Master of the Hall, Rockliffe Hall | Living North

Interview: Aaron Craig of Rockliffe Hall

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One of Rockliffe Hall’s Executive Chefs, Aaron Craig turned to cooking after an early career in the military, but this later start certainly hasn’t hindered his success
‘I was 23 years old by the time I actually started cooking professionally and it was a long hard slog’

Congratulations on becoming a Master Chef of Great Britain. Can you tell us a little more about the association?

It’s an elite group of around 250 chefs. You have to meet certain criteria – you have to have worked at a three AA Rosette level restaurant or higher, and have won a number of competitions. You’re expected to develop, train and inspire young chefs, which I do a lot anyway so that comes quite naturally to me – I like to push my team to learn as much as possible.

How do you become a Master Chef?

I was invited down to the annual lunch last year and talked to the other guests about joining the association. It’s a long, back-and-forth process which involves providing references and showing a whole range of culinary skills – it took about three months to be accepted as a full member. 

Why do you think it’s important to develop and inspire young chefs?

It’s more important than ever at the moment because there’s a lack of aspiring chefs in the industry. We try to inspire young people to cook, both at the hotel and by going to local colleges, which all started when we had a shortage of chefs at Rockliffe Hall about five years ago. I pass on my knowledge and experience to budding chefs, as it was passed on to me when I was younger. I do lots of masterclasses, cookery demonstrations and I often invite students to come and see the hotel’s kitchens while I cook them all lunch. I find it very rewarding and often learn a few little gems of information from them as well – that’s the great thing about cookery, you’re always learning something new.

Which chefs did you look up to when you were younger?

Growing up in Ireland, it would have to be Paul Rankin because he was a local guy who had been really successful – I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to work with him before I left Ireland. I was also inspired by Heston Blumenthal, who I worked with at the three Michelin-starred The Fat Duck.

Which rising stars on the North East’s food scene should we look out for?

Danny Parker at Jesmond Dene House is doing really well, as are Tommy Banks at The Black Swan at Oldstead and Kenny Atkinson at House of Tides. When I was younger, most aspiring chefs had to go down to London to learn the trade, but now you can stay in the North East to do your training, and people even travel up from the South to start their careers here. There are so many excellent places in the region that you just don’t need to go anywhere else, which is brilliant to see.

What was your own culinary training like?

I came to cookery quite late really. I was in the army as an infantry soldier but I got injured and had to spend some time in hospital. When I came out, I followed another path – cooking had always been a passion of mine so that was the natural route to take. I was 23 years old by the time I actually started cooking professionally and it was a long hard slog – I wish I’d started at a younger age. But being in the kitchen is very like being in the military in many ways, including the long, often anti-social hours and difficult challenges you have to face, so I felt quite prepared for those aspects of the job. 

Have you always been a foodie?

Yeah, I was the only boy in school who took a home economics GCSE, and I’ve had a passion for food and cookery ever since. When I started in the army, I was only sixteen so I wasn’t old enough to go on patrol during tours; instead I was sent to the kitchens to help the chefs. That was probably the point when I knew I really wanted to cook. 

How did your culinary career progress?

My first job was at the Blue Lion in East Witton. I was married by the time I came out of the army so I didn’t want to go down to London for work. I learnt as much as possible from working in restaurants in the Yorkshire Dales and North East. I also did staggered periods of unpaid work in kitchens with chefs such as Alan Murchison at L’Ortolan near Reading, Tom Aikens at Tom’s Kitchen and then Heston Blumenthal at The Fat Duck, where I worked for three months. This variety of experience really helped me to quickly learn new skills.

What do you bring to the dining experience at the Brasserie at Rockliffe Hall?

We try and celebrate local produce as much as possible, so diners will see lots of local ingredients on the menu which they probably won’t have come across before. I really like supporting our producers and promoting what they’re doing.

Which local producers are you particularly excited about?

One producer I’m really enjoying working with is Lovesome Oil. I only found out about the company about three weeks ago and it’s run by a guy called Ollie who produces this fantastic virgin rapeseed oil on a farm just five miles away from Rockliffe Hall. Made in small batches, it’s great in salad dressings – I’ve got rid of all the olive oils we used to have in the kitchen and now I just use Lovesome.

What’s your favourite ingredient to cook with at the moment?

We’ve just started growing our own wild mushrooms. We’re currently serving a dish which involves chargrilling the mushrooms while they’re still alive on the log, and then serving them with the local rapeseed oil and truffle on toast.

What advice would you give to aspiring chefs?

Keep at it – it’s a tough industry to work in. A lot of young chefs want to learn everything really quickly and start to move up the ladder straight away. You can’t immediately become a head chef; it’s much better to learn as much as you can and stick at a role for five or six years – soak up all the knowledge and experience. 

What is your ideal three-course meal?

It would have to start with local scallops. We do a dish in the Brasserie which combines scallops from the North East with belly pork from the Yorkshire Dales served with shavings of truffle. For my main course I’d like a nice fillet of halibut or turbot, followed by a really good bread and butter pudding for dessert – simple but delicious when cooked really well.

 

Rockliffe Hall Hotel, Golf & Spa, 

Hurworth on Tees, Darlington DL2 2DU

01325 729999 www.rockliffehall.com

Published in: July 2019

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