Stephen Terry is chef patron of The Hardwick. An experienced and long established chef, he came to wider public prominence in 2008 when he took part in BBC2’s The Great British Menu, and represented Wales to serve a dish to top chefs from around the world along with British gourmets and celebrities at an event hosted by Heston Blumenthal.
Stephen has taken part again in this series and beat stiff competition to represent Wales in the final for the chance to cook an Olympic banquet.
An extremely likeable and funny, though self-deprecating man, with a wide ranging knowledge and deep passion for cooking, Stephen Terry is in his element in the kitchen.
The Welsh Menu were lucky enough to spend some time at The Hardwick, and met Stephen and his team in the kitchen at the end of a busy lunch service. The atmosphere amongst the team members was buoyant and happy, and we were struck by the camaraderie amongst colleagues.
Moving through to the modern yet cosy restaurant, Stephen opened up to us about his life, career and loathing of foams.
Why did you become a chef?
I made a pretty decent Victoria Sponge once in school, purely by chance, and I remember it to this day. I then took Home Economics as an option, along with my twin brother. I did really badly, in fact it was my lowest mark, but I must have had something about me as the teacher suggested I go for an interview at a local college, I was accepted from the interview and so I went there.
I was never going to be an academic, I was crazy about art and design, I was quite good at English, but going to college near Luton to study cooking was a great opportunity for me to be creative. One of my tutors, Paul Ward, was an inspiration to me, and I can honestly say that without him I would probably not have gone to London to work, and wouldn’t have had the opportunities I did. He brought a discipline to things – he was tall, had the tall hat, the shirt with the bow tie underneath the chef’s jacket, and a moustache – he was rather Anton Mossimman-esque. He was hugely inspiring.
Mum always used to cook at home, she’d make bread, yoghurt and everything, and we’d never eat a ready meal – she was always cooking when she wasn’t working.
I think that for me, the reason I’m so comfortable doing this job is that I’ve totally fallen in love with the ingredients and the seasonality of food. Just recently we had our first broad beans, peas and asparagus of the season – we work within a closed European season, so these were Italian, Spanish and French, but that’s fine by me – of course I look forward to the British, but it’s about being creative with the ingredients that I have.
My brain is a creative brain – I did the interior design in the bar and restaurant – I found the decorative wood I’ve used in the restaurant down by the river, and I’ve just used it on the walls. All the pictures on the walls are from home – they’re not my work, although I’d love to have the time to do it – but I’m a very visual person and I see how I want things to look.
You’ve worked for and with a variety of highly influential people throughout your career, what have you learned and how has this shaped your approach to food?
I learned so much, from the appreciation of great produce, to technique and discipline. Working for Michel Roux Jnr at Le Gavroche gives you a wonderful French foundation to cooking which I don’t think would do any chef any harm, as so many techniques are built on those foundations. Discipline is essential – some people can take it too far, but it’s critical. I worked for Marco (Pierre White) and he taught me discipline in how you control yourself to put food on a plate.
Everything seems to come so naturally to Marco. Like me, he’s no academic, but he has a brilliant mind. Often he’d come down to the kitchen just before service and change things last minute, but he taught us how to deal with that. His mind was racing all the time, he was a huge inspiration – if I have a mentor then it’s Marco.
I worked Alain Passard who’s a famous three star chef in Paris, in what’s practically a vegetarian restaurant. He’s very much into developing a mix of sweet and savoury – I always liked peanut butter and jelly sandwiches as a kid, or cheese and marmalade, things like that. Some people would think it strange, but to this day I love marmalade on toast with tomato sauce and a fried egg with a bit of salt on top as it’s sweet and savoury, and that sort of thing really stimulates your tastebuds, and it’s important not to be afraid to work with flavours.
You can learn things from everyone – you work with some thinkers and you work with some workers, and they all have their own styles of food. But it’s really about how you as an individual receive and process that information, ensuring that you can draw on it again as needed.
Other than pastry, we don’t work from any recipes at The Hardwick. For me cooking is about taste and instinct, and I want to teach people to cook instinctively. I could give anyone a file of recipes and tell them to learn them, but for me it’s intuitive.
In your career you’ve received a number of awards and accolades, such as Michelin star at the age of 25. It seems now that you’ve moved away from the traditional Michelin style of cooking and presentation – do you feel that you’ve found your own voice and the way that you want to present yourself?
I think there are two different issues there. The first is the Michelin issue and that’s really something that’s moved on and progressed over the years – thirty years ago it was truffles, foie gras, reduced sauces, French named restaurants, and there were very few British chefs with a British style of cooking.
Food changes, and has to keep up with the times. Look at the pubs, Chinese, Japanese and Indian restaurants – that was unheard of. One star denotes a certain level and anyone can achieve that these days from any style or culture of cuisine.
I never specifically adjusted my cooking to go for a star – I was very surprised. Canteen was probably the biggest turnover restaurant to be awarded a star at the time, there was a great team of chefs, all Marco did was write menus he never worked in the kitchen. I think the record was something like 320 people on a Saturday night, which is crazy for that level of food. We’d never be one star now with that style of food, but you can’t really compare it as things have changed.
The perfect time for me was when we did Coast in Mayfair for Oliver Peyton. I designed the kitchen, and it was a beautiful space – and we had some great people like Howard Jones, who’s one star London Park; Nathan Jones, who’s since been running overseas operations for Gordon Ramsey; and Josh Emett who was running The London NYC for Gordon in New York; Mark Sargeant and Jason Atherton, who are both really well established and well known. This great team was working for me, and when we opened I told Oliver that I did not want to be in the Michelin Guide. My reason was, as I explained to Oliver and Michelin, that I’d seen too much abuse by chefs who were on a mission to get a star and I didn’t want a part of it. I didn’t want chefs coming in thinking that we were all about stars – instead we were about innovative, creative, seasonal cooking, so that’s why we opted out of the guide.
When I came down to Wales at the age of 33, I realised I was comfortable with what I was doing. When I went into partnership with Francesco (Mattioli) at The Walnut Tree, I learnt a lot more from him, and realised this is where I wanted to be. The Walnut Tree brought me to Wales. I’d eaten there a few times and met Franco (Taruschio) on each occasion, and he’d sewn the seeds that made me think of relocating. When he asked me if I wanted to buy it I immediately said yes – I didn’t know how I was going to do it, but I knew it was what I wanted and that was it.
What does Welsh food mean to you?
There aren’t that many things that are indigenous to Wales that aren’t available elsewhere in the UK. I guess laverbread is one of them, it’s very traditional and I quite like it, although not on its own. I’ve picked it, washed it, seen it cooked at the processing plant and packed – I think it’s a great export product, but I like it with the oatmeal as part of a breakfast.
The thing people need to remember about Welsh produce is that it really is as good here as it is anywhere else in the world – it’s not inferior in any way, shape or form. We have some amazing produce here. A lot of the produce used at The Hardwick comes from just across the border, as we are right on the border, but it’s still local to us.
Fish is tricky, as the system just isn’t there at the moment – Simon Wright told me that there’s enough crab landed in Wales to supply the UK three times over, but it ends up in Spain, as a result we can’t really get Welsh crab. We get Welsh mussels and sewin, the scallops come from Scotland, and everything else we use is from British waters and comes to us from the south coast.
To me, Welsh produce just means home. I consider myself to be an honorary Welshman, I think you have to be here four years before you play for the national team, and I’ve been here ten, so I can certainly cook for Wales now and I do fly the flag.
I love the country, it’s so rich in agriculture and it’s absolutely stunning. There are fabulous things happening, like Trealy Farm and their cured meats, and an amazing array of Welsh cheeses are available. We only use local cheese for our cheeseboard now and we stick to the same ones – it really doesn’t get any better than Hafod cheddar; Charlie Westhead’s Ragstone goat’s cheese; Perl Wen, which I love the saltiness of, and I genuinely prefer to brie and camembert; Boxburgh Blue from Carmarthen; and Gorwydd Caerphilly. I know there are others, but I just want to keep things simple. The staff are trained so they know what each cheese looks like and what it tastes like, so they can describe it to customers.
Is there any product or technique that you consider to be over used by chefs?
The only things that really get up my nose at the moment, are the spreading of purees over plates, the use of foams and froths, and putting a line across the plate. I think they’re just nonsense.
Foams are the emperor’s new clothes – the customer is eating something that tastes like it should but doesn’t have the texture, so they end up eating air. In my opinion, the customer is made to think it’s all very clever, but they’re getting taken for a ride. If someone offered me baked potato foam, I’d rather have the baked potato. As far as purees go, I had enough of those as a baby and I’ve moved on. With swipes on the plate, so many people do it, how creative is that?
There’s a massive increase in food related television over recent years, but home economics seems to have all but disappeared from the school curriculum. People seem to struggle to find the time to cook at home. What advice would you give people who want to cook for their families but either don’t have much time or just don’t have a clue where to start?
It’s tricky as everyone has different levels of confidence. Normally people have a couple of dishes up their sleeves, but I think it comes down to the desire of the individual.
I saw a contestant on Masterchef, and he looked like the last person you’d expect to cook, but he was pretty good, and he said that he loves making fresh food for his kids.
For people starting out, it’s really borne from a desire to want to do it. How many chefs say “keep it simple”? The message is clear, but to some people it really isn’t “simple”. Some people just don’t have a clue other than how to use a tin opener or a microwave. If I try and show someone how to do something simple, they say “well it’s easy for you – you’re a chef”, and yes I do have a lot of experience, but get a lamb shoulder, stick it in a roasting tray with some water, some root vegetables and some pre-soaked dried beans, together with a couple of crushed garlic cloves, salt and pepper, bay leaf and some rosemary, cover with parchment paper and tin foil and stick it in the oven overnight or in the morning before you go to work at 120 degrees, and it’s done, dinner’s ready. You either think like that or you don’t. It is difficult.
You almost need to do as Jamie Oliver did in Ministry of Food and go into people’s houses – we all know that it’s so easy not to cook. If you drive 20 miles you’re going to drive past at least one fast food restaurant, and countless supermarkets. Supermarkets have to make money, and they give us every reason not to go down the fresh food aisle, although they’re there; it would be interesting to see their ratio of sales between convenience foods covering all manner of cuisines, and fresh food. Think about Marks & Spencer and their £10 meal deal – a bottle of wine, a main course and dessert – I can’t even do that – but they have such immense buying power.
You’ve won a wide range of awards and accolades during your career including a Michelin Star and the Wales True Taste Award. What do awards mean to you?
Awards to me are purely recognition of the hard work and effort put in by every member of staff working at The Hardwick.
It’s not personal and I don’t give myself a pat on the back – I’m too consumed and occupied by thinking about what isn’t right and what tomorrow brings. I can’t do anything about yesterday – it’s done. It’s recognition really, we do alright, we work hard and to be rewarded and recognised. It’s not about a trophy, it’s about recognition for the hard work you put in and the sacrifices you make.
The two most important lessons I think I’ve learned in all my years of cooking are that you’re never going to please everyone all the time, and that my opinion has to count above all others – obviously when I was younger I was learning, but now I can’t run my business if I have to canvas for opinion all the time, so I have to form my own opinion based on what I hear and see and feel, and the buck stops with me.
How has The Great British Menu affect your career?
It’s been fantastic – absolutely the best thing ever. I’d seen the first couple of series and then I had the phone call – I didn’t have to think about it as the wider exposure was bound to be good for business. You could be the best cook in the world – locally you may be a legend, but surely you want more people to come and so you need exposure.
What are your future plans?
It really depends on my mood. One day I’d like to open something in Cardiff, and the next day I change my mind.
I would like to do something in Cardiff, but I’d want it to be at least 100 covers, it would probably be a leasehold, and in partnership. I’d look after the creative side of it and I’d like to be part of a team that puts it together. I wouldn’t want all the responsibility – there’s enough here at The Hardwick. This is my jewel in the crown, and there are things I’d like to do to develop it further. I want to put a wood fire and barbecue outside.
Most importantly I’d like to spend some more time with my family – my life work balance stinks and I want to enjoy the children and spend time with my wife.
I also want to continue to be a part of the Welsh culinary scene – I get opportunities to get involved with things as and when I can, but I don’t have time to drop everything and drive off to do a demo somewhere. Every year I take part in a handful of events and festivals, but I don’t have time to get involved in Abergavenny Food Festival as I have to be here.
I love being part of the Welsh culinary scene and I do see myself as an honorary Welshman – I’m a big ambassador for Welsh produce, and it’s important to continue to raise the profile.