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Adam Simmonds: on winning a Michelin star

06 April 2006
Adam Simmonds: on winning a Michelin star

To find Adam Simmonds you must head west. Right the way across the breadth of Wales. Go almost as far as you can go without plunging into the Irish Sea. Take the little lane just beyond the village of Eglwysfach and just before you hit the RSPB nature reserve bear right. Before you will appear Ynyshir Hall, a former shooting lodge built for Queen Victoria.

If the word lodge suggests a fairly modest, even rustic building, think again. Ynyshir is an elegant chalk-white country residence, set in beautiful sweeping grounds that give way to the rugged drama of the steep slopes beyond. It's a gorgeous location - but there's no getting away from it, it's a fair trek from most of the UK. Yet it doesn't stop plenty of people from making the journey, particularly since January, when Simmonds, the hotel's head chef, regained a Michelin star for Ynyshir two years after taking over in the kitchen.

Simmonds appreciates the effort guests make to get to the hotel. He had to drive from the South-east of England when he travelled to Ynyshir for his interview. "I just seemed to be driving forever and I thought ‘maybe this is too far!'" he confesses.

At that time Simmonds was working for Jean-Christophe Novelli at Brockett Hall in a position that transpired to be a wrong turn in a career that has had its fair share of twists, turns, dead-ends and even the occasional crash. The drive to Ynyshir Hall may have been circuitous, but as journeys go it was something of a Sunday spin compared with his hike towards a Michelin star. It was a hike that took him from catering college through the kitchens of Le Gavroche, the Ritz, the Halkin, L'Escargot, the Lanesborough, Les Saveurs, Heathcotes, the Greenway in Cheltenham, Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons and, of course, the aforementioned Brockett Hall.

The spark for Simmonds's choice of career was lit in secondary school. "I wasn't much good at the academic stuff. I preferred things I could do with my hands and preferably something creative. I loved home economics - even then I knew that's what I wanted to do," he explains.

So he duly went to catering college in Luton, where he picked up the award for "most improved student" - something, he says, that might seem small now, but at the time brought him almost as much pride as the securing of a Michelin star many years later.

Making money Initially, Simmonds says, he lacked any real understanding of awards and his ambitions lay in the direction of "making money" rather than pursuing the gongs of the profession. Nevertheless it was to guidebooks Simmonds turned when looking for his first job in 1989. "I just wrote off letters to all the best places and that's how I ended up at Le Gavroche. They invited me to an interview and I briefly met with Michel Roux Jnr. While he was there a waiter walked in and asked him something. After he replied the waiter took a couple of steps back and bowed to him. I hadn't expected that and thought ‘Oh shit what's this about?'"

As it turned out Simmonds's trepidation was well founded. One semi-serious service a week at college hadn't prepared him for the rigours of Le Gavroche: the pressure got too much for him and he quit after six months. He took refuge in the less-exposed production line kitchens of the Ritz, regained his confidence and then moved on to the Halkin, the Lanesborough and eventually Les Saveurs under its then head chef, Richard Stuart.

Les Saveurs was his first sustained introduction to a kitchen at Michelin-star level and it was another shock to the system. "It knocked me back… the level of attention to detail was something else. I wasn't sure I was up to it but I knew I needed to take it on in order to go forward. On a Monday morning I'd be petrified, thinking ‘can I actually do this?' but I felt if I wasn't pushing then I was almost cheating myself."

But for Simmonds the big leap forward in his career came in 1999 when he was offered a position at Le Manoir. The next three years were to be arguably the most important in his development but they almost didn't happen. "The place is just so amazing, daunting really and the day I was due to start I drove up to those big gates and well, I just lost my bottle, couldn't go in. Fortunately Gary Jones, the executive chef, rang and asked me to come in for a chat, and gave me a second chance." Simmonds's confidence rose as he made the most of the opportunity to refine his skills at Le Manoir. Eventually he had the self-belief to take on his first head chef job at the Greenway, a country house hotel in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire.

Star chaser By now Simmonds was 32 and conscious that it was about time he made a distinctive mark of his own. By his own admission he put a lot of pressure on himself. The hotel shared his ambition of achieving a Michelin Star and he set about the task in ferocious manner, ripping up the old menus and diving straight in to the task of finding his own style. Meanwhile, though, the staff he had inherited were walking out of the door.

"Staffing was a nightmare. I was on a mission and I expected everybody else to be as committed as I was. I'd come straight from Le Manoir and I was fiery, boisterous. I was also trying to be far too elaborate with the cooking too early. I can see that now, but at the time I was working in a bubble, isolated. The staffing was never stable and I just hit a brick wall after a crazy year of no holidays and hardly any sleep."

Although the Greenway retained its three AA rosettes and achieved a rewarding 7/10 from the Good Food Guide during Simmonds's short tenure, he was struggling to keep his head above water. Just as he was in fear of sinking for good, Novelli reappeared on the scene. "He came to eat because of course he knew me from Les Saveurs. He liked it and offered me this wonderful package to join the set-up at Brockett Hall."

Simmonds took the lifeline but things didn't turn out as expected. "I ended up cooking in the golf club. After two months I was looking for something else."

Welcome to Wales
Which is how Simmonds ended up navigating his way to the furthest reaches of West Wales to the interview at Ynyshir Hall. The hotel had first achieved a star for its food under Les Rennie (now at Lords of the Manor, Gloucestershire) in that brief period in 2002 when Wales boasted a total of five Michelin stars.

"What attracted me was the size and the fact that the owners, Rob and Joan Reen, clearly shared the same ambition as me," he says. The support and understanding of the Reens has clearly been a crucial component in Simmonds's success at Ynyshir. "Staffing isn't easy out here. I'm really lucky with my sous chef, Simon Aquilina, but it's a team game and part of the challenge is for me to keep the team together and motivated. It's not just about cooking."

The cooking is what has earned him the plaudits, though. He describes his style as "not safe" and it's true there is some real ambition in his ingredient combinations and no shortage of inventiveness. It's a clean and uncluttered style, though - perhaps a reaction to trying too hard in his Greenway days and there's an obvious determination to bring out the best in what's available locally. "Supplies are a mixed bag out here. What is available locally can be wonderful, but sometimes it can be a headache just to get the raw materials."

Simmond's cooking is not lacking in local identity, though. While he may struggle to get his hands on some things that would be conveniently available in the South-east of England, there are some freely available treasures here that would be highly prized in anyone's kitchen. Cardigan Bay offers abundant seafood with the shellfish especially good, local rivers offer up wild salmon and sea trout. There's plenty of game and, naturally, there is Welsh mountain lamb.

A glance at the menu, with the likes of a highly successful fillet of red mullet with foie gras, Puy lentils and a purée of melon, shows that it serves up the type of enterprise we are now familiar with in a number of starred establishments across the UK. Simmonds's cooking is undeniably modern. In fact it's in the same vein as the food cooked by several British chefs of his generation - where imagination and innovation may be the spur, but the underpinning is a strong classical element. In Simmonds's case they are also backed up by a singular appreciation of flavour and texture, resulting in dishes that are beautifully balanced and display an inspired lightness of touch.

Like all good chefs seeking to extend their knowledge, he is also looking abroad for further inspiration. On the suggestion of a journalist from Holland, he recently checked out a well-kept (to UK chefs at least) Dutch secret. ‘t Brouwerskolkje is just one hour out of Amsterdam and its one-Michelin-starred chef Moshik Roth is putting combinations such as hare with beetroot and chocolate mousse on the plate - the mousse being quenelled at the table Heston Blumenthal-style using liquid nitrogen. Simmonds, his curiosity aroused, is in the process of setting up a stage with Roth.

And although he's coy about revealing details, he's also currently establishing contact with a Cardiff university academic in order to further his comprehension of how food works scientifically. Not, he says, to travel the molecular route, but in order to cook his own food better through greater understanding. He's clearly excited by the possibilities to come but is also deeply conscious that his flights of fancy have to prove themselves in the eating. "I have to be able to justify why I put certain things together. Of course, that means each dish has to work for me first, I have to be totally convinced by it."

Plenty of others are convinced, too. Last year, Ynyshir Hall picked up one award after another and Simmonds got used to the calls from the Welsh press wanting to interview him on his latest accolade. The call he really wanted came in January of 2006, though, the confirmation of what many had expected - his first Michelin star. For Simmonds it was a watery end to a long and exhausting journey. Not quite the Irish Sea, perhaps, but as he's happy to admit "a few tears were shed".

Recipes

Poached fillet of brill with wild garlic leaf, panna cotta and morels >>

Ginger parfait, green tea jelly and coconut >>

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