Talking food, drink and health with AA Rosette winning chef Richard Allen
Richard Allen is head chef of the Herb Garden Brasserie at Ye Olde Bell Spa in Retford, Nottinghamshire. Allen joined Ye Olde Bell in 2014, where he worked as head chef for Restaurant Bar 1650, achieving its first ever AA Rosette.
Away from the kitchen Allen has a passion for health and fitness, which saw him qualify as a personal trainer, with expert knowledge in nutrition. When the hotel built a new spa along with Herb Garden Brasserie in 2017, he was keen to oversee the cuisine and saw it as a great opportunity to combine his passion for health and fitness.
We sat down with Richard and discussed everything from his culinary inspiration to why he thinks health and nutrition is so important to promote in his menus.
WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO BECOME A CHEF?
Becoming a chef came about by chance. I wanted to work within the leisure industry and planned to do A Level sports science. Unfortunately, academics wasn’t my strong point and at 15 I was diagnosed as dyslexic. Although I worked hard I didn’t get the GCSE results I wanted and had to retake these to obtain the grades I needed.
I was then I thought that this wasn’t the route for me and by chance I saw a role for a trainee chef and I went for it. It was hard work and long hours but it didn’t take me long to find my feet. I found I thrived in the kitchen environment and knew that being a chef would become, not only my job, but my lifetime passion.
YOU HAVE A PASSION FOR HEALTH AND FITNESS. DID YOU CONSIDER LEAVING THE KITCHEN TO PURSUE THIS?
Funnily enough fitness came before the kitchen! My father owned a gym so health and fitness was an important part in my life from an early age.
Due to my interest in health and fitness I decided to obtain qualifications within the sports industry merely for personal interest. This was whilst I was working as a chef.
Maintaining a healthy lifestyle will always be important to me but no – the kitchen is my true passion!
YOU’VE MOVED FROM A TRADITIONAL KITCHEN TO HEAD UP THE SPA KITCHEN AT THE HERB GARDEN BRASSERIE – WHAT WERE THE DIFFERENCES AND CHALLENGES?
Working in the hotel kitchen was great as I had such diverse options when writing the menus. The kitchen supplied two restaurants, the Bistro and Restaurant 1650, for which I obtained an AA rosette.
The Herb Garden Brasserie was a new challenge and something I was really excited to approach. It’s interesting as my diners enjoying spa time so this is something I wanted to think of when designing the menu. I also wanted to create a varied menu that offered something for everyone.
THE CONCEPT OF THE HERB GARDEN BRASSERIE MENU IS VERY INTERESTING. CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT IT?
Guests come into the spa for different reasons, whether it’s for a healthy experience or to indulge themselves. I try to please every guest that dines at the Brasserie by varying the menu through three different criteria, from healthier lighter dishes through to lavish indulgent cuisine and a happy medium in the middle.
We have found that we have guests coming from afar as well as locally so I want to offer a fine dining experience to make the trip feel worthwhile on the food front in addition to something more hearty or traditional.
WHAT’S ONE OF YOUR FAVOURITE DISHES FROM THE HERB GARDEN BRASSERIE MENU?
The menu changes all the time so it’s really hard to pick one – ha ha can I say all of them!
A great deal of thought goes into each dish, myself and the team try to use locally sourced seasonal fresh produce and we pride ourselves on the level of preparation, execution and the presentation of each dish.
There is no room for complacency and exacting standards is the only way to maintain consistent high standards that our guests have come to recognise us for.
WAS It IS IMPORTANT TO HAVE AN OPEN PLAN KITCHEN SO YOU CAN INTERACT WITH GUESTS?
I wouldn’t say important but it has been an eye-opener to see all the extras you put into dishes and to see the difference it makes. Seeing the diner’s reactions to your efforts is very rewarding. I am always looking for ways to improve so try to seek out constructive feedback – but our guests are very complimentary and seem to love it so much. We’re very lucky.
DO YOU NEED TO CUT OUT TREATS OR IS IT EVERYTHING IN MODERATION?
Just as anything in life, balance is everything. Treats should be kept in moderation and always as part of a balanced diet – hence the word balance. Too much of anything can be bad for you.
WHAT IS THE BEST ADVICE YOU CAN GIVE TO KEEP FIT AND HEALTHY?
Healthy body leads to a healthy mind. A balanced diet with an active lifestyle, preferably with regular exercise is most definitely the best advice that any health profession would give.
Drinking alcohol on a regular basis can have damaging effects as well as bad habits such as smoking.
Number one tip is definitely exercise, it is important to choose activities you enjoy as it helps you adhere to a regular plan. Make it part of your routine by setting aside regular time to exercise and set yourself goals as it will motivate you to succeed in your new healthy lifestyle.
WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE HOME COOKS TO COOKING HEALTHY MEALS AT HOME?
Plan your meals on a weekly basis and shop only for these ingredients to avoid you from cheating. If you buy treats, you’ll eat treats. Keep fats to a minimum, try not to mix carbohydrates and fats in one dish. Look to use vegetables as your carbohydrate source rather than potatoes and avoid food using refined flours such as pasta and bread. Avoid processed food and always cook fresh ingredients. When cooking don’t overcook ingredients and my top advice has to be eat until you are not hungry rather than until you are full.
WHAT WOULD YOUR LAST MEAL BE?
I have a massive respect for the skills that many Indian chefs have, the blending of spices, flavours and sensations that a well-cooked Indian dish can offer. My last meal would be definitely be something from the Indian kitchen. Ideally I’d love to take a culinary tour of India – that would be the ultimate wish!