Peter Gray is the new head chef at Heston Blumenthal’s Bray pub The Hind’s Head, where he worked under previous head chef Janos Veres for three and a half years. The Yorkshire-born chef’s career in hospitality started at Middlethorpe Hall, where he joined as a kitchen porter at 16. He took on a role as a commis chef there, working his way up to chef de partie before leaving to work with Paul Kitching at Juniper in Altrincham two years’ later. He moved to Danesfield House Hotel in Marlow when he was 21 to work under Adam Simmonds and in four years worked his way up to junior sous, helping the team gain four AA rosettes and a Michelin star. Following a three-year stint working abroad he then joined The Hind’s Head in 2013 as junior sous.
How does it feel to be running the kitchen at the Hind’s Head now?
As a chef you grow up through the ranks and always want to be head chef one day. You think it will be a nice and easy job, but obviously when you get there you suddenly become the person who has to make the decisions. Until now I’ve always had someone to look up to and ask what to do, now that person is me. That’s the only change, really. That, and moulding the team around me, I’m not working in someone else’s team now.
Are you planning to make any changes now you’re in charge?
I’ve already changed the structure of the kitchen. We would normally run with head chef, sous chef and the rest of the team, but we’re running now with a kitchen manager and I have two junior sous chefs underneath me. The kitchen manager looks at all the costings for us, because we are constantly changing the menus as well as areas like food safety and all the stuff that comes with cooking that you don’t see. Then I have two junior sous chefs who I work closely with and who are just focusing on the food in the kitchen. To have these key people in place helps me to oversee things and push the business forward, because that’s ideally what we need to do.
I’m not going to change the food, because as it is it’s fantastic and works really well. We’re going to stick with dishes like the Smoked Salmon and the Triple Cooked Chips, but we will bring in new dishes and tweak existing ones. We are constantly looking at things we’ve done before and how we can make them better. When it comes to new dishes, we write an idea down and start working on it and it can take six months to get it right. It then goes through vigorous tastings with Jonny Lake, the executive chef at The Fat Duck and Ashley Palmer Watts, the group executive chef, before it makes it onto the menu.
The Hind’s Head also has a new look and menus, tell us about those
We went through a refurb in April when we closed for two weeks to renovate the restaurant and turn the upstairs, which was also a restaurant, into a cocktail lounge. We also changed the Vicar’s Room into a beautiful private dining room. The refurb was about making it more of a restaurant. We can’t change what the outside looks like – a pub – but the inside has more of a restaurant feel now. You come upstairs and have fantastic cocktails and snacks and then come downstairs and eat.
The menus have evolved over the year. Earlier in the year we ran set menus – a three and four course tasting menu at lunch and four and six courses at dinner. We changed that earlier this month. Now we offer a three course lunch, an a la carte menu and a tasting menu alongside it. We found that people didn’t feel like they had enough choice before, so we listened to them and brought the a la carte menu back, although it’s very different to what it was before. Since the refurb we’ve gone through a lot of development work and created a number of dishes. Before, customers would order a simple main course dish and have to order sides, whereas now the dishes are more tailored and they’re a complete dish.
What inspired you to be a chef?
I don’t have this fantastic story of baking with my mum as a kid, or working in the family restaurant. It didn’t happen like that, I sort of fell into it. I left school and got a job as a kitchen porter, then a job as a chef came about and something just clicked in me. I’d never found food interesting before. I used to be a picky eater, but then working in a kitchen and seeing what the chefs could do, I realised food was amazing if it was cooked properly.
I started in a three AA rosette kitchen and then I became interested in Michelin and started reading about Heston, Raymond Blanc, Marco Pierre White and Gordon Ramsay and was like ‘wow’. My interest just increased from there. Then I moved into a kitchen with a Michelin star (Juniper) and I decided I wanted to run a kitchen to that standard and wouldn’t stop until I got there.
I’m 32 now, so I’m not a young head chef. I suppose I could have done it four years ago, but I wanted to wait for the right opportunity. It’s not an easy task, taking over Heston Blumenthal’s Hind’s Head Bray, it’s a pretty big thing and a big responsibility. I think it is anyway.
How do you go about creating The Hind’s Head’s renowned ‘historically inspired dishes’?
We have a database within the company that The Fat Duck, the Hinds Head, the Crown at Bray and The Perfectionists’ Cafe will all work from. We have access to have information like articles and recipe files from hundreds of years ago that we can read through and look through to see if there’s anything we can use. We look at the same database to see what we’ve already done. We might take things we have done and change them, or create something new. Then, we put the dish together, which can take a week or up to three months, before putting it forward to Jonny Lake and Ashley Palmer Watts and we go from there. They give their feedback and then we might go back to the kitchen and tweak it. It’s great to have their expertise. They often see things differently when tasting it. It can taste so different when you’re in the restaurant. You can become quite tunnel-visioned in the kitchen, so it’s good to take a dish out into the restaurant, sit down and taste it together to ensure it’s right.
If you could go back in time to work as a chef, what era would you choose?
I’d like to go back into the kitchen of Escoffier, because I read his books and watch programmes of Heston on TV where he goes back into history and that time is like the golden era for being a chef. Reading up about how they used to write recipes is really interesting and I wonder how the kitchen used to work back then, compared to how it does now. Today we are still influenced by chefs like Escoffier. It’s a case of taking something that has been done and dragging it into today’s world and putting your mark on it.
How important are awards and accolades to you?
They’re a fantastic achievement and we work very hard every year to retain the Michelin star and three AA rosettes. We are very proud to have the Michelin star. We have a new plaque up in the kitchen as a reminder to the chefs that we work to a very high standard. It’s there to say ‘you work in a Michelin starred kitchen with Heston Blumenthal’s name over the door, it’s serious’. We appreciate it and work hard for it every day.
Where do you enjoy going out to eat and drink on your day off?
It depends on my mood and what I feel like eating. I have times when I have to go out and see what other people at a high level are doing and how things are changing, but I also like to go out to good casual places and nice quiet places. I’m not always seeking top dining.
What are your plans for the near future?
My friends always ask if I’d like to open my own restaurant and as a young chef it’s what you always aspire to, but now understanding how a business works I’m a little more reticent. I think it’s amazing for all the people who’ve done it and taken the jump, that is incredible and, of course I would like that one day, but at the moment I’ve got my work cut out here and I’m just getting started so I’m not looking to change things any time soon.
Hospitality & Catering News, Interviews Editor