Words of Advice, The Legends ~ Shaun Hill

The next in our line of ‘Words of Advice’ series of ‘5Questions’ comes from what many consider to be the thinking mans chef, Mr Shaun Hill of The Walnut Tree, Abergavenny Wales. He breaks the mould in our line up as he still works 5 days a week  in the kitchens and is a current Michelin star holder. You can all thank Amanda Afiya for the inspiration & encouraging us to approach Mr Hill.

Mr Hill’s culinary adventures started in the less distinctive Cafe in London after being brought up in Primrose Hill. After working through several restaurants he surfaced at the globally renowned Gidleigh Park in Chagford. He stayed in rural Devon for nine years, gathering plaudits and awards for his approach to sympathetic treatment of produce. He gained a Michelin star in the mid eighties & a Catey (the caterering worlds equivalent of an Oscar) in 1993, after Gidleigh it was time for Mr Hill to go it alone.

He, along with his long suffering wife Anja, bought Merchant House in the gastro town of Ludlow. Again the fans followed him along with Michelin, picking up a star in 1996 and retaining it until he closed in 2005. After a period of consultancy (clients included British Airways), Mr Hill resurfaced at the legendary Walnut Tree.

1: How do you feel the industry has changed over the considerable years you’ve been working in a starred kitchen

The main changes have mostly been an improvement. At one point there was either a starred kitchen or nothing. Now it’s rightly more complex. Lots of top chefs run kitchens that aren’t designed to necessarily win Michelin or AA plaudits but are still recognised as brilliant of their kind, places like the Ivy, Hix, Cafe Anglais  or the Wolseley. The industry attracts more bright and ambitious people – it was thought of as a dead end at one time – and it has expanded to a remarkable degree.Plenty of place to choose from as employment at least

When I started in this trade, it would be unusual for any chef to spend their money eating in a restaurant. Working class lads – very few girls – were driven by pride in craftsmanship, clever ways with sugar or marzipan, decorating hams or coating stuff with aspic, rather than the idea of taste or flavour.  Now most cooks can tell you what’s cooking across the country and quite a few will have eaten in trend setting spots.

The waiting side that has altered even more. Carving skills and dexterity with fork and spoon have given way to plate carrying and the head waiter now is more management than craftsman. Nouvelle cuisine in the 1970s and 80s was the real catalyst for change. Before that time, the maitre d’ would have been known by name and would see you had a good time, put on a cabaret of setting things on fire next to your table, the chef would rarely have figured much in the equation and certainly nobody would know his or her name. So, good news for the cook and a change of emphasis for the waiter. The industry is a hundred times more vibrant than forty years ago

2: What advice would you give to any chefs reading this who feel they have what it takes to achieve Michelin stars and AA rosettes

My advice would be to forget the rosettes and concentrate on the food. If the dishes you produce fit the bill then the stars will follow. Don’t try to second guess the Michelin inspector, that way lies madness. Similarly trying to work out which diner might be an inspector. If you work to your own personal standards then at least you will know when they are achieved. Nothing is worse than imitating some dish that you have seen in a magazine but never tasted because it comes from a great kitchen or because you think it will improve your chances of a rosette. Persistence and consistence are the two key factors

3: Have your views toward the guide books changed or have they remained the same over the years

When I started out guide books were an irrelevance and there were very few reviews in the newspapers. I think that the execrable Fanny Cradock wrote under the pseudonym, Bon Viveur, in the Telegraph but that was about it. There was little interest in restaurant going and none in chefs or cookery. The Good Food Guide was a clubby sort of publication with a tiny circulation and, as time went on, a distaste for anywhere expensive or posh. It could be quite acerbic and was a good read at least.  Egon Ronay’s guide was the reverse, desperately boring to read but much more inclusive so that you could find a place to eat or stay almost anywhere in the country. Ronay was a showman and always had some headline catching aspect to each new edition. Until Michelin started publication of a UK edition in 1974 it was easily the most important guide. The AA was hopeless for many years and the same inspectors reported on the road conditions as the hotel breakfasts. The AA and GFG have of course upped their game since. Michelin have become the gold standard by which all journalists and most chefs judge places and  Hardens guide has joined the circle of important players.

Really it is the internet that has the most immediate effect. Print guides are out of date by the time they hit the shops and it is possible – at no cost – to google up your intended eaterie and find out what critics have written, foodies on websites like egullet think and of course the amalgam of well intentioned and nutters on trip advisor.

4: Do you feel that cooking skills are being diminished with growing use of water baths, sous vide, pacojets and thermomixes

Quite the opposite for these bits of equipment demand some knowledge to work well. I am not fond of water baths  and dislike the ice cream that Pacojet produces but that’s just a matter of taste. I use liquidisers to make sauces that wouldn’t hold together without the centrifugal effect so that I can thicken a sauce with, say, olive oil rather than butter or cream. Years ago I worked for a restaurant in Islington called Carriers and made terrines and pates. Bowl choppers and food processors were essential pieces of kit much better than even the sharpest cook’s knife or mincer

5: How do you feel that the industry could better prepare and service the needs of younger chefs entering catering

I think it essential for younger chefs at the start of their career to see different styles and sizes of kitchen.  Problem is that if a  chef changes job every year at this stage he or she will just wash spinach and peel things in lots of different addresses rather than progress their competence. An apprenticeship scheme that moved someone on at yearly intervals to good but differing kitchens over three or four years would work so much better and lend structure and formalisation to what is often a haphazard way of gaining experience.

The catering trade is still a chancy career. I rather like the independence it gives and the thought that you can become a real success, star even, if things work out well. I still shake pans five days a week and enjoy the buzz of the service. There is a sub theatricality to it all. It may be infuriating, regularly crappily paid at the beginning and of course death to any notion of social life. But it’s not boring

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We’ d obviously like to thank Mr Shaun Hill for taking the time to answer the ‘5Questions’, if you’d like to sample Shaun’s cooking he can be found here 5 days a week;

The Walnut Tree,

Llanddewi Skirrid,

Abergavenny,Monmouthshire NP7 8AW.

01873 852797

The Walnut Tree Website

The images are used by kind permission from The Walnut Tree’s website & have been taken by photographer Toril Brancher

One Response to “Words of Advice, The Legends ~ Shaun Hill”
  1. chumbles says:

    Excellent advice again; and I so agree about Fanny Craddock – I found her an ego-centric, condescending, bullying individual – now who does that remind me of?

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