Spells advising The Glasshouse in Worcester and The Montagu Arms in Hampshire followed. He also took on a major consultancy project for Fortnum & Mason, which involved the refurbishment of the London food store’s five restaurants. He also wrote a recipe column for The Telegraph’s magazine and reviews for The Guardian during this time, adding to his already established reputation as a notable food writer, with four successful cookbooks under his belt. Incredibly, he coupled all this with a position as research fellow at Exeter University, drawing on his education in the classics to lecture on food and taboos in the ancient world – the subject of an academic text he has also authored. He tells Jancis Robinson: ‘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.’
But the pull of the kitchen was too strong. In 2008, he succumbed to an offer made by local hotelier William Griffiths, who had worked for him as a young man. The well-loved Welsh restaurant The Walnut Tree, where in its glory days was a regular haunt of Hill, was on the market and Griffith wanted to renovate. He would take care of the admin and Shaun Hill’s domain would be the kitchen.
Quickly turning the restaurant’s fading fortunes around, in 2010 Shaun Hill attracted what was now his third Michelin star. He runs the kitchen together with head chef Roger Brook, with Shaun Hill taking a station almost every day. He told the Staff Canteen: ‘I turn up at service time and shake the pans, cook and get on everybody’s nerves! And change what I don’t like on the menu.’
Awarding him 6/10, the Good Food Guide says: ‘All the trademarks are here: genuine warmth, brilliant value, an honest respect for seasonal ingredients, straight-talking flavours and full-frontal impact without unnecessary flourishes.’ The AA, who bestowed it three rosettes, says: ‘Never one for chasing ephemeral culinary fads and trends, Shaun Hill prefers to keep it real, sourcing the best ingredients he can lay his hands on and unleashing his formidable, seemingly effortless technical skills on making it all look deceptively simple.’
Often describing himself as ‘the rough side of Michelin’, his plates eschew precise, laboured arrangement and decoration. But what his food at The Walnut Inn does offer is the same unbridled deliciousness of his other Michelin-level venues – plates that display his innate understanding of beautiful ingredients, prepared with a restrained hand in his timeless and distinctive style.
Rejecting the nostalgic and fantastical view of British cooking as that from the Dickens era, Shaun Hill has always interspersed his cooking with travel and collects inspiration wherever he finds it – be it a recipe to tweak, a combination of ingredients or a new cooking method. He told Andy Hayler: ‘My favourite ingredient tends to vary wildly depending on what book I have recently read or where I have been on holiday. Last year’s trip to Kerala saw more tamarind and coconut milk than was good for me.’ His Steamed John Dory with potato rasam – sweet, meaty fish with an Indian-spiced potato soup – bears the hallmarks of this trip.
Other dishes he has been working on throughout his long career are in evidence. A dish from his Gidleigh Park days – his variation on a dish he once ate at Jeremiah Towers’ restaurant Stars in San Francisco – makes a reappearance, now Seared monkfish with tomato, ginger and garlic. More European-style dishes are also included, such as his Burrata with summer salad and chickpea fritters, his Beef stew with mash and leeks, or his Buttermilk pudding with cardamom and strawberries. As Tom Parker Bowles describes: ‘Hill moves from Asia to Europe with unforced ease and learned aplomb.’
Frequently referred to as ‘a chef’s chef’, he is looked up to by many of the very best in Britain’s restaurant industry, with Tom Kerridge describing him as ‘an inspiration’. With nearly 50 years in the kitchen behind him, he continues to both satisfy and delight, still producing ‘food you want to eat yourself’, executed with intelligence, deftness and unparalleled integrity.
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