“I’ve been known to stand in the middle of Sainsbury’s and just laugh at the people getting excited by the tomatoes they’ve found there. They’re not even the right colour!”
Red, a pseudonym for the mad supplier of The Dysart in Petersham, had just arrived at the restaurant on his bike with an extraordinary amount of tomatoes of all different shapes and sizes. It was a beautiful afternoon opposite the resplendent Richmond Park in South West London and I was out taking exterior shots before my day’s stage with the head chef Kenneth Culhane, the 2010 Roux Scholar.
The Dysart is a family-owned restaurant, with all the trimmings and tails of a fine dining establishment but in a wholly relaxed atmosphere. Natural is the best way to describe it, with Ken arriving in the kitchen in 2012.
“It’s the kind of business that I’ve always wanted to be involved with. It’s their connectivity to nature,” Ken said as we watched a herd of deer slowly wander through the park opposite.
“Fundamentally, we’re trying to represent nature on the plate with our food, which doesn’t detract from where the ingredients came from in the first place.”
“One of the reasons on why I was so keen to come here was the garden and the potential of a forager. We produce a great deal with the garden, and even more wild produce sourced from surrounding wild-lands by Red.
Red, I discovered, only supplies The Dysart after having formed a solid working relationship with Ken, who soon joined Red and I outside in the sun.
“We have an unusual working arrangement,” Ken said. “We factor in the costs at the start of the year, and Red then simply arrives with fresh produce when he can and we make it work with our menu.”
“Its good season for local tomatoes and you’ll see by our tasting menu how much the produce dictates how we, the chefs here, operate.”
I thought I’d never see an entire tasting menu revolved around something as simple as the tomato, but Ken and his small team of three chefs in the kitchen have taken Red’s outstanding produce and have done just that. A £70, six course tasting menu, all with exquisite wine pairings.
Highlights include a starter of yellow pear tomato with Orkney scallops, lobster and a kafffir lime vinaigrette; a tomato dashi with Nishiki rice a la forestiere and golden marjoram; and a dessert of olive oil confit Coeur de Boeuf tomato with Mara de Bois strawberries and dulce de leche. They even have a Green Zebra tomato, cherry and Darjeeling tea.
Even from his unusual tasting menu, I could see that Ken Culhane’s food has undertones of Asian cuisine running through. He learned his craft at restaurants such as Guillaume Le Brun at Patrick Guilbaud in Dublin, Maître Cuisinier de France, Pascal Bouvier at Le Choiseul in the Loire – both two star establishments - and with the Japanese-born chef Tetsuya Wakuda in Sydney.
“I’ve always seemed to work with chefs who have connections with Asia, and there are elements of Asian, and specifically Japanese, cooking throughout the menu,” Ken told me as he took me to the changing area for me to don my chef whites.
“I once took a trip to Japan and it was really important for me, to experience this wonderful culture, the simplicity of the approach, the ingenuity of the kitchen and people, and the harmonious balance of flavours and the freshness.
“The chef that really changed my way of viewing food and how to run a kitchen was Tetsuya in Sydney. A remarkable chef and an amazing person to work for. I always have his ethos and ideas in my thinking.
“My affinity with Asian food is why I chose to stage at Jean Georges in New York after winning the Roux Scholarship. The food style of the restaurant is described as New French in makeup, with Jean-George himself having spent time in Bangkok, Singapore and Hong Kong, adopting the various cooking styles."
Back at The Dysart, with my whites buttoned up, I met the team and cracked on with prep. As mentioned, only four chefs inhabit the kitchen, which itself is modest, with a separate area for the KP near the back of the restaurant.
With the tasting menu, set menus and an a la carte; prep was certainly not a small matter.
My first job in the Dysart kitchen was to help a CDP named Kelvin make Thai green curry sauce, with thirteen different ingredients.
Walnuts, chestnuts, garlic, ginger, fingerling chillies, Thai green chillies, fennel, peppercorns, coriander seeds, prawns, lemongrass, daikon and tomatoes to be exact. With the use of a very overworked thermomix!
The making of the sauce took a lot of the day, and in that time I got to know the brigade. Kelvin Tan, the CDP with me on the sauce, had started life as a commis at The Savoy and was nearing the end of his time at The Dysart, as he was off at the end of the month to join John Williams at The Ritz.
Jack Marmion, a commis, had started off on the bar and had slowly slid over to the kitchen. He was based on the larder and was in charge of five of the starters, bread and canapes.
I joined Jack in making coffee focaccia bread for that evening’s service while my sauce was simmering, with their heavy duty mixer found opposite the small wine cellar and dry store, up a flight of stairs to the left of the kitchen.
The last chef, Tomek Mierzwa, is from Poland and has been at The Dysart for a good year and half. He previously worked at Atelier Amaro in Warszawa, which was only the third restaurant in Central Europe to ever be awarded a Michelin star back in 2013.
Tomek set about working on the mackerel starter from the a la carte menu as lunch service started.
“This is mackerel with braised daikon, ginger and champagne.” Tomek explained, “It’s a dish that looks simple but it’s built with flavours with a very fresh sauce”
“It has a dashi base, kaffir lime and champagne vinegar. We char the fish skin side and finish with a little chilli oil. The daikon is braised in Kombu. These are usual components that you’d have in the clean, fresh kind of Japanese style cooking.”
Ken stood in the middle of the kitchen at dictated as tickets began coming in, with his three chefs switching and alternating when needed. Meanwhile, I was given the honour of creating the apple rose amuse bouche.
A beautiful creation, the slivers of apple are first marinated in a mix of tomato juice, raspberry vinegar and ginger. The hard part is curling and twisting the deep red apple around the spoon to create the shape of a rose. I was shown by Tomek, but it took a good four or five goes for me to get it close to right. A mint leaf finishes completes the ensemble.
Around six each of starters, mains and desserts inhabit the a la carte menu, with a two or three course set menu changing regularly. Add this to the tasting menu, and you'd think this was perhaps a little much for such a small kitchen. But Ken and his brilliant team juggled matters perfectly, with the wait staff certainly worthy of a mention for their promptness and professionalism.
"Considering the amazing experience I was lucky enough to have got throughout my early career, I'm always on the lookout for stagiaires and those on work experience," Ken told me as I bid my farewells.
"I like to give responsibility to my chefs. Considering the magnificent ingredients we have here, what better way to really appreciate them?"