Having recently been awarded Bath’s only Michelin Star, Chris Cleghorn, Head Chef at the Olive Tree Restaurant, talks to FOODLOVER about what it takes to set the culinary bar…
“It’s almost impossible to put into words what it means to me as a chef to be recognised by Michelin with a star,” Chris Cleghorn tells us, “this reward reflects years of dedication and hard work”.
Indeed, to be rewarded with this most coveted of culinary accolades is no mean feat. The award joins The Olive Tree’s existing 3 AA Rosettes and is the result of constant improvement and exceptional quality. A restaurant must serve consistently high standards of food and service to be in with a shot of Michelin success; a notion that Chris Cleghorn is all too familiar with…
Chris first entered the world of fine dining aged just sixteen and as a young chef worked his way up the culinary ranks at a series of well-reputed restaurants. It was during this time that he learned the ropes and grasped the fundamentals of how a professional kitchen should run. “I would taste everything,” he recalls, “It was so important to learn how the cooking process changes and develops the flavours and textures of an ingredient.”
During his time spent working under James Sommerin, at The Crown at Whitebrook, he got his first real insight into the level of work required to meet top highest restaurant standards. “Even at that point in my career, I could see that the level of detail and the quality of ingredients really stood out at The Crown. I realised that the flavour combinations and the ingredients that we were using were excellent. I’d never experienced those things and it was a real eye opener”.
Chris maintains that the best thing an aspiring chef can do is to get into the best kitchen that they can and learn off the best people in the business. “Success in the culinary world doesn’t happen overnight and the more you learn early on, the better it will set you up later on in your career”.
Indeed, Chris has an impressive CV of fine dining kitchens under his belt. Not only has he worked at Heston Blumenthal’s The Fat Duck – routinely listed among the UK’s top restaurants – but he also worked under industry greats, such as Adam Simmonds and Michael Caines. The influence of these outstanding chefs no doubt influenced his own cooking style, but despite every invaluable lesson Chris leaned from them, he maintains that no two chefs will produce the same style of cooking.
“It’s important to recognise that every chef will have their own approach to things”, he explains, “Learning skills from different chefs will ultimately help inform your own approach to cooking, but developing a unique style is something that takes years. Here at The Olive Tree, our style is very fluid. Every three to four months, you’ll see a seasonal shift to our menus”.
Ingredients Are Key
With its abundant coastlines, its wild game and its high-quality suppliers, the West Country is a natural larder of produce. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that at The Olive Tree Restaurant, quality ingredients steal the show.
“We’re incredibly lucky to have the ingredients that we have at hand here in the South West”, Chris acknowledges, “As chefs, when the ingredients are outstanding half our job is already done. It’s not always the most expensive of ingredients that make for the best dish either. Sometimes the simplest of ingredients can be elevated to the next level”.
“When we change the menus at The Olive Tree Restaurant, we’re changing the emphasis and process, rather than the underlying ethos and quality”, he continues, “You want the ingredients to speak for themselves. For instance, barbecuing celeriac or cauliflower is a method I would only utilise during the Autumn or Wintertime. I would never do that in the summer. Each season calls for its own techniques and methods”
All of The Olive Tree’s producers and suppliers understand what is expected from them. If something comes through the kitchens doors that doesn’t meet Chris’ exacting standards, they know that the team aren’t going to accept it. “That’s why we work with the best suppliers around”, Chris tells us. “We frequently use suppliers such as Woolley Park Farm; an independent supplier of duck who produce some of the highest quality birds I’ve ever used. Likewise, our fish comes from Flying Fish Seafoods in Cornwall; and we make use of specialist game suppliers to ensure that only the highest quality products are used in our dishes. It’s important that a Head Chef maintains a close relationship with their suppliers. If they don’t know what your expectations are, both in terms of product and price, you can’t communicate properly.”
“Having our efforts recognised with 3 AA Rosettes and now a Michelin Star has hugely motivated the kitchen team. You have to remember that we’ve been producing this quality of food and working at this level for the past few years. So, it was a real positive validation that we’re on the right track”.
When asked what it takes to achieve success in the world of fine dining, Chris isn’t convinced there’s one simple answer. “Some kitchens use theatre or presentation to make an impact, but I think the most important thing is flavour”, he asserts, “That’s certainly what we focus on at The Olive Tree. People who come to dine with us are often here for a special occasion. They want to experience something they aren’t going to have at home. They want something exceptional. The bottom line is that when that plate of food is set in front of them, they’re getting to experience those ingredients at the best they can possibly be”.
Chris Cleghorn is part of a new generation of West Country chefs who are leading by example. Success in the world of fine dining means constantly refining and developing one’s skills. It means taking quality ingredients and elevating them to new heights. But above all else, success as a chef is offering your diners an unforgettable experience they’ll yearn to return for.
You can experience Chris Cleghorn’s food for yourself at The Olive Tree Restaurant in Bath. For more information, visit www.olivetreebath.co.uk or call 01225 447928 to reserve your table.