Chef Q&A: Craig Atchinson, The Grand, York

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Craig Atchinson, The Grand, York
The three-AA Rosette Head Chef talks foraging in Polish woodland, how to covertly build a kitchen garden, and why liquid nitrogen is an essential part of a modern kitchen
‘We build really good relationships with our suppliers. We’re so close that we can let them know exactly what we’re looking for and we’ll work together to get it’

You started at Redworth Hall in Newton Aycliffe under Craig Nichols. How did he influence your cooking? 
I don’t think he influenced my cooking style if I compare it to what I cook today; we’re talking quite a long time ago, and food has changed massively since then. It was very classical, very French-led: lots of French terminology, French items on the menu, because that was the done thing. Everything was stacked in the middle of the plate, as high as you could possibly get it, with a jus served on the side. It was very old-school in terms of presentation, very traditional.

Is the shift to a simpler, stripped-back style reflective of your confidence in the produce you’re working with? 
Absolutely. We build really good relationships with our suppliers. We’re so close that we can let them know exactly what we’re looking for and we’ll work together to get it; the ageing of meat, for example, or a certain size of a piece of salsify. We’ve got foragers, which we never had back then, and we can be very particular about what we need and they can go and get it straight from the forest or the field. We build those relationships and I think that’s one of the most important things in modern kitchens.

Do you forage yourself?
I used to; now, being city-based, it’s a bit more difficult because there’s not much opportunity. I’m a keen forager, really. With my wife being Polish as well, we do quite a lot when we travel – her family have this house in a forest by a lake, and we go there and pick mushrooms and go fishing. It’s a great way of life. Unfortunately we don’t have the luxury in York to just go out and pick wild garlic.

It’s a natural extension of your interest in gardening too.
Exactly. When I was at the Talbot in Malton, my role before this one, we built our own garden. The owners just wanted it to be flowerbeds and little trimmed hedges, but we decided to plant a few things without asking them. We kept planting more and ended up with this beautiful vegetable and herb garden. I didn’t want to create just parsley and carrots; we wanted to grow something a bit different, something that would really have an impact on our menu, so we stayed away from the normal herb beds and grew things which we knew we’d use a lot of, things which we’d forage for: fresh borage flowers and sweet cicely, meadowsweet from seeds we bought on Amazon.

Putting plants like sweet cicely and borage on a menu seems like a nod to a very traditional kind of British cuisine – how do you square that with your modern techniques? It feels like a collision of city and country.
I think you’re right. What people forget about these ingredients that chefs are just starting to present on their menus is that they’re actually age-old ingredients that have been used for centuries and forgotten. We try to make our dishes familiar; there’s always a familiar ingredient on there, and then we pair that with something a little bit unusual and put our own stamp on it and maybe use a technique that’s a little bit unusual. We don’t try to be so gimmicky with our menu that people don’t know what they’re reading, I don’t think that’s a good move. It does need to be familiar, but with a level of uncertainty: ‘Oh, what’s that? That’s interesting.’ But not too far-out.

Your cryogenic Bloody Mary with liquid nitrogen is a nod to the more theatrical end of things. What does that kind of presentation add to the eating experience? 
I think these days it’s incredibly important, as long as it’s got some value to what you do. If you’re just blowing smoke under a table and it’s got no impact on flavour or what the food represents, you’re just kidding yourself really. We use the nitrogen as a tool as well. We don’t put nitrogen in every dish, but it’s used in quite a lot of dishes. We dip the chicken liver parfait in nitrogen before we dip it in the jelly – the jelly sets instantly, and it’s a really clean finish every time.

How do you go about recruiting? A lot of chefs are very concerned about the skills shortage in the industry. 
Absolutely. For me, the biggest solution to the chef shortage – and there is a national crisis – is that you’ve got to try to keep hold of your guys. Getting them in is the easy bit; keeping them is the hardest bit. There’s so many opportunities and roles out there for people, so we’ve got to give them a good enough reason to stay. We’re quite fortunate that it’s rare that we do have a vacancy. I’m not saying I’ve got a pile of CVs on my desk, but I think the guys who are here are in it for the long term. We don’t have many job-hoppers.

What do you think is at the nub of the skills shortage?
We’re scratching our heads as to what it is, really – and when I say ‘we’, I’m talking nationally, every Head Chef and every employer in the country. There’s so much available on the TV now, all the professional cookery shows, you’d think there’d be a massive interest in people coming into the industry. I don’t know whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing, but I think it dresses the industry up a little bit. When people do come into a professional kitchen and they’ve been watching The Great British Menu, for example, they think, ‘Well this isn’t what I expected – I’m peeling spuds, this isn’t much fun.’ I think some don’t realise that you’ve got to really work hard. It’s got a lot better since I was a Commis Chef, and there’s some good employers out there, but you’ve got to work hard to get to the top.

The Grand Hotel & Spa 
Station Rise, York YO1 6GD 
01904 380038 
www.thegrandyork.co.uk

Published in: January 2017

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