The news that Shaun Hill has taken over the helm of one of the country's iconic culinary establishments - the Walnut Tree, near Abergavenny in South Wales - has been greeted with huge delight by the hospitality industry and past customers.
While Hill has been busy over the past couple of years working as a consultant with a number of high-profile establishments, his presence as a working chef in one permanent location has been sorely missed. His food was always in high demand when he was cooking at the Merchant House, the restaurant he owned for 11 years with his wife, Anja, in Ludlow, Shropshire, and before that at Gidleigh Park, Chagford, Devon, where he was head chef for nine years. Both restaurants won a Michelin star among other notable awards and plaudits, as well as a band of loyal followers.
Equally, the closure of the Walnut Tree in March 2007 was met with dismay. For 38 years the unpretentious pub-restaurant, under the ownership of Franco and Ann Taruschio, had been a beacon of brilliance to which foodies and chefs flocked from far and wide. It was frequently named as a favourite restaurant by chefs, as well as by the late food writer Elizabeth David, and undoubtedly put Wales on the culinary map.
On the sale of the business in 2001, the new custodian in the kitchen, Stephen Terry, briefly achieved critical acclaim before he himself decided to move on and establish himself at the Hardwick, a nearby pub he has been able to make his own without the ghosts of any previous incumbents hanging over him.
Meanwhile, back at the Walnut Tree, a period of instability followed while Terry's former business partner, Francesco Mattioli, tried to get the business back on track, even calling in Gordon Ramsay and the television cameras along the way. However, the appearance of the Walnut Tree on Channel 4's Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares in 2004 was to no avail, as the business floundered and was eventually forced to close after going into receivership.
Hill never had any master plan to run the Walnut Tree. In fact, he says he has never really planned any step of his career. "I never rationalised going to Ludlow I simply thought the Merchant House was lovely because it had a river running through the garden," he explains. "Then, on selling up in Ludlow in 2005, I thought I would do a bit of consultancy work, write some books and drink lots of red wine."
Hill reveals that the option to buy the Walnut Tree originally came his way when Taruschio was first looking to sell the business. But at the time he thought it would be a poisoned chalice, as it was somewhere that was so loved and so much the embodiment of the Taruschios. "In the end that proved to be the case," says Hill. "But now it's a different story, as I'm taking on a business that has ultimately failed."
The opportunity to take over the running of the Walnut Tree was offered to him again last year while he was in the middle of a major consultancy project for Fortnum & Mason involving the refurbishment of all five restaurants, totalling 1,000 covers, at the famed food store in London's Piccadilly. Hill was approached by William Griffiths, the owner of the Angel hotel in Abergavenny, who suggested they form a partnership to take over the Walnut Tree. Griffiths proposed he run the administrative side of the business, including the PAYE and VAT returns, leaving Hill free to run the kitchen and restaurant.
"William's suggestion pleased me enormously, as I don't want to spend my time filling out forms. I've never liked that side of the business, and if someone else is prepared to do that, then so much the better," says Hill, who has known Griffiths since he worked at the Merchant House 12 years ago.
The timing was right. Although the purchase of the Walnut Tree was completed in June 2007, considerable refurbishment work had to be undertaken before it reopened in the week before Christmas. This gave Hill time to complete his work with Fortnum & Mason - although he still oversees menu changes there - and turn his attention to his new project in South Wales.
Initially, his intention was to set up the kitchen, install a head chef and put together the odd dish. But the reality is that the Walnut Tree needs the presence of a personality in the kitchen, and Hill is happy to be back behind the stove full-time. "It is what I'm best at. I like the buzz of a service and would much rather be cooking than in a marketing meeting with a load of suits," he says.
While the consultancy work has been financially beneficial - the Fortnum & Mason job paid his bills for a year - he is glad not to be doing all the travelling that it entailed any longer. One of his other consultancy projects, the Glasshouse in Worcester, was close to home, but the other major job he took on was at the Montague Arms in Beaulieu, Hampshire.
Certainly, if Hill, now 60, decides to remain in the kitchen for some time, there will be considerable cheering from the punters, who have returned in their droves to the Walnut Tree since its reopening. The 60-seat operation is now almost constantly full at both lunch and dinner, with diners spending an average of £50 per head.
"It has rather taken me by surprise. I thought we might start off doing 15 to 20 people a day for a while," says a slightly bewildered Hill, overlooking the fact that his reputation as a fine cook and a jolly nice guy is almost unrivalled in a world that is packed full of culinary pomposity. "I initially kept it quiet that we were opening, as I didn't want to be in the position that Claude found himself in when he moved Hibiscus to London," he says, referring to Claude Bosi, Hill's former neighbour in Ludlow, who had a horde of food critics dine at his new restaurant within days of its launch.
However, once the news that Shaun Hill was in charge of the Walnut Tree leaked out, it was only going to be a short time before the largely London-based critics began to head down the M4. This has, indeed, been the case, and just a month after opening Nicholas Lander declared in the Financial Times that "with Hill at the helm, the welcoming lights at the Walnut Tree Inn burn brightly once more".
It seems that the elements of the Walnut Tree that always proved so popular and made it somewhere people want to enjoy themselves - the unpretentious surroundings, the informality and friendliness of the service, and the good-quality, straightforward food - have been restored to their rightful place. Indeed, these are the aspects of the business that encouraged Hill himself to eat here time after time in years gone by. He has cleverly maintained links with the past by inviting back Pauline McKay, who had previously worked at the Walnut Tree for 36 years, as restaurant manager, and Roger Brooks, who worked under Taruschio and Terry, as head chef.
Hill, however, is keen to stress that the Walnut Tree is not a shrine to its past glory days. The layout of the restaurant is as it was, but the decor is sharper and more chic than the rustic look of the Taruschio era. Cream walls are enlivened with simple black-and-white line drawings on the walls and a striking black-and-white fabric depicting foliage from a walnut tree - designed by Griffiths's sister and repeated on the cover of the menu and wine list - at the windows.
The greatest change, though, has come about in the menu (see panel opposite). Hill is aiming to offer palpable value for money, and this is particularly apparent in the sensibly priced set lunch menu offering two course for £15 and three courses for £20. "Price is important," says Hill. "I do think people are more kindly disposed to a restaurant if the final bill is not too high." The same policy follows through to the wine list (see panel above).
Hill is as glad as his customers to have been given the opportunity to reopen the Walnut Tree. "I always liked to come here and was very sad to see it fall on hard times. I really want to see it vibrant again," he says.
Just two months after the reopening it seems Hill has already achieved his aim. When I visited, on a Wednesday lunchtime in mid-January, the restaurant was humming, with a packed house full of customers, many of whom were exclaiming how delighted they were to see the business up and running again. While Hill is in charge, there is no doubt the Walnut Tree will run and run.
What's on the wine list
Hill has complied an easy-to-read, compact list of about 50 wines for the Waltnut Tree, priced at a level he believes is good value.
Rather than offer a large or comprehensive choice, he has created a colleection of good-quality and interesting wines.
The wines themselves are groupled under "essential" (a solid varietal-based selection priced from £16 to £25), "core" (wines he regards as shining stars, but offer good value too, at £18-£34) and "classic" wines (mostly top-end drinking, £23-£97).
Several are available in 350ml carafes, as good half-bottles are hard to find.
"On the medium and more expensive wines I have worked on about £10-a-bottle-profit, plus a bit to cover out-of-condition wines - which I drink or give away - opened bottles for carafes that don't sell in time, and suchlike," says Hill. "There is little or no wine service to justify a pro rata margin on smarter bottles."
When it comes to Hill's own current favourite wine on the list, he points to Vondeling Babiana Noctiflora 2005 (£22), a white wine of mostly Chenin Clanc with Viogneir from South Africa.
"It is both fresh and full with lots of fruit - almost worth passing the red wine for," he says.
While the integrity of the dishes produced by former proprietors Franco and Ann Taruschio is still there, the style has moved on. The old Walnut Tree offered a menu inspired by an idiosyncratic mix of Franco's Italian origins, the local produce of South Wales and Thai food, following the couple's adoption of a Thai daughter.
"Basically, I've put together a menu made up of dishes that I want to eat, and that means interesting, but not challenging, food," says Hill, explaining that he develops dishes from ideas that he has picked up on his travels at home and abroad, where he is always an enthusiastic restaurant-goer. "I'm not a Mozart who develops new dishes, but I pick on combinations that work well and adapt them."
For example, his starter of scallop tartare with scallop won ton fritters (£9) is a version of a dish that Hill ate in Switzerland in a Chinese-French restaurant. Another starter - seared monkfish with garlic, ginger and tomato (£9) - has been developed from a dish that he successfully served during his time at Gidleigh Park, where he used red mullet.
Main-course dishes include rare-breed Berkshire pork - belly, loin, pig's cheek and black pudding (£17) and poached knuckle of veal in its cooking liquor, salsa verde and gherkins (£17), while the selection of comforting puddings embraces samloi (£7), Hungary's version of trifle, with apricots, walnuts and rum, which harks back to Hill's days working at the Gay Hussar in London.
The Walnut Tree Restaurant, Llanddewi Skirrid, Abergavenny, Monmouthshire NP7 8AW. Tel: 01873 852797. Website: www.thewalnuttreeinn.com