It’s an exciting week at the Park House, as they showcase the work of their new team with some fantastic events. Following on from my interview with head chef, Jonathan Edwards, I was lucky enough to have an exclusive blog opportunity to interview their new Consultant Chef, the Michelin starred Roger Jones, from The Harrow at Little Bedwyn and to find out a bit more about his experiences and how he’s going to use them to achieve the ambitions that he and the team at the Park House have for their future.
You’ve already got a very successful restaurant in the shape of the Harrow. What attracted you to take on the Consultant Chef role at the Park House?
If you just walk past the Park House, it just looks like a fantastic building and most people fall in love with it as soon as they see it. I’ve been going down there for quite a few years now for the rugby and got to know Adam (Pledger – owner of the Park House) quite well, and we just talked gibberish a few times over a few beers after the rugby, and then suddenly we decided we wanted to do something together! Cardiff needs a Michelin star. It’s such a lovely city, and it’s missing top end food. To me, it’s just an ideal venue to try, and it’s a dream to get it in Cardiff!
What do you think of the restaurant scene in Cardiff?
I don’t eat out in Cardiff often – although when I am in Wales I will go to places like the Walnut Tree and the Hardwick, mainly because I know them all and because of the reputation they have. I don’t have that much spare time, so I do try and go to places I know is going to be good. You rarely hear of many restaurants in Cardiff, though.
Do you think that with the plans you have for the Park House, you’ll be filling a gap or setting a trend?
Hopefully setting a trend. If you look at places that have good restaurants, like Abergavenny, one starts off and they all go there. Hopefully by us putting the Park House under the spotlight, others will try and knock us down. Once we’ve shown them what we can do, other people will try and go one better – and good luck to them, because the more competition we have, the better, and the more on our toes we’ve got to be. Yes, we want to start a trend. I really don’t understand why there hasn’t been before – but the level that we want to provide food at is going to be very high. It’s not an easy thing to keep doing it day in day out, and we want to do that around the Park House, not just in the restaurant, but in the bar, in the Vanilla Rooms, and on the terrace, with an offering like you’d have if you went to Le Manoir or Lucknam Park. Everywhere you go, the quality is the same and that’s what we want to do.
As a chef, do you get involved with front of house, or is it all about the food?
I own my own business, with my wife, so I’m front of house, back of house and I clean the toilets if the staff don’t turn up! I’m very much hands on everywhere, a bit like Adam is, except he’d like to be a chef but he can’t cook that well(!) but he thinks he can! I also work for Decanter wine magazine, and I’ve a huge knowledge on the wine side. I find it quite easy to match food and wine. The whole experience has to be about the food, the wine, the atmosphere – because it’s about an all round experience. Everything has to be perfect. We ate in numerous places and looked at their positives and also where we could improve on what we thought wasn’t quite right. Certainly we’ve taken the positives from everywhere – that’s what we’ve done at the Harrow, and hopefully we can do it at the Park House.
With your wine knowledge, food and drink pairing is something you’re really passionate about. Is this a route you’ve always wanted to go down?
When I was very young I was the Head Chef preparing state banquets for the Queen at age 21, so I was very lucky. When we were looking at menus, we’d sit down with all the equerries and go through each dish we were going to serve and we’d also have the wines there. Bearing in mind this was back in the early 1980s, the only decent wine in Britain then was things like first growth Bordeaux and vintage Champagne and white Burgundy, so I had the privilege of drinking absolutely amazing wines. I was trained very early on to match food and wine, which was very unusual back in the 80s because wine wasn’t a big thing in Britain, but obviously being a state banquet, you had to get the wine right, so that’s where I started, and we carried it on. We have visited Australia many times starting in the late 1990s, and they were so far ahead of Britain we just loved the idea of matching every dish on the menu with a glass of wine. Ten years ago we were the first in the UK doing it, merely by going over to Australia and seeing what they were doing. They’re happy I did it and I’m quite happy to say where we got the idea from. Every Michelin restaurant is now doing it. They’ll all say it was their own idea but it’s based on Australia doing it in the 1990s and early 2000s. When you do food and wine matching and you do it by the glass, as a restaurateur, you always panic that you’re going to lose bottle sales – but you don’t! You’ll increase wine sales by double. People will drink a lot more, they’ll spend a lot more per unit, because a glass of wine is a lot cheaper than a bottle, so if someone’s looking at a bottle of wine costing £58 they’ll think it’s too expensive, but £8 a glass is affordable – and that’s the whole ethos of matching wines, you can try something. Possibly you don’t want to splash out on something that you may not like, but at least a glass is just a glass. At the Harrow we’ll go to the extreme and we’ll open £300 or £400 bottles of wine, and give people a one off chance to try a very small measure at £30, which they would never try anywhere else, but they can say they tried it, they liked it and they might go and buy it – or they enjoy it but decide they’re not going to spend that sort of money again. As a restaurateur, you’ve got to allow customers to do that, and give them the opportunity to try things without overcharging them.
How does the Consultant Chef role work in practice?
Over the last 5 weeks, each week one of the chefs from the Park House has come up and spent 3 or 4 days at the Harrow, so they’ve been indoctrinated into the Harrow’s ethos, which is a different style to a lot of places. We work in a very quiet kitchen, very controlled, everyone’s hands on. My head chef’s been with me since he was 17, that’s 14 years now, he started as a pot wash, my commis chef’s been with me 2 years since he was 16, the previous commis spent 4 years here and she left when she was 19, so the kitchen team stay here until they’re ready to go or take over from me! We’ve done that with the Park House, obviously on a very short basis of just 3 or 4 days up here. This week, the point is to work with the whole team for a whole week, check to see where they are and how much more training we need to do. Jon is a brilliant chef and the whole team are very keen to learn – they’re going to go a long way. They would have gone a long way without me, but they just need that push really, to know how far away they are from getting to the level that we need. You never know how good you are until you see what the level is, and I just guide them – but the improvement I’ve seen already is immense. It’s not because they weren’t good enough, they just needed a little push! It’s like a rugby player – intensifying the training.
When I spoke to Jon he said that one of his biggest learnings from you had been about the produce – and that if you get the right quality produce, you really don’t need to mess around with the food. How do you balance this with still being innovative, particularly with ‘molecular’ cooking being so popular at the moment?
With the molecular stuff, unless you’re Heston who does it perfectly, or somewhere like El Bulli, you’ve got to be so careful – if you’ve been watching the Great British Menu recently, you can see how people get tripped up. If you’re not absolutely qualified to do it you’re going to make yourself look like a complete fool, and I don’t think personally that molecular food will be around for much longer. It certainly will for the big boys like Heston – I think it’s absolutely incredible when he does it, but the Michelin guide are very much against it. You see these guys that work for Heston for 6 months and then they’re rushing to open their own similar place, and it just doesn’t work. The whole point is we’ve got to get back to real food, real quality, eating what it says – it says turbot, you want to taste the best turbot flavour, you want to get that perfect taste you get from just grilling a piece of turbot. Or cooking a lobster straight from West Wales. There’s nothing better than that. You can’t beat it. I think people need to be a bit wary. A few years ago it was foams with everything – that’s gone now, thank god! These things come and go. Good quality food will always be there. One of the issues we have in Wales is there are so many mums and grannies who cook brilliant food in Wales, and that’s why you don’t have so many great restaurants. I was brought up in West Wales, where you catch your own fish, you went cockling or to get your lobsters or whatever it was. A lot of people are a bit self-sufficient in Wales, they don’t feel they need to go out to restaurants – that’s probably the biggest battle we have in Wales, there are too many good home cooks.
What’s your personal favourite dish on the new menu at the Park House?
The lobster fish finger! We’ve got to get each dish perfected before we can say “this is it!”, because you only need to have one customer come in and say it wasn’t quite right, and that’s it, we’ve lost it, so we will get each dish perfected before we fly the flag – and once it’s perfected it will have my signature next to it, so although I won’t be here, it will be as good as you’d have it if I was here.
You clearly like a challenge – you’ve done some amazing charity challenges including a world record attempt. What’s your next challenge, food related or otherwise, going to be?
I’ve got so many charity things happening in the next 2 months which are all more to do with food, I’ve got Ty Hafan at the Park, which is July 16th, three Welsh Michelin star chefs coming to the Park House to raise £10,000 for Ty Hafan, so there’s me, Hywel Jones from Lucknam Park, Richard Davies from the Manor House, they’re all Welsh, all have Michelin stars and all have restaurants or hotels in Wiltshire. We’re all coming down to Cardiff, and then there’s a few other charity events going on, including lunch at Ty Hafan this Wednesday lunchtime, where I’ll cook for all of the staff and helpers– it gives them a bit of a respite from what they do and a bit of a treat, but I’m not doing anything stupid at the moment – like running the London Marathon tied to 49 others! We did have a plan of doing cooking while going round doing the marathon, but we weren’t allowed to have heated things, so we’ll have to think about a different thing for the marathon next year. I was also made Vice Chairman of The Master Chefs of Great Britain last year so this takes me into colleges and schools and gets me involved in numerous other challenges.
You said you think there’s room for a Michelin star in Cardiff – is that a real ambition for the Park House in the longer term?
There’s no harm in aiming for something, and we will try hard and do our best. There are steps to getting there, and there are other steps on the way, for example we’ll go into the AA rosette scheme. We’ll just take care of everything else, but it’s not going to happen overnight. I’m not just there as a flash in the pan for one week, we’re working to a two year plan and I’m looking at a two year minimum to get a level where we can fight for a star – that’s how long it takes. It’s not just for one day, when the inspectors come in. It’s when you come in, when Aunty Joan comes in for a once in a lifetime afternoon tea at the Park House. That has to be the standard – to give everyone that experience, and it’s not just about Michelin stars, it’s about getting the quality. Michelin is just a tag really, but we want to show them that we want to give something of exceptional quality.
With thanks to Roger for his time, and for being a charming and fascinating person to interview! I am looking forward to sampling some of his great dishes at the Park House and will be blogging about them later this week.