Interviewed June 2011
Shaun Hill is head chef of The Walnut Tree in Wales, cooking there after a distinguished career in which he, amongst other things, established the reputation of Gidleigh Park.
Q – How long have you been cooking professionally?
I started cooking in 1969. I was what is known euphemistically as between jobs. I was fond of food, eating more than cooking, and thought that it would be a fine temporary measure whilst I found a proper job.
Q – Where did you train to cook?
My first job was in response to an ad in the Evening Standard. I lived in north London and the local poncy eaterie had advertised for a commis chef. It was a place called the Cherry Tree in Southgate and had ten chefs in the kitchen to service a hundred seater restaurant and some banqueting. The chef was Austrian and most of the the kitchen crew Eastern European, while the waiters were Italian or Spansh. Only the kitchen porter was British. I didn't get the job but the only other applicant failed to show up so I received a telegram asking me to turn up next morning. I had no experience, qualifications or even uniform. The food was really the daft sub-classical repetoire of the time, steak Diane, sole veronique, duck a thousand fruity ways etc etc. But I learned how a kitchen operates, how to cut up carcasses and make stock and sauces, all of which were amazingly done in the traditional and time consuming manner. I left to work at Carrier's restaurant in Islington which had recently opened. Robert Carrier had been a major food writer at the time and had recklessly decided to demonstrate how rustic - but of course rather expensive - Mediterranean food should be cooked. I loved it there and the lessons learnt have stayed with me. Carrier popped his clogs a few years back but is much under-rated in the scheme of things, partly because his contemporary, Elizabeth David couldn't stand him. This may of course have been due in part to his opening a cookshop just a few doors down the road from her own in Pimlico but could also have been that he loved restaurants while she loved home cooking. They both liked a drink in fact so it's a pity they didn't get on better.
Q – How would you describe your style of cooking?
My cooking is market-based. I buy what I can at the best quality but hopefully at a price which will allow me to make a - modest - profit. The vagaries of this system suit me fine. I am not fond of elaborate presentations or indeed of too many notes in any one dish. Once a dish feels okay I am much more likely to strip away anything extraneaous than add any new flourishes.
Q – Is there a secret for a successful restaurant?
Forget all this stuff about the customer is always right. The duty of a restaurateur is to come up with a formula that offers decent value and will make enough profit to allow a slim chance of being in business the following year. The customer is merely you and me when we are eating not some iconic image. Some will want all their wine pouring and some will find this intrusive. Some will want caviar and some will want pork cheeks. You makes your choices m'dear and hopes for the best. The successful restaurant is the one that has the most diners who concur with your ideas. The least successful are those who think that marketing and PR are the way forward. Good job too. Also rubbish are corporate strategies that involve terms like rolling out concepts or formulas. All crap, none succeed long term.
Q – Do you have a “signature dish” or favourite dish you enjoy cooking?
I think that you cook best the sort of food you enjoy eating most. My favourites are fish and offal. I eat a steak once a year just to show I'm not a vegetarian.
Q – Do you have a favourite ingredient?
My favourite ingredient tends to vary wildly depending on what book I have recently read or where I have been on holiday. Last year's trip to Kerala saw more tamarind and coconut milk than was good for me. Overall I'd say that I like salt the best, not by itself of course or even worse in salty soups or sauces. But in stuff like anchovies - the gorgeous brown jobs in jars rather than the silvery tapas ones - or pickled cucumbers, herrings or capers. A shot of saltiness cuts through all the fat and oil we put onto our food and wakes up the tastebuds just as much as any chilli or acid.
Which restaurant do you most enjoy eating at on your night off?
Locally there is the Hardwick. Stephen Terry is a proper chef and his food is a class act. If I were travelling the opposite direction I would eat at the Butchers Arms in Elderfield - not sure whether this is Herefordshire or Gloucestershire but it has good food from a chef who was at The Three Chimneys on Skye, an almost impossibly remote rural location and a sense of relaxation and peace while you pack away the grub.
What is your most interesting or fun experience from your time in restaurants?
Every eveniing has its moments of course, but luckily these are soon forgotten. Fun is generally an afternoon or prep experience rather than something for the lunch or dinner service. My wash-up offered to deal with a drunk - as I am obviously a bit of a weakling - in my restaurant in Stratford upon Avon back in the early 80s and then came flying though the door as he was clobbered. Not funny really but made me smile at the time.
What would be your “last request” dish?
A plate of cheeses in perfect condition and a bottle of decent Burgundy.
Is there another chef that you most admire?
The best was I think Joel Robuchon. The meals I ate at Jamin were the best I have ever tasted. Not quite as thrilled by the Atelier concepts he has put his name to but we all need to make a living.
Any advice you would give to someone wanting to become a chef?
Try to develop a taste of your own. You will of course have to produce food in the style of whoever is you head chef but one day you will need to make these decisions yourself so start training now.
Any final thoughts you’d like to add?
None I hope. I have been trying to retire or at least semi retire for some years now so that I can pontificate on things gastronomic rather than burn my fingers every night