Shaun Hill is one of the UK’s most enduringly successful chefs, after 50 years working as a chef, he is still found in the kitchen every day overseeing every dish that goes out to the restaurant.
The Michelin-starred Walnut Tree Inn near Abergavenny is one of the most famous restaurants in Wales – a food-lovers destination since the early 1960s when it was owned by Franco Taruschio.
Often referred to as ‘a chef’s chef’, Shaun has been an inspiration to many others, including the popular Tom Kerridge, and boasts a rich career with many a Michelin-starred ventures under his belt, including Devon’s Gidleigh Park and famed Ludlow restaurant The Merchant House. Cited as a key player in the ‘modern-British’ food movement of the late 80s, he isn’t afraid to use his wealth of skills to craft creative dishes.
Hill states: “food should taste good, comforting if that’s what’s needed and exciting if that’s at all possible”. From his favoured ingredients of the moment to what keeps him in the kitchen, we sat down with the culinary heavyweight to find out more.
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself, including your where you are today, professionally, and what got you here?
I was born in Belfast and raised in London, and studied Classics at Exeter University, I started my career in 1966 working for the American chef, restaurateur and TV presenter Robert Carrier at his eponymous restaurant in Islington.
I went on to cook at other restaurants in London, including Soho’s The Gay Hussar. We largely fed the Labour government of Harold Wilson at the time and we shared the kitchen with a tankful of live carp. But some of the dishes were wonderful, especially the cakes and the puddings.
It was during a nine-year stint at Gidleigh Park in Devon in the 80s that I gained the first Michelin star. In 2004 my wife Anja and I opened The Merchant House in Ludlow, gaining a Michelin Star and being hailed as the 14th best in the world, and placing Ludlow firmly on the world’s gastronomic map. After ten years, we closed the Merchant House when we felt he’d achieved all he could in the tiny seven-table restaurant.
I planned to retire from the kitchen, but in 2008 the lure of taking over the iconic Walnut Tree in Abergavenny was too great. I used to eat at the Walnut Tree when it was an Italian restaurant, when Franco had it, and it was my favourite restaurant.
What or who inspired you to become a chef?
A period ‘between jobs’ spurred me to enter the kitchen. I thought it would be nice to eat well and learn to cook at the same time!
Who has been your biggest influence to get you to where you are today?
This is a close call between my old boss Robert Carrier and Peter Kromberg. Carrier had a love of food, restaurants and a great gusto for it all, a rare specimen in the late 1960s restaurant scene. It showed there was interesting food that wasn’t just versions of French classical food. They’d have the odd Moroccan dish and they were even quite famous for a Greek dish at the time, which was lamb in Greek pastry. You couldn’t buy filo then because you’re talking about the late 60s. It was very good, I could eat it now.
Kromberg was my head chef at the opening of Intercontinental in Hyde Park Corner in the mid 1970s where I was a sous chef. He was kind but tough and ran the kitchen as a well-oiled machine.
Does travel inspire your cooking?
I’ve always liked travelling. I was very lucky that for 25 years I didn’t pay for airline tickets on British Airways because I did their first-class menus with Michel Roux from the Waterside Inn. And so I used to get a huge allowance of tickets and went all over the world including South America, India, China and Australia.
Each trip abroad will show differing approaches to cooking and expectations in eating, from southern India to eastern China, southern Italy to Scandinavia or the middle East. All will reflect the climate and conditions of their country but more importantly, the imagination of the people to make something brilliant from what they have around them. All ideas and inspiration to make you realise what’s possible.
What are the most important considerations when crafting your menu?
That food should taste good, comforting if that’s what’s needed and exciting if that’s at all possible. In restaurants, we are part of the entertainment industry more than the nourishment sector. The provenance and treatment of the produce we eat is part of the feel-good factor but most of all the food we cook should be big in flavour and texture, not just skill or innovative thinking, one of life’s pleasures.
How would you describe your cooking style?
The rough side of Michelin.
What is your favourite ingredient to create with?
My favourite ingredient tends to vary wildly depending on what book I have recently read or where I have been on holiday. Right now, salted anchovies – the brown, not the silvery ones. They add a hit of saltiness to fish sauces and of course to beef, lamb and pasta. Well, anything really!
What would you be doing if you weren’t a chef?
I’ve had plans to retire for the last five years, but it hasn’t worked out so far. I can only retire when the place is absolutely running the way I want it and I’m happy and confident to bail out. It’s getting good at the moment, I’ve got a good team so I’m very happy but it’ll be a month or two yet. I take each month or day as it comes and hope for the best. But it’s been a difficult couple of years with all the lockdowns and Covid restrictions.
Where is your favourite place to dine?
Daffodil Mulligan, Old Street. I am fond of fish and shellfish, native oysters particularly, and I find the big hearted and big skills, lightly worn, approach of Richard Corrigan to be just what restaurants should be about. So, the combination has to be a winner. I like Bentleys and loved Lindsay House as well.
More locally, The Hardwick, Abergavenny. Stephen Terry runs this restaurant which is only a few miles from the Walnut Tree. Everyone should have a place like this within striking distance.
How would you describe the food you create at The Walnut Tree to someone who’s never experienced your kind of food?
Many Michelin-starred restaurants are known for their formality and fussy presentation, but the Walnut Tree is loved for its relaxed atmosphere and cooking which focuses on flavour instead of fripperies. Typical dishes on the menu include fillet of beef with salt brisket hash, and sticky toffee pudding with vanilla ice cream.
We spend a lot of effort on the food but we don’t spend the effort on decorating it to look like an entry for the Turner Prize, we concentrate the effort on the background stuff. We make everything. We make four types of bread every day, we make the petit fours, we make the black pudding out of pigs’ blood, and we do everything like that. But once I’ve got it cooked and somebody has ordered it, I like to get it on the plate and out as fast as possible so that it’s in front of them.
Address: Llanddewi Skirrid, Abergavenny NP7 8AW
Phone: 01873 852797
All imagery used in this article credit: David Charbitt