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Welsh Michelin Chefs

 
Wales first food and wine school at Llanerch Vineyard has just unveiled its new secret weapon, a Welsh Michelin starred chef. Hywel Jones makes dinner for Catherine Jones as he prepares to open Calon there, which he hopes will be the best restaurant in Wales

ITS one thing to scoff at seasoned foodies pontificating on the merits of fine dining and its quite another to watch Michelin-starred chef Hywel Jones prepare a meal for my consumption.

The deftness and diligence is surely evidence of a culinary surgeon at work the careful way he places (hand-picked) salad leaves atop a select bump of salmon, how he stands a pillar of pork loin on each end in the frying pan to ensure every surface has a delicately crunchy finish.

Its impressive stuff. Just how do men who carve careers in traditionally female professions such as cookery and hairdressing have such presence surrounded by the tools of their trade? And why do so many top male chefs exude a mix of boyishness and confidence?

How can Hywel make a large teardrop of puree look so elegant on a contemporary square-shaped plate? (And why doesnt he drop a bit in the wrong place, wipe it off and lick his finger like the rest of us?)

And how, too, can I possibly dig in to this work of art before me � a starter of perfection that will be part of the menu at Llanerch Vineyards new fine dining restaurant, Calon?

Ive failed if people dont want to dig in, says Hywel, with the stern lack of humour of the true professional. People have got to want to dig in.

Watch too how he glides straight-backed around the kitchen of the new eaterie, which opens on February 7, the way he keeps six pans on the go like the most elegant of circus performers all young chefs see burns up their arms as a badge of honour but you soon get over that and the way he throws his tea towel over his shoulder.

Observe this chef at work and it makes most peoples methods of food preparation (removing the plastic cover before placing in the oven at 190C) as obscenely perfunctory as the forking of tinned dog food onto a plate.

Its a major coup for the owners of Llanerch Vineyard in the Vale of Glamorgan to get award-winning Hywel on board for their restaurant, which is set in 22 acres of vine and lakes and fields in Hensol.

The holder of a prestigious Michelin Star at Lucknam Park in Wiltshire where he is head chef, Hywel who has previously worked as executive chef at celeb-haunt Pharmacy in Notting Hill is a name that has commis chefs clicking their heels.

He has worked with the best in the business Marco Pierre White, Gordon Ramsay offered to be a guinea pig for his entry to the Chef of the Year, and, well, to show the kind of people hes used to cooking for, Hywel once got kissed by a Spice Girl, who used to come to eat his food with one arm while her dog was under the other.

I had a kiss off Geri Halliwell at Pharmacy. It was after an end-of-filming party at the BBC studios, he remembers.

I had to cook her dog chicken breasts and the chicken breasts were bigger than the dog. She came in the kitchen I was a big hero of the lads kiss off a Spice Girl!

To me the most memorable person I have cooked for is Neil Armstrong.

You can cook for sports stars and musicians but you can only have been the first person on the moon once.

You sense celebrity tittle-tattle is not really the kind of thing that really floats Hywels boat. He exudes a focussed politeness that goes into a different gear (full throttle concentration) once you get him in a kitchen. But he good-naturedly trots through a few celebrity stories to sate such appetites.

I was at a massive gala buffet for the McAlpine Brothers. We had a carvery system in the hotel and I was carving. I looked up and Margaret Thatcher was in front of me.

I was beginning to move up the ladder and was a little bit more starstruck back then. The older you get the more you realise they are just like anybody else.

I know Gordon (Ramsay) because he came in when I was working for Marco, and he has been very good to me. The first time I entered Chef of the Year, he let me use him as a guinea pig.

Marco is putting a lot back into cookery. He has a huge presence. He walks into a kitchen and doesnt have to say anything.

He had his first child with Matti when I was working with him.

I can remember the phone call came through in the kitchen three-quarters of the way through service. Marco, Matti has gone into labour! Half an hour later he was still in the kitchen. He finished service and said Get me a taxi and off he went.

Later he called to say Get some Champagne. Matti had the baby! but he finished service before he went.

(Hywels two children timed their arrival more conveniently one came two weeks late but at 5.30am and the other on his week off).

Hywel has twice entered Chef of the Year and in 2006 reached the final.

As well as winning a Michelin star at Lucknam Park in Colerne, near Chippenham, he also holds the ultimate industry Catey accolade of Chef of the Year.

He talks as he prepares me a starter, which will probably be found on the menu at 50-cover Calon.

Food, 10 years, ago was about a lot of sauce but the veg is so much more nutritious.

The whole ethos of my cooking is to do enough to impress people but not too much to detract from the natural qualities of ingredients.

The holy grail of any chef is that nature does most of the job for you.

We plan to grow a lot of our own veg here. The menu will be all about seasonality and local.

If I can get the best quality locally then I will use it but I will go further afield if the best isnt available.

Oh, the sights and the smells and the detail. Here we have confit of citrus-cured organic salmon a form of gravadlax cured for four hours not 24 hours then cooked very, very gently at 40 degrees and beetroot fourways, showing how one ingredient can be served differently.

I am quite into different preparations of one ingredient. The beetroot is cooked with fresh apple the salad just look at these nasturtiums is grown and hand-cut by Richard Vine, cutting back, then let them grow, keep cutting back. I buy free range raw pork and have it smoked. A very subtle smoked flavour.

Now hes talking about pork belly on spinach with spring onions and scallops. Its one of his signature dishes and expect to be impressed. (This food is beyond delicious).

The citrus curing helps cut through the richness of the salmon. The beetroot to show how one ingredient can be different, and the depth of flavour. With the scallop dish, the pork gives a bit of smokiness.

Now we are on to main courses of rump of local lamb with pithivier of Jerusalem artichokes cooked in a gratin dauphinoise, braised shoulder and pepper confit. And desserts?

On every menu you try and have a couple of chocolate things, he says patiently, and a few with fruit.

Brace yourselves, ladies. How about Hot Cuban Chocolate Fondant with malt ice-cream, passion fruit and banana cannelloni?

The cannelloni describes the shape long thin strands not just pasta, says Hywel quickly, and the cocoa beans are from Cuba.

His talk of desserts is one long fairy tale for adults with a sweet tooth. Cr�me brulee, paper thin pastry, icing sugar, vanilla cream, raspberries

Fresh raspberries and cream. That flavour! The work is already done!

Brought up in Newport, Hywel, 36, attended Welsh school in Bargoed. He is married to Conny, a former lounge manager at a London hotel and they have two sons.

Ieuan will be six in March (I chose the first name) and Johann (Conny, who is German, chose the second which I didnt mind because by that time we had moved back to Wales) has just turned two.

He gets his inspiration from books and dining out as well as walking around the vegetable patch at the vineyard.

Conny is a good cook but we enjoy eating out. Everyone says you must be really picky but its always nice to have someone cook for you. If I go and spend 500 on a meal Id expect it to be perfect. I dont have a problem paying for good food.

I love scallops and fish, and Im quite fond of proper Welsh cawl, if its done properly I might do a restaurant interpretation of it for Calon.

He achieved his first Michelin Star while head chef at a London hotel restaurant, Foliage.

Foliage was a 45-cover restaurant and the press were over it like from word go.

After 18 months we got the Michelin star the pinnacle of a chefs achievement.

A team of inspectors come and look at the premises and you are judged on your food. You can get one to three stars the first is about food, the third is about the whole package.

You can get two or three visits, they might ask to see the kitchen. You cant tell who they are.

Every time you see a table for one on a week night you question or they might come on a Saturday night, more than one person but it should be the same level whether its for table one or table 10.
Michelin is very personal to chefs. It adds kudos to your premises but doesnt necessarily bring the customers in. It can put them off because they think its to do with posh, stuffy restaurants but nowadays a pub can have a Michelin star which should reduce the British fear of eating out. A lot of people might feel apprehensive about going to the Dorchester for dinner.

So is he aiming for a Michelin star in Wales?

�We are not setting out to get a Michelin star but we are going to try and create the best restaurant in Wales. The moment you go and try and cook for a grade you lose track of what you are doing in the first place. You make sure the restaurant is full, the food and service are good, it�s reasonably priced. I think price is the biggest factor in it.

Lunch is 27 a head and dinner will cost around 33 a head with the house (or vineyard) wine.

Diners who cross the cattle-grid into the estate are promised an experience of complete and utter perfection, according to co-owner of the project, Scott Williams, who bought the site with business partner Carol Grocott.

Scott is an enthusiastic promoter of the Llanerch project bought around a year ago for 2.5m from Peter Andrews, who he describes as a pharmacist who loved gardening and wine, read an article about wine-making in the Sunday Times, and decided to grow a six-and-a-half-acre vineyard.

What an opportunity, says Scott, who says there are around 18 vineyards in Wales and nearly 400 in England.

But how many vineyards are this close to Cardiff, with a food school, accommodation, a fine restaurant with home-grown vegetables, with a walled garden seating 50 people for eating outside in the summertime, and a conservatory that looks over the Vale of Glamorgan on a nice day?

The accommodation, boasting TV and DVD facilities, includes eight double studios (69 per room plus breakfast) and two two-bedroomed cottages.

We are five-star self-catering, four star B&B, says Scott, who shows off a cosy room in the farmhouse building now the restaurant which has a window into the kitchens.

Forget Masterchef this is the place to sit with your aperitif, your Champagne cocktail or your coffee and petit fours and watch the experts at work.

Its all about the food and quality, says Scott.

Calon is the restaurant, Cariad is the wine. We also produce our own honey with beehives on the estate. We have an aspect that no other restaurant can boast.

I want people to come over the cattle grid and know they are going somewhere exciting before they even experience it.

Scott says they feel incredibly lucky to have got Hywel on board.

He will continue to work at Lucknam Park though he will make regular forays to Calon to cook as well as devise the menu.

Hywel was brought in to advise on every culinary detail, and says, When I first came here last summer it was still a domestic kitchen. It was very hard to visualise. Is been built from scratch. Scott said what do you need? Thats the space you have got.

Hywels CV is an indication of the way he has built on his own talent with enthusiasm and dedication.

Here is an ex-catering student who would spend his free time leafing through the cookery books of the owner of the restaurant where he worked part-time while studying.

While doing a two year catering course at a Cardiff college, he drank in every detail of his time (working front of house and in the kitchen) at Le Cassoulet in Canton, and recalls watching the French owner use fresh vegetables and herbs to make a tantalisingly delicious soup.

I can always remember walking through the kitchen and it was the summer and he was making soup just fresh veg, water and fresh herbs but the smell and flavour was impressive. It was the first time I saw that quality of ingredients, and could be made from simple, fresh things. I had always enjoyed eating. My parents used to take us to a nice hotel for holidays. I used to look forward to going down to dinner. I used to love dressing up and going down to try unusual things on menu.

At my school everyone did cookery. It was the one part of the week I looked forward to the most.

I was going to follow my grandfather into the Navy it was always something I admired but then I decided Id rather go to catering college for a two-year full-time course.

In the summer of 1989 he became a full-time chef at Le Cassoulet and when not working, he would leaf through his employers cookery books.

I remember looking at a book by a chef called Pierre Koffman and being struck by the food.

When I discovered his restaurant was in London, I decided that was obviously the place to go.

He chose a selection of top hotels and restaurants and was first made a head chef around nine years ago.

Four years ago, he and Conny decided to leave London and live in Newport so he could become head chef at Lucknam Park.

It was important to me that the kids grew up in Wales. I originally went to London for two years but its very important to be back here in Wales.

I am a proud Welshman. I used to speak Welsh. If I read, I can understand it. Ieuan is going to Welsh school and when he comes home with books and tapes, I realise Id love to speak it again.

Hywel appears quite cool-headed in the kitchen but he admits the heat can sometimes be on, which may explain why many chefs have a reputation for tantrums (though he shows no signs of exploding while monitoring half a dozen pans on the go at once when hes cooking for me).

Theres always going to be something out of your control. You get in at eight in the morning, work through, have a break in the afternoon, then you are working till 11 or 12 at night. Out of that whole day, the pressure is on between 12 and two and dinner between seven and 9.30pm.

When you start, theres no two ways about it you are in at the deep end. Kitchens mean long hours, its quite a physical job, you are on your feet all day. But the reward I get far outweighs the hard work.

He remembers walking into the vast kitchens with a team of 80 chefs on his first job at a prestigious London hotel.

The chef, David Nicholls, who became godfather to my first son, showed me around and asked me Would you like to become part of this?

I said Id love to� I couldnt believe he was offering me a job.

A raft of jobs, each higher than the one before, included posts in hotels as well as an exclusive 40-cover restaurant, with a team of 12 chefs, owned by Michelin-starred Nico Latenis.

I had never worked in a Michelin star restaurant before. Nico is seen as the ultimate gastronome. He teaches you how to look at food from the customers point of view.

When it came to whether to accept a job with Marco Pierre White, Hywels father expressed concern.

Marco Pierre White was taking the UK by storm. He had a hell of a reputation as being difficult in the kitchen. Marco was moving from Harveys to Knightsbridge. He said Come and see me and well offer you a job. I can always remember my dad saying Are you sure you know what youre letting yourself in for?

He was the lenfant terrible. Most people lasted about a month in the kitchen. He was after perfection and you cant deliver perfection without the temper. I had faith in my own ability, it was the best food in Britain at the time, and I could put up with a bit of flak for what this guy could teach me. The first month he puts you through the mill. I got through and stayed for 18 months.

Hywel is sympathetic to the idea chefs may build up a head of steam and says that away from the kitchen, Gordon Ramsay is one of the nicest blokes you could ever wish to meet away from working.

The hours, the pressure six days a week, from 7am to midnight or one. You have to love it. You cant do this job at this level without passion. To be the best in any trade, you cant afford to slip up.

The pressure on you to perform... every single thing that comes out of the kitchen has to be not just good but faultless. The pressure on him is bound to flare up.

Its all about controlling yourself. You have to be disciplined. Everybodys going to make mistakes. You have to be willing to understand that people make mistakes but on the other hand you have to be able to deal with them. I went to Marco to learn from the best. I wanted someone to tell me You are doing this wrong.

Its about respect, if someone can teach you something. Once you get someones respect they will do anything for you. I expect the boys to work long hours but I know they will do it.

While at Le Souffle restaurant in Londons InterContinental hotel, he worked with the renowned chef Peter Kromberg.

He is one of the true master chefs of this world. I was in his office one afternoon. He had a tiny office some chefs have offices the size of the kitchen and there were all these medal certificates on the shelf. Oh just some medals, he said. They were gold medals from the Culinary Olympics. If I hadnt have asked him, he would never have said.

Hes an amazing man who taught me so much, that to be a chef is not just about cooking. You have to learn about man management. To be a great chef you have to be naturally talented. I can see when kids come into kitchen at 16 something about co-ordination and ambition.

He was finally lured to Lucknam Park the second time he was approached. He visited it, and then fell in love with it. In time, he will take more of a consultancy role at Calon after securing a head chef to his liking.

When people come to Lucknam Park they are expecting a certain sort of food.

I have to be realistic about getting three stars. You always aim for the next level. Id love to achieve two stars.

You have to be quite ambitious. If you want to achieve, you have to know where you are going and set yourself goals. I dont see it as a job, its not like going to work, and my ambition now is to create a successful business to hand over to my son.

His mother, Mari, the matron of a nursing home, and his father, Cranog, a former personnel officer, live in Newport. His sister, Bethan, 33, is currently working for a TV company.

They are very proud. My dad was a bit shocked when I first went for cookery because he wanted me to play for Wales. For me, once I started cooking in London, my ambition was always to move back to Wales and have my own business. I have always been thinking five to 10 years ahead of where I wanted to be going.

Aside from fine dining, the Llanerch project includes the opportunity to learn how to cook like a professional with classes given by food writer and former chef to the famous, Angela Gray.

Theres a wide screen TV to give close-ups of delicate operations and the floor is deliberately graded to give a theatre-style experience.

Scott says, We have six work stations in our cookery school where we can get 12 people in. Its all done in a way to make people feel comfortable. If you did it like a commercial kitchen then effectively saying I cant do this at home, and they can make excuses.�

Llanerch Vineyard is easy to get to from Cardiff or its airport and yet it has the feel of rural sophistication most often associated with the likes of Tuscany.

Its a huge project, says Scott, who started his career in financial services and moved into buying property to let.

Scott and Carole, who used to stay at Llanerch, decided to buy it when Carole bumped into the previous owner, Peter Andrews, in Tesco and he mentioned it would be going on the market. Hes very likeable and open and I have a very high regard for him, says Scott. �Without Peter Andrews, we wouldnt have done it. It was very important to him that this was carried on. What did I know about running a vineyard? I have never run one but Im here to live a dream.

We have got northern climate wines and southern climate wines. New Zealand produces some very lovely wines and their climate is very similar to ours. You cant compare cold climate wines with warm climate wines.

How many opportunities do you get like that? We also had a restaurant in mind. Its seven days a week getting the kind of people we have on board doesnt happen by accident. Hywel is a smashing guy and we are very fortunate to build a relationship with him.

Born in Devon, Scott, 30, moved here 21 years ago, and has spent most is his life in Wales his mother is Welsh as are both of his grandfathers.

Now the old stables have been turned into a pair of semi detached two-bedroomed cottages for accommodation and there are big plans to offer Tastebud Tours and lunchtime packages which include picnics by one of the lakes.

People can wander around the estate. We are not a park but we want to share the estate with people who want something different, says Scott. Men who want to surprise their wives and girlfriends with a picnic perhaps.

Saturday cookery classes cost 35 with lunch and wine with expert Claude Faurie De Vassal.

Its a good Saturday morning, from 10 to about two, and Claude also does an evening wine school, he added.

And, of course, there is Cariad, the vineyards wine, 8.95 for a 2006 Dry White, described as a clean, crisp off-dry wine with a hint of fruit and a good length.

Carole says, We have been here for a year at the end of February and we are tearing our hair out at times.

Its a destination people should share in because its so lovely and so beautiful. Then again, we dont want it to be absolutely teeming with people. Its so exciting and everyone who comes looks upon it as a lifestyle thing. They want to be part of the evolution of Llanerch. If you can imagine it, you can do it.

For more information, visit www.llanerch-vineyard.co.uk or call 01443 225877

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