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The Lifetime Achievement Award winner is as legendary as he is unsung. At 72, Shaun Hill is still shaking the pans, delighting his loyal followers, sharing his insight with fellow chefs and inspiring younger generations.
His restaurant, the iconic Walnut Tree in Abergavenny, may boast a Michelin star, three AA rosettes and 5/10 in The Good Food Guide but none of these plaudits drive him – he is inspired, simply, by a pure love of food.
An experienced author and a regular book reviewer for The Caterer, Hill gained an in-depth understanding of cuisines thanks to extensive travelling and his insatiable appetite for reading. In his own writing he never fails to entertain or inform, demonstrating common sense and a self-deprecating humour.
When he is creating dishes, Hill, a winner of the 1993 Chef Award and 2001 Restaurateur of the Year – Independent, is something of a culinary mastermind. The Good Food Guide highlights the dependable links he has forged with producers and the time he takes in sourcing quality raw materials. “His appetite for simple, seasonal food is as keen as ever, be it a plate of cured sea bass with blood orange, avocado and fennel, or skate with octopus and roast Hispi cabbage,” declares the guide.
Hill was born in Belfast in 1947, but brought up in London’s Primrose Hill. A bright student, he left school with A levels in Latin, Greek and ancient history. Later in life, he studied classics at Exeter University and returned to lecture on food in the ancient world. He once told industry guru Nick Lander: “It’s fun having spent 50-60 hours a week burning your hands in the kitchen to look into these topics that are enigmatic but still connected with food and pleasure.”
His first chef position was at a “poncey eaterie” in Southgate, London, then came a position with Robert Carrier, a prominent food writer at the time, at his eponymous restaurant in London’s Camden Passage. Hill then moved on to the Gay Hussar, where he worked for three years, before joining some of London’s most prestigious restaurants, including the InterContinental, the Capital hotel in Knightsbridge and Blakes in South Kensington.
He shot to prominence in the 1980s, when he joined Paul and Kay Henderson at Gidleigh Park in Chagford, Devon, as head chef where, during his nine years, he attained a Michelin star and became a major player in the modern British food movement.
In 1994, Hill and his wife Anja opened the Michelin-starred Merchant House in Ludlow, and the chef was soon credited with putting the Shropshire town on the foodie map. Everything was cooked by Hill – it had to be, he was the only member of the brigade. The restaurant closed in 2005 and in 2008 he took over the Walnut Tree with his business partner William Griffiths.
For Stephen Terry, chef-proprietor of the Hardwick restaurant in Abergavenny, Hill is one of a kind: “He is the last person of a generation still left at the stove. He’s an absolute academic – in the proper sense of the word – but he has chosen to cook as well. He is a bottomless pit of knowledge and an incredibly gifted cook. Shaun is solid, classical and all about the foundations of cooking.
“He’s not a shouter – he’s too casual for that – but he inspires everyone who meets him. He always has the capacity – the grey matter – to take things on, and he’s always there for advice. And, wow, does he have some advice to give.”
The editorial team of The Caterer, with nominations from all the Cateys’ judging panels