Dorset-born Ashley Palmer-Watts started working in restaurants at the age of thirteen. Twenty three years on, he’s head chef at the two Michelin star Dinner at London’s beautiful Mandarin Oriental Hotel on Hyde Park (chef’s table, below), while also Culinary Director of the Fat Duck Group. Dinner is, of course, Dinner by Heston Blumenthal and Palmer-Watts is his protégé. As Blumenthal said when Dinner opened,
“I’m utterly confident of putting Ash out under my name. It was always going to be Ash. I simply wouldn’t have done this if it wasn’t for him.”
I spoke to Palmer-Watts in the beautiful surroundings of Cape Lodge in Western Australia’s Margaret River region, three hours south of Perth. He was in town for the second year running at the Gourmet Escape, a culinary nirvana featuring some of the world’s biggest chefs, markets, lunches and dinners under starlight and all round shameless #foodporn. If food and wine is your thing, you should start making plans now for next year’s event.
Palmer-Watts is great company, modest and softly-spoken but clearly quietly driven and determined to exceed expectations at every turn.
What’s new at the Fat Duck group?
We’ve just opened our second Dinner by Heston restaurant in Melbourne. It’s exactly the same site as where the Fat Duck residency was (i.e. The Crown Towers Casino). Meanwhile the new Fat Duck has also opened up back in the UK. So essentially we’ve opened three restaurants in one year. Pretty busy! We forget sometimes.
Dinner in Melbourne is up to 160-170 covers now, we’re aiming for 200 so we’re gradually building it with a bit of control, building the team and getting it right. The flipside of doing a restaurant for a residency (e.g. The Fat Duck in Melbourne) is everyone thinks the next one will be temporary too, but this is permanent.
Is it the same menu as Dinner in London?
It’s based on the same menu and historical dishes as Dinner in London but with Australian ingredients – and we’ve bought in some Australian dishes too.
For example one of the desserts we’ve made here is the Lamington cake. When you say Lamington to an Australian everyone smiles and laughs, people feel really strongly about them. So I thought let’s do something with that, use the flavours and form a little bit.
On the bottom we’ve got a little cylinder, a pastry chocolate base, then a chocolate ganache, then a lightly-soaked coconut sponge, then inside that is a liquid raspberry center and it’s all encased in a rum and white chocolate mousse. We finish it by rolling it in coconut and spraying it with chocolate. When you cut through it the sauce runs out. We serve it with grilled raspberries over charcoal and a rum and vanilla ice cream. It’s a good example of what Dinner is because it’s inspired by something. The Australians seem to be enjoying it! Dinner is a serious restaurant but it’s comfortable and relaxed, there has to be a bit of humour in there too.
How is Heston as a boss?
He’s incredible, brilliant. I don’t really look at him as a boss, we’re great friends, he’s my mentor, he looks at me almost like his son. We’ve got a very unique relationship that works, we’ve been together a long time.
3 minutes, chef:
What was the first dish you cooked for a paying customer?
I worked in a small restaurant called Le Petit Canard so it would have been roast monkfish, roasted peppers, wild mushrooms and basil.
Which cookery writers do you like to read?
In terms of cookery writers it’s more about exploration and discovery, as much as ‘this is how you make something’. I love Thomas Keller’s writing, Rick Stein and Harold Mcgee for his exploratory and pioneering guidance, ‘On Cooking’. Massively important.
Which one utensil do you use most?
What’s your guilty food pleasure?
Ready salted crisps, cheddar cheese and Heinz tomato ketchup. It’s just a little bit of cheese between a couple of sizeable crisps with just a fraction, a slight dab, of ketchup.
Who would you dine with at your last supper?
My family and I’d throw a couple of extras there that I’d love to sit down and have dinner with. Steven Fry and Elton John.
And what’s on the menu?
Roast chicken, full-on, Yorkshire pudding, a little bit of black truffle and a nice crumble for dessert with vanilla ice cream.
Favorite vegetable to cook with?
The potato. I love potatoes, I know technically it’s a tuber, but hey.
Childhood food memories – good or bad?
I was quite a fussy eater when I was younger so I didn’t really like lasagna or spaghetti Bolognese, but I think anything my mum cooked which was burnt would probably be a dislike. But it wasn’t all bad!
Any memorable kitchen disasters?
One of the worst things was years ago, we had a heatwave in the UK and put these huge bottles of coke in this little blast freezer that Heston has just bought at the Fat Duck. So we put these cokes in there and we opened the fridge five minutes before service and they exploded everywhere. We were all covered in sticky coke, it was dripping off everything at 5 to 7. That wasn’t ideal!
Where did you have your most memorable meal?
Nine years ago we cooked a dinner at the Starlight fundraiser with Neil Perry, Thomas Keller, Heston and Tetsuya. After the event we went back to Tetsuya’s office in Sydney (below) and one end there’s a Japanese style kitchen with a teppanyaki. He had three guys there cooking for two and a half hours. I was sat next to Thomas Keller, I was 25/26. We were drinking Dom Perignon out of magnums that Guillaume bought. Just the most incredible food experience that you simply cannot replicate.
What did you have for dinner last night?
On the beach, BBQ lamb chops, octopus and potato with chilli. Then we came back here and had some pulled pork, steamed buns, a couple glasses of wine. I was tucked up in bed by 930, I don’t usually get that opportunity to sleep like that!
What’s your kitchen management style?
Controlled, precise, respectful and thoughtful.
Ever feel intimidated cooking for someone?
I was cooking in Vegas, a dinner for 12 people, I was plating the main course in the kitchen, saucing the plate, Joel Robuchon came over and put his arm around me looking over my shoulder. I probably fell apart!