An interview with Duncan Barham, head chef at The Grove, Narberth, Pembrokeshire

I recently decided that I wanted to find out more about some of the people behind the plethora of restaurants and food businesses that we enjoy in South Wales. With this in mind, I interviewed Duncan Barham, head chef at the award-winning restaurant at The Grove in Narberth, Pembrokeshire, where he devises seasonal menus based on fresh, locally sourced produce. Read on to find out what Duncan thinks about Michelin starred restaurants, why he loves social media, and why he doesn’t get many invitations to dinner parties!

Duncan Barham. Photo: KIRAN RIDLEY

How long have you been at the Grove and how did you end up there?

I’ve been here for two years, and before I moved to Wales I was in Suffolk in country house hotels, where I gained most of my training and experience. I moved to Pembrokeshire about four years ago, and worked elsewhere for a couple of years, before coming to the Grove.

Is it going well so far?

Really well, yes. Things just seem to keep moving up and moving forward.

And have you been able to put your own stamp on it since you’ve been there?

Absolutely, I have complete carte blanche over the menus that we do.

Did you want to be a chef from an early age?

No, not really! When I was at school and doing my A levels I really wanted to get into working in the sports industry in one way or another, so I went to college and did sports science, and then got half way through it and realised it’s actually very difficult finding a job in the sports industry without going into teaching. Jobs are few and far between, so I realised I needed to do something different and I’ve always been interested in food and cooking – which I got from my Mum, really. She’s a really good cook and always cooked fresh, really good food, and we were a family that sat down for dinner together every night, and the meals during the day were a big part of family life. I guess that inspired me a bit subconsciously, so when I realised I needed something to do, that was what prompted me to take a trainee chef’s job.

So, who inspires you? It sounds as if your Mum has been a big inspiration to you.

Yes, my Mum absolutely, and my Dad as well – they’re both very good cooks. But chef wise, I guess anybody who’s got a Michelin star. A big inspiration is going to Michelin starred restaurants and seeing their style of food. Anyone who shows that sort of passion and dedication has inspired me to work really hard to try and achieve that sort of goal.

Is a Michelin star something you’d like to aim for yourself?

Yes, it’s always in the back of my mind. In the past year we did really well in the Good Food Guide, who ranked us alongside a lot of Michelin starred restaurants. We were noticed by Michelin last year too, so we know that we’re on their radar, and also the AA – we’re working towards three rosettes. The chefs I’ve worked for in the past have also been a pretty big inspiration. I’ve developed my style, having learnt from their style.

You enjoy foraging and trying different local produce. What’s been your best find?

The coastal herbs. Obviously Pembrokeshire is surrounded by coast, so just finding out all the things that you can use, that you walk past or drive past every day, things like sea aster, sea purslane, rock samphire, all these sorts of things. I’m not sure people even know they’re there, but now I’ve scratched away at the surface, I’ve found all these amazing things, and they give you all the different flavours and textures, and it’s really interesting.

What’s your favourite dish on your menu at the moment, to cook and to eat?

The crab, probably. It’s local crab, that’s caught in St Bride’s Bay, and it’s really sweet and perfectly fresh crab meat. We do a pickled pear with it, and an avocado emulsion and it’s just a very light, spring dish, with really clean, clear flavour.

Do you enjoy cooking at home still, or is it very much the day job now?

It’s the day job I’m afraid. I avoid cooking at home – it’s a case of when I’m off, I’m off! That’s my chance to get out and experience other people’s food.

Do you find that if friends or family cook for you, knowing what you do, they’re very nervous?

Yes! And it really annoys me! Because I appreciate how difficult it is to cook at home – it’s fine for us in a professional kitchen, we have all the equipment we need, I’ve got somebody doing all the washing up for me, and I know at home you don’t have all of that, so I know it’s a lot more difficult! So if somebody takes the time to cook for me, whether it’s beans on toast, or a bit of scrambled egg, or whatever it is, I love it! But yeah, people get so nervous and so worried that it’s not going to be good enough, then don’t bother, so I hardly ever get invited to dinner parties!

Aside from your own place, what do you think are the best places to eat in South Wales?

I’ve recently eaten at the White Hart Village Inn, just outside Usk – absolutely fantastic! Adam and his chefs there are doing an amazing job. It’s a really relaxed place, but the food is a notch above – it really is amazing. Also, the Stackpole Inn, just up the road from me. It’s really good, old fashioned pub grub and I love it there.

And what about further afield. You mentioned Michelin starred places – do you have any favourites?

Yeah – loads! I try and get to London a couple of times a year with a group of ‘cheffy’ friends, and The Ledbury is probably the best meal I’ve ever eaten – they’ve just been named 14th best restaurant in the world. Pollen Street Social was good too. They’re all good in their own way, all slightly different, but probably the Ledbury would be my favourite.

And who would you most like to have dinner with?

Don’t know if my girlfriend is going to be too happy with this, but it would probably be Kylie!

You’re on Twitter! Has social media affected your business and how you market the Grove?

Yes, it’s free advertising, so it surprises me that a lot of companies don’t do it, because it’s free, and it’s instant. You can get to your target audience in seconds. If I put a new dish on, I can post a picture of it and it’s there, and thousands of people have seen it. If I’m thinking of doing something new, or putting a special offer on, first port of call to let people know about it is Twitter and FB.

Have you had any bad experiences?

No! It’s always been really positive.

What do you think about food bloggers?

I might just be lucky, but I’ve only had good experiences! A lot of people have been on Twitter and seen what we’re doing, especially bloggers, so it gets the interest going, which is why we go on Twitter. People notice what we’re doing, they come and see us, and so far we’ve only had good experience and good feedback.

With thanks to Duncan for his time and for being such a pleasure to interview – and here’s hoping that his experience with this food blogger has also been a positive one!

You can follow Duncan on Twitter at www.twitter.com/chefdunk

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