Dishing up a hearty helping of nostalgia

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Whilst doing some filming for the Taste Local conference on my return from Italy, I met up with a couple of guys who worked in the PR and marketing industry, a camera man and cultural editor/director.
One afternoon they came to my work place to film me in the kitchen and talk about my bursary trip and “learning” journey. I was my usual self, bursting with enthusiasm a confident and  willing participant, after all we’re talking food, culture and all things related.

I warned them that once they got me started that I wouldn’t shut up, but they didn’t seem to mind. So we plated up some dishes and headed outside, making the most of the late autumnal sun.
I started telling them about myself, my business and my experiences. I’ve always enjoyed my career as a chef and have had many food related experiences, after all it has been 20 years since I first qualified as a chef.
I’ve been quite lucky and in many ways felt quite privileged to have worked along side or with many top restaurateurs, chefs and hoteliers in that time. So I begun talking enthusiastically about my personal journey in the industry…..

I lived in the small market town of Hay on Wye where my father owned a betting shop, so we lived above the business. For the few people who may not know Hay on Wye is the second hand book capital of the world and home to the Hay literature festival, which again is world renown.
Every year for a couple of weeks the eyes of the literacy world are on this small market town which plays host to politicians, presidents, novelists and Nobel prize winners.
It was here my career as a chef was born and I didn’t have to go far to buy my first cookery book, about 30 metres to be exact. I stepped into Booth’s Books a shop named aptly after the self proclaimed king of Hay (the master mind behind the book shop capital) Richard Booth. It was in his shop where my love of food and cookery books was born. Forged together with passion and excitement my journey had begun.

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Booth’s Books where I bought my first cookery book. I have quite a collection of cookery books now, several hundred infact!

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The Old Black Lion where it all began….

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It hasn’t changed a bit inside or out…..

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My fathers old betting office a stone’s throw from Booth’s Books and only around the corner from the Old Black Lion. Where I first started as a pot washer and kitchen assistant.

We had plenty of space above the old betting office and dad decided to do up a room and let it out to a lodger.
It’s funny how the threads of life weave together their master plan, quietly conspiring…..
One day a spritely young chap came in enquiring about the room, he was looking to move to the area and just accepted a job as head chef of the Old Black Lion Hotel in Hay, and with that introduction my whole life had just been mapped out for me!

When you’re starting out in anything at a young age (I was only 16 after all) it is surprising how much energy you can devote, I was tireless and begged my employers for extra shifts, I didn’t care if they paid me! I had convinced myself that the only way to learn and get on was to be in it 24/7.
I remember one day after 16 hours in the kitchen I wanted to start on another sack of carrots as back up veg prep for the weekend and the owner looked at me and said “just go home will you” all the other chef’s and kitchen staff had finished long ago but I was happy with my cookery books just being in the kitchen plodding away.
It’s still my favourite place to be now, when I want solice or I’m developing recipes I just want the kitchen to myself. I loved being a pastry chef as you are always the first person in, you could be in for 2 hours or more on your own before the breakfast chef would be in. I would be making all the breakfast pastries, brioche and breads for the day. This is where you can practice your new found skills and build confidence, safe in the knowledge that any disasters can be rectified or disposed of long before any one else arrives.
One morning after my 4th attempt at a Genoise sponge and some 24 eggs later I realised to my horror that the breakfast chef would not have enough eggs when he got in! so quickly I rushed out to the local garage where the owner took full advantage of my problem and charged me a small fortune for eggs which I duly paid to rectify my predicament.
After working for 2 years at the Old Black Lion Hotel in Hay on Wye I was qualified as a chef so I started looking for a new kitchen to specialise. I went to work in the Lake District as a Chef de Partie for a busy summer season, living in a staff house in Bowness on Windermere right next to the Beatrix Potter museum, walking distance from the Lake itself. I worked at the Queens Head in Troutbeck an award winning Hotel, we won Best Dining Pub in Britain award whilst I was there.

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It was great to be in such a busy kitchen, we had ten chefs and everything was cooked onsite. Breads were baked fresh daily, desserts and hand made chocolates and fudge were a speciality. It was an amazing hardworking environment with a brutal 7-11 shift pattern on a 6 day week. I used to work 3 weeks without a day off then drive back to Wales after a 17 hour shift!
We partied as hard as we worked and after 6 months my father raised his concerns after a marathon 18 hour shift and 5 hour drive back to Wales, he couldn’t believe the state on my zombie like skeletal frame. Needless to say I didn’t go back and started work closer to home at Llangoed Hall.
Here I was a Chef de Partie working the pastry section. I got to work with a talented chef head chef Ben Davies who gained a Michelin star for the hall we were the first and only place in Wales with a star back then.

Llangoed Hall

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It was a great experience and in a short time I learnt a lot. Organization, cleanliness and order, no flying by the seat of your pants in this environment. Precision with clinical execution, every dish the same as the last. I respect this sort of cooking highly disciplined, no going off piste here. Timing is everything, methodical and restrained. The only problem was the lack of customers, having gone from a high volume kitchen to a country house hotel where we’d barely do in a week what the Queens head did in a day. Now I know all about horses for courses and the differences between the two places were cosmic in scale. The quality and standard of cooking so far apart, but my issue was putting all this time and effort and care into my preparations just to pour them down the drain or throw them into a wheelie bin was heartbreaking. 

It was then I met the owner of the Griffin Inn Llyswen, Richard Stockton he suggested popping in to have a chat, there are some people in life who seem to have natural charisma, they have a magnetism a lure, after an hour with this chap I was convinced that I was gonna be the next big thing and that the Griffin was going to be my platform. I later found out that he used to be a Jaguar salesman! There was just something about him he had a mischievous glint in his eye, was hugely knowledgeable and an affable genuine sort. The day I met him he was dressed in a waist coat, chequered shirt & crevatte he looked like a country gent but was pulling pints at the bar. I duly put my notice in at the “Hall” and moved up the road to Llyswen. I spent over five years working at the Griffin and “The Boss” as we all called Richard (and still do in fact), was hugely influential in those formative years. The Boss was undoubtedly a catalyst for all things food related he was a very able cook him self and wasn’t afraid to get stuck in beside us. He was a willing participant in all manner of meaty preparation, especially during game season. He would often stand out side the old game larder in the car park removing a pelt from a freshly killed wild deer or plucking & drawing pheasants, wood pigeon or partridge. During the Spring and summer months he would be scaling and gutting fish, bent over his old board with a knife and sharpening stone by his side the old knife warn down to a thin hook shape but still sharp as a razor! He was a keen fishermen and new all the local spots on the Wye for Salmon & Trout. During game season he traded his rod for a gun and helped keep the game larder well stocked. He taught me a lot and is a true mentor and a good friend. He shaped my career and young mind and has left an indelible impression and work ethic that will undoubtedly stay with me for life. He saw in me back then something that I didn’t really know I had, I hold him solely responsible for lighting the furnace that is my passion for all things cooking and food related.

Richard Stockton (right) with his chum the Reverend Ian Charlesworth aka The Parson and Publican!
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The Griffin Inn Llyswen
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