A Chat with Ashley Palmer-Watts at Dinner; a Fat Duck Brasserie

Yuuki Omura - 23/08/2012

18 months on from the eagerly awaited opening at the Mandarin Oriental in Knightsbridge, getting a dinner reservation at Dinner by Heston still remains a herculean task, with it only increasing in popularity after hitting the headlines again, attaining a very respectable 9th position in The World's 50 Best Restaurants 2012 sponsored by San Pellegrino & Aqua Panna.

Armed with a brigade of 50 chefs, Ashley Palmer-Watts continues to produce modern dishes inspired by forgotten historic British recipes utilising only the best local seasonal produce Britain has to offer. And just like the Fat Duck, no expense has been spared, from the elegant but dramatic dining room designed by Adam Tihany, to the kitchen where diners can happily observe the chrome and steel rotating rotisserie designed by the Swiss watchmaker Ebel, which was commissioned solely for the purpose of caramelizing the pineapples to complete their signature dish, Tipsy Cake, a highlight of the evening ahead.

But before I could tuck into this highly anticipated meal, I had a rare opportunity to have a quick chat with Ashley himself!

Q: Ashley, firstly a big congratulation on your achievement in your first Michelin star and attaining the 9th Position in The World's 50 Best Restaurants 2012 I did however want to ask before discussing about your achievements to date, what made you and Heston want to rediscover British cuisine?

A: I think every chef finds inspiration from something. When we started researching, we discovered that there were many things that Britain isn’t known for. For example, the techniques in dishes like crayfish pudding inside an intestine with the roe of the lobster where the crayfish runs through the pudding and is then tied up and fried; that’s challenging now for a chef to do let alone few hundred years ago! We thought “wow, this is amazing” and wondered where did it go? And this occurred to us many times throughout our research on historical British recipes. When you can be patriotic, there’s a lot of meaning, and that’s why the concept of re-inventing historical British cuisine interested us.

Q: Having worked for close to eight years at the Fat Duck, have you found any subtle differences or similarities working at Dinner?

A: Definitely, at the Fat Duck anything goes in a sense that we first work out what we want to do and then we find out how to do it, and do it for forty servings each sitting. There have literally been only two or three times where we realised it could not be possible to do a particular dish for forty covers. However, it’s the reverse here in Dinner. We work on a dish knowing what the capability of the team is. Whilst we have a great team with 50 chefs here, we can only do so much. If we wanted to do something like what we do in the Fat Duck at Dinner, we’d need 200 chefs! And there are similarities to Fat Duck as well. Anyone in our team can throw ideas into the pond and that’s how we work. No idea is seen as a stupid idea. And we try to make everything ourselves, which can go as far as making our own vinegar, and we make it side-by-side with Heston in our lab. We constantly taste ingredients and dishes and look at everything.

Q: It has now been four months since Dinner by Heston was voted 9th Best in the World. What is your view on The World's 50 Best Restaurants List?

A: “50 Best” is such a global recognition and it has been great for our business. The Michelin guide will reach to a specific niche group of “foodies” but when you say “World’s Best 50 Restaurant”, it puts things into perspective and everyone can understand. I think it’s a snapshot of food of the time. It’s about exposure and interest, and showing your cooking to the world. Fundamentally everyone has to enjoy it or else they won’t vote for you so there may be a variety of types of restaurants in the Top 50.

Q: Have this achievement along with the first Michelin star at such a short period come as a surprise?

A:Yes, we did not expect this at all! Our original idea was to open a Fat Duck take on a brasserie and this really was it. Obviously, it’s not just a brasserie in a traditional sense as there’s a lot more technique into the food behind its simplicity such as the way we cook, the balance of flavours and textures, the temperature of the dishes and the way we generally think about food. Obviously it’s a massive restaurant, completely different to the Fat Duck, but we’ve been as busy as ever and definitely never expect all these achievements would come in such a short period of time.

Q: What do you think are the most important elements that have made Dinner so successful?

A: Firstly, I think the two most important things about dining in general today is that the food needs to taste good and you need to get value for what you pay. You need to know you got something out of it, whether your meal cost you £10 or £100. The inspiration and rediscovery of British cuisine was a significantly important element as it provoked a lot of interest. The restaurant also is very professional yet comfortable with character and I think all these are some of the many elements that have made it successful.

Q: One last question, has the menu evolved much since the opening?

A: Yes, it changes according to season on what is available of course. We’ve started running with a new dish now for a week, preparing a few portions only for each service to start working it into the kitchen to get the chefs and staff to familiarize with the dish and identify any challenges as it eases into the menu. Tonight we’ve put in something new to the menu and it has been inspired from three traditional English dishes - cucumber soup, lobster and cucumber soup and lobster salad. We love cucumber because we as Englishmen don’t use it much other than slices in salad or a sandwich. The lobster is of course locally sourced Cornish lobster. It’s simple but there’s a lot of technique and this will stay until the lobster season is over. This is just one example and as I said before, just like at Fat Duck, any team member can suggest ideas on ingredients in season and that’s how I see the menu evolves.

Thank you again to Ashley for sparing his time, and a big congratulation on the achievements to date. It’s great to add another fine restaurant to the London dining scene and I’m sure Ashley and his team will continue enjoying success in the same stride.