Creating memorable flavors is not difficult, according to Chef Simon Hulstone, if one uses local and seasonal produce, with a dash of ingenuity.
When Simon Hulstone cooked his first dish in a home economics class at school, his teacher wasn’t impressed and even refused to mark it. Maybe the teacher did have a point in calling him a show-off with his soufflé omelette. Because though he was still in his early teens, Simon was already helping out in his father’s hotel, so his creation did steal a march over his classmates’ efforts at making fairy cakes and biscuits.
And today the same kid, who never liked school but attended it just because his friends went there, is a well known chef running Michelin-starred restaurant, The Elephant, in Torquay, a seaside town in England. Simon was also England’s entry at the prestigious 2011 Bocuse D’Or cooking championship for top chefs. He led the English National Culinary team in the World Culinary Olympics, which took place at Germany in October, 2012. He also lays claim to being the only British chef to win gold at the World Chef Championship in France.
But Simon is unaffected by these accolades and awards. In his own words about the effect these awards have had on him, he brushes them off and smilingly states, “I don’t think that awards have changed me. But they have helped me to develop into the chef I’ve become. The great thing about chef awards is that there is one for every stage of your career and they provide a good benchmark for your skills. I’ve been taking part in competitions since I was 16 and I believe that they’ve given me the ambition and incentive to carry on improving my skills and knowledge.”
In fact, what he likes doing most is whipping up new dishes in The Elephant, where he is assisted by his wife, Katy. That is where his heart lies and that is where he believes his skill is best displayed.
Simon’s inspiration for cooking came from his father, Roger, a chef, and who is also his role model. Simon initially went to work with his dad so that he could spend some quality time with him, but over time the swift movements of knives and the tantalising aromas of cooking held a sway over him and the more time he spent in the kitchen, the more the idea of becoming a chef appealed to him.
By his teens, Simon had already bagged many World Junior titles, including the Roux scholarship for young chefs in 2003 and the National Chef of the Year award in 2008. Later, he travelled throughout Europe working under reputed chefs, to learn more about food and various cooking styles. During those years, he worked in famous establishments like Cotswold House, Cheltenham’s Bacchanalian and the Bailiffscourt Hotel. He then moved to Torquay to head The Elephant, which was awarded a Michelin star in 2006 – a credit it maintains till date.
Another highlight of Simon’s culinary journey was being selected by celebrated Chef Heston Blumenthal to redesign the menu for British Airways’ business class passengers. And this recommendation from Chef Blumenthal, and the opportunity to work with him, was one of the biggest uppers for the young chef.
“Heston was very positive about my cooking, which is quite something coming from such a ground breaking and talented chef,” says Simon shyly. But this honour came with its own set of challenges – that of creating dishes that taste great at 30,000 feet. Working with Heston and his experimental team to come up with a London 2012 Games-inspired menu, Simon researched food in post-war Britain, as well as the 1948 airline menus. Indigenous ingredients like ox cheek and fish were used extensively back then. So, Simon’s menu reflected these trends to include ’Rillette of mackerel dressed on a pickled cucumber carpaccio with sourdough croutes’, ’Fish pie using sustainable sourced hake, dressed with parmesan pomme puree and a warm tartare sauce’, ’Steak and mushroom casserole’, ’Braised beef chasseur with young carrots and chateau potatoes’, ’Lemon curd cheesecake with raspberry and basil compote’, etc – dishes that were thoroughly enjoyed by over three million British Airways fliers.
COOKING WITH A PASSION
Each chef has his own distinct cooking style mantra, and it’s this knack that keeps diners come back for more. So what so unique about his cooking style that makes people flock to The Elephant? Says Simon, “My cooking style is really about bringing out the best from good ingredients both from a visual and flavour perspective. We are very lucky in Torquay in that we’re surrounded by great produce. We try to have fresh, clean flavours throughout our cooking, which enhance rather than mask the natural taste.” All of which he uses to great advantage in his cooking.
And while taste is paramount, Simon believes that a well-plated dish is more tantalising to a diner, which explains why he complements most of his dishes with edible flowers and herbs that enhance the flavours of the ingredients. Another ingredient that he enjoys using in all his vegetarian dishes and as an accompaniment for some of his meat dishes is beetroot, which he believes has an earthy taste and a very distinctive color that lends itself well to any preparation.
He reveals that one of the secrets behind the success of his dishes is that he does not try to follow food fads just for the sake of it. So you won’t find him sticking an ingredient just because it is, literally speaking, the flavour of the season.
Another secret is that he tastes every dish before he puts it on the menu. His rule of thumb is, if the dish doesn’t excite his senses, then there is no way it will appeal to the people who come to dine at The Elephant.
MAKING CHANGES ALL THE TIME
And a good chef knows that people crave variations when they dine out. Therefore, one of Simon’s trademark is the continuous innovations that he makes to various dishes. “I’m extremely interested in food and I like to keep up to date with the latest techniques by eating out and reading the latest books. However, we would not introduce flavours just for the sake of it and our dishes are more based around seasonal ingredients than key trends,” he adds.
If you step into The Elephant, be prepared to be stunned with a delish halibut that’s served with golden sultanas alongside parsnip, spring onions and verjus, which suddenly takes the taste of the dish to a whole new level. Or Simon will present some fresh brown and white crab meat, which go perfectly well with watermelon and ketchup served alongside.
In fact, ironically, it wasn’t a fancy dish that won him the Michelin Star – it was his rendition of the classic fish and steak that did it! Because like Simon points out, it is not the fanciness of a dish that is the route to a diner’s heart – it’s the quality of the ingredients used and the way the food is cooked that truly matters.
But while he might be known for innovative creations like squid and mackerel burger with sweet potato chips, at heart Simon personally likes traditional fare the best. “I’ve always loved a good curry because they are packed with flavour and it’s not a cuisine that I can easily cook myself,” he says when asked about his favourite cuisine. When he goes out to dine with his mates in London he keeps it simple with a good steak and chips. But if he’s out with his team then he prefers to go somewhere where he and his team will be inspired.
So what advise would he give to people who would want to replicate his recipes in their kitchens? For starters (pun unintended), Simon suggests that they familiarise themselves with the ingredients and instructions beforehand and allow plenty of time to prepare the ingredients in advance. And at the end of it all, he suggests just enjoy the process of cooking, because that’s where the magic really happens!
– Vinita Bhatia