Regional Revolution: Rules? What Rules?

Chandos Elletson continues his trip up North with stops at both The Walnut Tree Inn and House of Tides

Another facet of the enduring rural revolution is that new school may be trendy and exciting but old school is not a thing of the past. Where Sat Bains is at the cutting edge of modern professional cooking, Shaun Hill is at the opposite end of the spectrum. Though he began his career in London he has long been a rural chef - first at Gidleigh Park then at The Merchant House in Ludlow and now at The Walnut Tree in Abergavenny in Wales.

I am a huge devotee of Shaun Hill. I loved going to visit him in his kitchen in Ludlow when he cooked alone and still maintained a Michelin star. He pulls no punches and his food is simple and excellent as any of his thousands of fans will tell you.

Shaun Hill has stood the test of time and withstood all the advances of technology and trends and yet his food is as fresh and modern as it could be.

He doesn't do any growing and there is no tasting menu but there is serious technical cooking and judicious buying.

We started our chat on a hot subject: tasting menus or menu dégustation.

"Nico (Ladenis) used to call them menu disgusting. I rather agree with him," Shaun said with a smile.

"Tasting menus present problems. It puts you as a chef into safe territory as you always know what you will be preparing, but it makes marginal dishes a problem. Offal is gone and so are molluscs and there'll be no brains.

"The big problem is food allergies these days. I don't have to ask guests any more in advance. They tell me when they book. So my menu is designed around what I like to eat but structured in a way that allows everyone a fair shot at eating something they can enjoy."

The menu at the Walnut Tree is generous and it does have a way of making your mouth water. Shaun asked me if I'd like to eat something while we talked and I spotted a game terrine on the menu. It's something you don't see much these days.

"I used to make terrines when I worked for Robert Carrier back in the 1970's. Terrines were the dish of their day back then. At Hintlesham Hall I made about nine different types. Terrines are still good when they are done traditionally. You can't mess with them. They sell well but they need help like with a little piccalilli or a salad."



Needless to say his terrine was flawless and it raised an interesting point which to me has always been important: technical skill in cookery. Shaun Hill's terrine was every bit as refined and delicious as the sablé pastry at Sat Bains.

Shaun Hill could modernise his dishes to the level of Sat Bains but it would be a waste of time.

"Chefs must cook for themselves. If you don't you will never know when to stop and you will be forever checking what you do against others and that is a mistake. We all have a duty to our guests. They come to eat my food. They don't come to eat my interpretation of some other chef."

In Newcastle, Kenny Atkinson first won a Michelin star for his restaurant, House of Tides. It's located in the centre of town, a stone's throw from the River Tyne. I wanted to meet Kenny because he's another of a new breed of chef that is changing the face of fine dining into something much more approachable and in a place like Newcastle that is no mean achievement.



"There are better restaurants in Newcastle than ours," he told me. "But we score because we really look after our customers and when they come back we reward them. We are not as expensive as some places and this is deliberate. I'd rather be busy and make less money than charge a lot and be empty.

"My food is produce led, nothing new in that, but where we are different is the way our menu is structured. We have two tasting menus: a regular and a vegetarian. But you can have two courses if you want or three and we have a slogan on the menu that says: "Shy bairns get nowt." This means: "don't be afraid to ask!" If you want to mix and match off both menus - go ahead! We're here for you.

"I have a fine dining background in country house hotels. I found this very formal especially when it came to dress. At The House of Tides we are all about informal but the food has to have an edge to it that is interesting and delicious enough to make a great night out.”

“I have a lot of fun with my food. Take the mackerel dish that I once did on Great British Menu. It's described as Mackerel, Gooseberries, Lemon, Mustard. To cut a long story short it's a sliced white bread put through a pasta machine, spread with English mustard and then used to make a spring roll shape filled with mackerel. This is fried ‘til crisp and served with a gooseberry purée and a smear of mustard on the plate."

Now is a great time to be running a restaurant in the sticks. Whether you are old school, new school or somewhere in between you can innovate to your hearts content - so long as you understand that technical skills cannot be ignored. Good cooking is good eating. No amount of technology can ever replace it.