Simon Ulph talks to Hospitality & Catering News two months into his new role as head chef of I’ll Be Mother’s Kent restaurant The Twenty Six. The 26-year-old worked as a commis at The Swan (when co-owned by I’ll Be Mother’s Pete Cornwell) before spending a year working with Masahura Morimoto in California.
He has spent the last three years working for Robert Thompson on the Isle of Wight, 18 months of which were as head chef of Thompson’s. Here he discusses his new role, his love of Japanese flavours and why removing ego from the kitchen is essential to help development.
What drew you to the role at The Twenty Six?
I used to work with Scott (Goss, creative director and executive chef at I’ll Be Mother) and Pete (Cornwell, founder of I’ll Be Mother) so I didn’t see it as going to a new employer, it was like returning to family. I knew I’d be comfortable and happy here, but similarly it was a good chance for me to spread my wings a bit more and get stuck into a new challenge.
The concept at The Twenty Six is unique. Do you have any plans to change that?
No. I’m continuing as it is. It is unique. We don’t have a lunch menu, we serve 26-covers in the evening and change the menu as much as we can. It can be challenging trying to think of new stuff all the time, but it’s good. It makes you better and more creative. You’re always on your toes. You don’t have a chance to sit back and relax.
How are you putting your stamp on the menu?
I’ve added some Japanese flavours into my food and am using some different techniques in the cooking. Scott’s cooking is very classical, so I’ve tried to move things on with my techniques and new flavours.
What is it you like so much about Japanese food?
I like how clean it is and the strong umami flavours the Japanese have. I love miso. I’d put it in everything if I could. I love how fresh everything is. The fish is perfect. The spices they use too. I just love it. I’m working on a new lamb dish incorporating miso now – it’s a lamb loin roasted with miso XO glazed belly and roasted and pickled carrot. It sums up my cooking really.
You have a Guest Chef series starting next month with some big name chefs on the list (eg. Gareth Ward of Ynshir; Nathan Eades, Simpsons and Luke Richardson, Sticky Walnut) How have you persuaded them to leave their kitchens and come to yours?
I don’t know how I got them all to agree to it! I know Tony Parkin (The West House) Calum Franklin (Holborn Dining Room) and Luke from Sticky, but most of the others I’ve never met. I have just become friends with them over social media. Nathan and Gareth I just got talking to over Twitter. I just put photos of dishes up on Twitter and Instagram like they do and we just talk about them and ask each other questions. Social media is so powerful. It has brought us together over the years.
Apart from giving your diners the chance to try food created by other successful chefs, what are the benefits of running a guest chef series in your opinion?
They are so good. For example Gareth Ward’s food is unbelievable. I could never cook like that, so it will be great for the boys from The Twenty Six to see how he does it and learn other skills, as well as get a taste and feel for his restaurant. We’ll all get to learn. Calum Franklin’s pastry skills are just unbelievable too. It will be so worthwhile for the chefs to see the precision and perfection needed to make his pate en croute or beef wellington. It’s great to be able to share knowledge with everyone.
Do chefs have to push ego out the way to allow others in do you think?
When I was on the Isle of Wight I did some guest chef series’ and Tom Brown came over from The Capital to cook. I was taught to roast fish in a pan with a bit of butter and put it in the oven, but Tom grilled his fish and he said most of the fish at The Capital is cooked under the grill. I’d been cooking for 10 years at that point, but someone taught me a different way to cook fish. You realise you’re always learning and that’s how it should be.
Where do you like to eat out on your day off?
I spend way too much money on eating out. A couple of months ago I did a little food trip to Bristol with Luke from Sticky Walnut and we went to the Pony & Trap, Adelina Yard, Bulrush. Pi Shop and Paco Tapas in three days. It was amazing. Bristol is a great city for food. I think Casamia is one of my favourite restaurants. It should have two Michelin stars.
What are your plans for the next five years?
I just want to keep pushing myself and making myself a better chef. We’ll see where that takes me. I would love to have my own place. A nice small 30-cover restaurant in the middle of the city, or a little country pub doing good food, but we’ll just see how it goes.
Hospitality & Catering News, Interviews Editor