Who says that to be an award-winning chef you should have worked in a Michelin-starred restaurant and learnt your skills from a master? Gaby Huddart talks to Stuart McLeod about his unconventional career path and favourite foods.
Stuart McLeod, executive chef of the Castle House hotel and Left Bank Village in Hereford, is something of an anomaly. He may be at the top of his profession and his cooking may be cutting-edge, but his career has been anything but conventional.
For a start, ask McLeod to name his favourite dish from the menu in front of him and it becomes clear that he breaks the mould. His response is quick: "The assiette of Valrhona chocolate". It isn't usual for an executive chef to plump for a dessert, but then McLeod is one of a minority of senior chefs who have had a serious grounding in pastry work.
He spent the best part of two years working in the pastry kitchen at Auchterarder's Gleneagles hotel in Perth in his early 20s, and initially worked in pastry when he moved on to the Carlton hotel in Bournemouth. What's more, McLeod was so fascinated by pâtisserie that he seriously considered specialising in it for his long-term career.
"I decided against it, because I vividly remember Ian Ironside, the pastry chef at Gleneagles, being told to change an absolutely perfect dish by the head chef. In that moment I realised that even if you reach the top in pastry, you still have someone above you. I wanted to be that someone," he explains. "Nevertheless, I still love pastry and regard it as one of my three key skills."
McLeod identifies his two other key skills as training and man-management, which were both largely learnt during an unusual career interlude in the early 1990s. At the age of 26 he was offered the position of chef-lecturer at City of Bath College and spent the next two years out of the industry, initially teaching school-leavers and, later, mentally handicapped people.
The notion that lecturing is a relaxed way of spending time is misplaced, asserts McLeod. "Far from being a waste of time, I regard my time lecturing as the defining moment of my career," he says. "I learnt to cook all over again at that time because, if you are going to explain how and why things happen with food, you really have to understand it properly yourself first."
McLeod's atypical background makes his achievements all the more remarkable. The restaurant at Castle House holds four AA rosettes and earlier this year McLeod was named as the Craft Guild of Chefs' Newcomer of the Year.
These accolades are testament to the fact that McLeod is producing some innovative cuisine. He makes no apology for the fact his dishes fly in the face of the trend towards simple flavours and presentation. Generally, they are unashamedly complex, involving contrasting textures and layers of flavour. "I also concentrate on the shape on the plate. Presentation is very important."
On a recent Castle House Á la carte menu - which changes every six weeks - caramelised sea scallops were served on a bed of lime-flavoured risotto, which was also infused with more dominant peanut satay overtones. The dish is garnished with refreshing coriander and endive salad leaves. "I really enjoy eating Oriental food myself, so I use some Asian ingredients. But I wouldn't describe my food as fusion - that gives the wrong impression," McLeod says.
Complex flavours are evident, too, in McLeod's version of chocolate fondant. He uses a touch of chilli to enliven the dark chocolate and balances this with an accompaniment of iced lemon grass and tarragon brÁ»lée, and crème fraÁ®che ice.
In terms of how he wants to progress his cooking, McLeod says his aim is to achieve consistency 100% of the time. And he remains ambitious when it comes to accolades. "I would like to get five AA rosettes here and would love us to be recognised by Michelin - that would be the icing on the cake. Two stars would be my goal, because I think that demonstrates real consistency."
Stuart McLeod - the Castle road
1982-84 - Brunel Technical College, Bristol (706/1 and 706/2 cookery qualifications)
1984 - Commis chef, Hunstrete House, Hunstrete, near Bristol
1984-86 - Second commis, the Savoy, London
1986-88 - Chef de partie, Gleneagles hotel, Auchterarder, Perthshire
1988-89 - Sous chef, Carlton hotel, Bournemouth, Hampshire
1989-91 - Head chef, Hinton Grange hotel, Abson, Wiltshire
1991-92 - Executive chef, Nidd Hall hotel, Nidd, North Yorkshire
1992-93 - Chef-lecturer, City of Bath College
1993-94 - Chef-lecturer for special-needs students, Stroud College, Nailsworth, Gloucestershire
1994-96 - Executive chef, Washbourne Court hotel, Lower Slaughter, Gloucestershire
1996-99 - Executive chef, the Close hotel, Tetbury, Gloucestershire
1999 to present - Executive chef, Left Bank Village and Castle House, Hereford
Castle House and Left Bank Village
Castle House hotel and the Left Bank Village in Hereford are part of a retail and dining complex set up by Dutch supermarket owner and billionaire Albert Heijn (Caterer, 1 November 2001, page 22).
Stuart McLeod was recruited as executive chef for the operation in March 1999. At that time the Castle House hotel was to run as a bed-and-breakfast operation, with a fine-dining restaurant being set up within the Left Bank complex. But hold-ups meant Castle House's breakfast room was used "temporarily" as a restaurant until the Left Bank opened.
After 10 months, however, the Castle House restaurant was awarded four AA rosettes and so the restaurant was retained. A second fine-dining restaurant, La Rive, duly opened in September 2000, along with a tapas bar, Floodgates brasserie and conference and banqueting rooms.
Less than a year later and La Rive, too, was awarded four AA rosettes, making McLeod the only chef to hold the accolade at two establishments concurrently.
Unfortunately, the 30-seat restaurant at Castle House and 50-seat La Rive were effectively competing for the same fine-dining customers, and so last autumn La Rive was closed.
The restaurant at Castle House has now been renamed La Rive and builders are moving in to extend the kitchen and double the size of the restaurant to 60 seats. When the work is complete, McLeod will expand his six-strong brigade there to nine. His Left Bank Village brigade comprises 16 chefs.
A selection of dishes from the menu at Castle House (£29.95 for three courses)
Roast quail and truffle consommé, tortellini of the legs, fondant of celeriac.
Seared line-caught sea bass, Oriental vegetables, crab dim sum, cucumber salsa.
Poached fillet of Gloucester Old Spot pork, liquorice-spiced turnip, creamed cèpes and lentil cassoulet.
Pot-roast Ryeland lamb, sun-blushed tomato and purple basil purée, caramelised aubergine mousse, split pesto jus.
Plum parfait served with ginger shortbread, gingerbread ice and citrus glaze.
Black treacle and praline panna cotta, white chocolate and praline ice, treacle syrup.
Scallops with lime and peanut risotto (serves four)
12 diver-caught scallops
Star anise powder, dusting to taste for scallops
For the risotto 2 shallots, brunoise
1 clove garlic, smoked
15ml sesame oil
60g vialone nano risotto rice
250ml shellfish or satay stock
1 lime, juice and zest
Coriander, roughly chopped
25g smooth peanut butter
For the dressing 1 egg yolk
10ml lime juice
50ml peanut oil
30g satay paste
Salt and pepper
For the straws 50g puff paste
10g satay paste
For the salad Picked curly endive
Remove scallops from their shell. Clean, wash and dry. To make the risotto, soften shallots and garlic in sesame oil, add the rice and coat in oil. Gradually add the stock until it is fully absorbed. Finish with the lime, coriander, butter and peanut butter.
To make the dressing, place the egg yolk in a bowl over a bain-marie with lime juice, and whisk to sabayon. Gradually add the peanut oil, then finish with satay paste. Season.
To make the straws, roll out the puff paste, spread the satay paste over it and fold into three. Refrigerate until hard. Roll out again, cut into strips and twist together the strands to make straws. Bake until golden.
Mix salad at the last minute and assemble dish.
Pigeon with chicken cannelloni, creamed cabbage and beetroot purée (serves four)
4 squab pigeons
Salt and pepper
30g duck or goose fat
4 sprigs thyme or rosemary
Butter or oil
For the cannelloni 4 Savoy cabbage leaves
120g chicken mousseline
4 confit of the pigeon leg (see advance preparation details below), roughly chopped
5g truffle, chopped
For the beetroot purée 50g beetroot purée (baked in skins, peeled and puréed)
70g potato purée
1tsp white truffle oil
For the won tons 1 clove of garlic, crushed
1 shallot, chopped
3g lemon thyme leaves, chopped
10ml duck fat
8 won ton skins
4 rillettes of the legs (see advance preparation details below)
20g pigeon jus
For the creamed cabbage 3 shallots, brunoise
1 rasher of smoked Wiltshire cure bacon, diced
200g Savoy cabbage, blanched and shredded
2 cloves garlic, crushed
2g thyme, chopped
200ml heavy cream
Salt and pepper
For the garnish 4 small slices of foie gras
4 pancetta wafers
8 beetroot crisps
White truffle oil
Advance preparation: remove the pigeon legs, then salt and stew in duck or goose fat until tender. Flake the meat from half and bind with a little fat to make the rillettes. Leave to set. Reserve the remaining legs as confit.
Sear the crowns of pigeon and season. Place matignon and herbs in a pan and lay the crowns on top. Cover and pot-roast in a hot oven for 15 minutes.
To make the cannelloni, blanch and refresh the cabbage leaves. Trim and stuff with remaining ingredients. Roll in clingfilm and poach.
To make the beetroot purée, mix together the beetroot and potato. Flavour with truffle oil.
To make the won tons, sweat garlic, shallots and thyme in fat. Add the leg rillettes and jus. Cool. Place a small ball of mixture in won ton and form into triangle. Fry.
For the creamed cabbage, sweat the shallots and bacon in butter, add cabbage, garlic and thyme. Pour over the cream and reduce until the cream adheres lightly to the cabbage. Check seasoning.
Garnish: pan-fry foie gras. Bake pancetta wafers.
To assemble, carve the pigeon breast meat and arrange with cabbage, won tons, cannelloni, pancetta, beetroot crisps, purée, a little jus and white truffle oil.