Heston Blumenthal’s protégé since 1999, Ashley Palmer-Watts, has risen to become executive head chef of the Fat Duck group. He currently heads up the kitchen at Dinner by Heston Blumenthal at the Mandarin Oriental, Hyde Park, and recently ventured to Kenya for the charity Farm Africa.
“It’s 22 years now since I first started working in a local restaurant kitchen, albeit washing up. I used to go there every day after school; I just liked to be in that environment and hang around. Then, when I visited The Fat Duck at Bray aged 21, all I knew was that I had to go and work there.
One of the key moments came on a Sunday afternoon when Heston and I had a conversation. It was just as The Fat Duck was starting to get going, but we were really short of staff, so it was incredibly hard work. Heston said to me: “Thanks, you never moan, you get your head down; we call it ‘pushing on in the kitchen’. One day this will all pay off, and I’m looking at moving you into a sous chef role.” And I was like, wow, this is incredible.
Heston and I work very well together. It’s quite strange – I think I’m not like Heston at all, but he will say that I’m more Heston than he is. We push and challenge each other. What I’m good at is turning ideas into reality and making it work within a restaurant. We bounce ideas off each other and then go away and work on it, getting it to a stage where we’re happy to pop it on the menu.
Latterly, it’s all been Dinner by Heston Blumenthal in London, which opened in 2011. We were very controlled about what we released about the restaurant; we just wanted to open up as quietly as possible and go about setting up the restaurant that we had in our heads. We’re firm believers that the accolades, kudos, write-ups and acclaim come on the back of doing what you’re doing. But of course I knew there was massive pressure on the opening, because so many people wanted to see whether it was any good.
In some ways, Dinner is massively different to The Fat Duck – it’s much larger, and we have 52 chefs in the brigade, so it’s a different game. But we’ve kept the same ethos, and the things that make us tick are the same. You can see that the restaurants are related in the way we like food to taste, from acidity and flavour encapsulation to the general balance of the dish. They’re a bit like brother and sister.
Outside of work I love going to Zuma – that’s really good – and it’s quite close as well, which is even better. I grew up in Dorset and have family there, so once a year I love to go to the Rick Stein seafood restaurant and Nathan Outlaw, which I think are brilliant.
Last year, I got talking to one of the publishers of Restaurant magazine, and just in passing, he asked me if I’d be interested in going to Kenya as part of the charity Farm Africa. I thought that sounded like a great cause, and that we’d be able to add some value to the fish they farm to sell at market. I’ve been to Africa before and thought if we could add something, then that would be amazing.
While we were there, we lived with the community and were completely embroiled in their way of life. It’s quite simplistic in many ways – they farm fish to eat and harvest the land, and those are their everyday jobs.
Sometimes it seems very purist with no complications – no phones, no emails, no newspapers, the whole world just kind of shut off. But then you switch back to thinking, wow, this is actually life every day for them. They don’t go away for a two-week holiday in France; you can’t have the weekend off. Then you realise it’s such a long way away from the world we live in, so anything that we can do to help over on this side goes a long way over there.
I’m heading to Kilimanjaro in August to raise more funds for the charity and I’m trying to get as fit as possible. I can’t say that mountain walking is my hobby – I’m going to have to try and get in a couple of good hiking days somewhere – but I’ve taken up cycling, so I’m working on it.
Looking back, so much has happened. I’ve seen some amazing places, met some leaders in their own field, from artists to surgeons to psychologists to sportsmen. I have quite a young family, so we’ve only just started travelling for pleasure, going further afield like France and Spain. But in terms of work, I’ve done a lot. When you think about all the places I’ve been to through working with Heston, there have been so many. It’s been amazing.”
Interview by Abi Millar
This interview appears in the Spring 2013 issue of Hotel Management International