Chef of The Lord Crewe Arms, Simon Hicks on Discovering Grouse and Cooking for the Grand Prix
We caught up with the Aussie chef
What food culture did you grow up in?
When I moved down to Adelaide it was very pan-Asian, as Australia was back then – we’re talking mid-90s to 2000s. It had that big Asian influence, but not as you know it.
It’s quite different. You look at Sexy Fish in Berkeley Square in London, and it’s sort of what we were doing 20 years ago, to be honest. I worked in a little pub in Adelaide with a British girl, and we used to go down to Adelaide Central Market, a fantastic food market, and build the menu daily.
Where else did you work?
When I was a kid I used to do the Grand Prix every year, the Melbourne Cup, and then we used to go and do the V8 supercars as well. That taught me how to get 600 meals out in 10 minutes.
I was lucky in that respect; having a lot of different jobs meant I saw every side of catering. Moving on from that, it was the Sofitel in Melbourne that started shaping me. There was 40-odd chefs on the rota, full of internationals, a five-star hotel.
It was the first time I wore long white aprons, neckerchiefs, hats and spoke French in the kitchen. I found it a little bit intimidating at first coming from my humble beginnings and just wearing trousers and a t-shirt in the kitchen.
Did you educate yourself too?
I used to read a lot of books as a kid. When I was in that first hotel, I learned how to cook by reading Australian Gourmet Traveller magazine.
There was no internet. I used to go down and get every edition of the Gourmet Traveller, read it cover-to-cover three times, and regurgitate recipes out of there.
I used to always go to my head chef and say, ‘Chef, why don’t we do this, this and this?’ As a head chef now I’d find that kind of annoying, but as a young chef I thought I was being pro-active. It’s really exciting, as a young chef at a big hotel, to see one of your dishes go on the menu. You’re pretty chuffed.
What brought you to the UK?
It was just something I always wanted to do. I grew up listening to a lot of U2 and The Cranberries, so I always really really wanted to go to Ireland, but I couldn’t get the visa. So my plan was to come over on a two-year working visa and do six months in every country.
I did the Scottish part at Prestonfield House in Edinburgh, which was amazing, and then I went to Belfast. I met my wife there and ended up in London for the next eight years.
Speaking as an outsider, how did the food traditions of each country differ to you?
Working in Scotland was very classically French-orientated, which was great for me because I learned all the old traditional sauces and everything.
When I was at Sofitel, one of the chefs came from Pied a Terre, the two-star in Charlotte Street in London. I got exposed to funkier stuff, so when I went to Edinburgh it was like winding the clock back, but it was good for me.
It was hard graft, to be honest, and the living conditions and the wages compared to Australia was a big eye-opener as well. It was the first time I’d seen European produce like girolles, so I found that really exciting.
I’d never seen a grouse before in my life, or Scottish venison. Even Scottish salmon – you hear about it, but it’s interesting for a country Aussie boy. It was all brilliant.
Is there anything you’d like to bring from Australia that we’ve not picked up yet?
Other than Vegemite? Every time I go back to Melbourne, you see more of the London scene there these days. I’m not sure if Australia is losing its identity a little bit, because it’s very Shoreditch-style trendy places if you know what I mean.
I think food trends are now global – there was never an EasyJet when I was growing up. My mum makes rissoles and I gave them to the boys for staff lunch one day and they loved it. Basically, it’s just minced meat – my mum puts dried chicken noodle soup in there for the salt and the texture – and it’s basically a burger patty with an Aussie twist.
They put a lot of ketchup in it and it’s a really lovely thing to have on mashed potatoes. It sounds crazy but it’s something I grew up with. It’s a packet of Twisties and a decent can of sarsaparilla for me.
How do you engage kids with food without going all Jamie Oliver and throwing turkey twizzlers in a skip?
It is hard to get the kids into it, it really is. We’ve just got to get them to the restaurants more and experience the thrill of it all. It’s got to come from the mums and dads as well – I’ve started doing cookery classes and I was making lunch the other day, and they all stopped and asked me how to poach an egg. Just the basics, like how to make good bread, how to poach an egg, how to do whatever. I think that’s the thing we miss out on these days. It’s the interest at home – it’s so easy to go down the Co-Op and grab a pizza. It takes two seconds to fry up a piece of meat and do some seasonal vegetables, you know?
The Gatehouse at the Lord Crewe is a great platform to share what you know about food too.
Yeah, I’m doing the beginners’ pudding course and I’m just going to do a quick meals one. You get home and your partner might say that there’s nothing in and you need to go to the shops, but you make a meal from what’s in the fridge. I know it’s hard when you don’t know – I’d be the same if someone said, ‘Look, my computer’s broken, how do I fix it?’ If we could just show people what they could do with their weekly shop and their leftovers – especially leftovers.
What else have you got planned for The Gatehouse?
Guest chefs – I want to do more North East chefs. I went to The Staith House last week, when they had James Mackenzie from The Pipe and Glass. It was nice to meet John Calton, and I was really chuffed because I got to chat to James and he actually knew about us and voted for us to get the Catey, the hospitality award, which was nice. I went to the The Patricia a couple of weeks ago, and if I can get Nick Grieves up here it gives him great exposure and generates a North East buzz.
Food heroes? Tim Hughes – he’s the Chef Director the Caprice group, so he looks after the Ivy, Scott’s, he looks after 20-odd restaurants. That’s why I admire the guy. He just does not miss a beat.
Essential cookbook? Tartine by Chad Robertson. It’s my favourite book in the world, man. It’s a geezer in San Francisco who’s a surfer-baker, and he makes the best bread in the world.
Favourite bit of kitchen tech? I’m not an overly techy kind of guy – I think everyone should have a pastry scraper and a good spatula.
What one thing always puts you off a restaurant? Places that think they’re better than they are. Does that sound mean? I’ll eat anywhere mate, to be honest with you. It’s usually other guests that piss me off.
Guilty pleasures? Just bread and butter. We make sourdough every day and it’s hard not to put an inch of butter on the top of it and smash it in. Everyone mugs off tinned meats, but I think they’re alright. Really bad hot dogs. The cheaper the better.
Best advice you’ve been given in the kitchen? Taste what you do, and don’t be scared.
Favourite can’t-be-bothered meal? Yoghurt and granola. That’s my dinner every night.
Last supper? Same again, mate. Nah, a half-burned sausage off the barbecue, in fresh bread with ketchup. Honestly, that’s my idea of heaven.