a more exciting atmosphere in the kitchen and we often bring out nature boards to show the customers what we have to work with. Last year we had a huge chicken of the woods mushroom with which we made a wonderful ragout. The great thing about foraging is the produce is never the same.

You said you are from the old school background, is it important that your young chefs learn how to break down ingredients from scratch?

Seeing all the raw materials and working together as a team to pull it off, you develop a real skill after years of doing it. Traditionally you would have worked in a section in the kitchen and run a section. Here we all have to be trained in different areas so pastry, butchery, vegetables – as a kitchen it’s a good training ground.

What inspires your new dishes?

It’s completely produce led. Everything which comes through the kitchen is scrutinised and checked and it’s the set menu where I have the flexibility to add a new dish when I want to. It can be difficult when it’s so sporadic, you have to create a new dish but then it’s gone after two days. We have a small well focused team in the kitchen and this helps keep continuity and a close cooperation between us and excitement. Everyone is part of the creative process. IMG_4573

You also have a vegetarian menu, why did you decide to do that?

I think chefs have a lot of responsibility to make sure they are sourcing ethical producers and foods – I think cooking with a greater emphasis on vegetables is the right way forward. Especially when you are growing your own, it means lowering air miles, it tastes better because it’s fresher and why wouldn’t we show off the vegetables that are ready at that time of the year? Last month we had Kohlrabi which we put into salads. I created a flower salad coming into the summer with a Japanese dressing, sunflower seeds and we tried out the kohlrabi leaves in that too.

Cooking style

How would you describe your cooking style?

Patrick Guilbaud gave me the basis of understanding classical French discipline and cooking. Working with Tetsuya Wakuda in Sydney, showed me a Japanese way of completely looking at the produce and respecting the systems. How he looks at food – it’s not about the chef, it’s about representing the produce, nature and a moment in time. It’s a more romantic and respectful way of looking at it. To the naked eye you might think there’s nothing going on when you see a simple dish but then you eat it and it’s like ‘wow’. When you work in a kitchen you realise there are all those processes to creating something so visually simple. If you have something on a plate which looks amazing it builds an expectation but when something looks simple you focus more on the flavour. It’s a nice way of cooking.

You won the Roux Scholarship in 2010, was it always a goal to win that competition?IMG_4570

It’s one of the most competitive competitions to be involved in and it gives you a good judgement of where you are at as a chef. I got into the semi-final twice and I won the third time. The dish you have to do in the final is obviously not revealed until the day and it really exposes you as a chef, it makes you think really quickly and you have to plan fast. It really tests you but it’s good and I enjoyed it.

>>> Read about past Roux Scholarship winners and where they are now

You are part of the Slow Food movement, why did you want to be a part of that?

Slow Food covers a broad spectrum of foods, it’s a way of thinking and eating. It encourages you to look at tradition and old ways of doing things and promote them – so we don’t forget them! Modern technology has been great for the kitchen, we adapt and we change, but it’s always important to remember where the base is. We are building on a foundation of tradition and history.

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 8th September 2015

Kenneth Culhane, head chef, The Dysart in Petersham