Songs from the sea
Dishes that are siren calls of beauty
After the stage, Simon Hulstone and his wife moved to Devon to establish their own restaurant, The Elephant, with a relaxed Brasserie on the ground floor and The Room, the restaurant’s the more formal offering, situated above. In 2004, The Room – with its tasting menus and wine flights – won a Michelin star which the couple (his wife Katy runs front of house) have retained ever since. He says of this award: ‘It was a bolt out of the blue really. When we reached Torquay and got our Michelin star, really I thought it was the last place in the world that you would get one. To be honest with you, I never thought I was a Michelin-star chef, but we’ve had it now for 11 years. I think it was because I had never worked in a Michelin-star restaurant, I didn’t really know how Michelin worked; I just didn’t think that I was on their radar.’
Reflecting on whether the Michelin award has changed his cooking style, he says: ‘What it has done is to make me respect the ingredients a lot more. It has made me analyse what I was doing and how I was doing it. It has really matured me, sometimes it has pulled me back and sometimes it has pushed me forward. More than anything it has made me listen to gut instincts rather than doing something to impress people. I’m not cooking to impress but to make my customers happy. So when I get to “happy zone” with my cooking I think that the dish is finished and I don’t need to add anything. When I was a lot younger I would have just added more and more elements and one of those elements could ruin a dish, whereas now it is two or three really good elements that taste really good.’
This new respect for ingredients, in part, motivated Simon Hulstone and his business partner to create their own dedicated farm in south Devon. With almost 100 acres now in operation, they raise free-range pigs, hoggets, turkeys, chickens, geese, sheep and alpacas (for guard duties apparently), along with growing the fruit, vegetables, herbs and flowers that supply the restaurant. As well as instilling a huge sense of reverence for the fresh ingredients they are now producing – not just cooking – Simon Hulstone estimates that last year the farm saved them £45,000. He told us: ‘It has really woken us up to the quality of ingredients and to seasonality and to utilising products at their best natural state, as early as possible. We will get everything picked in the morning, we’ll have it prepared and hopefully we’ll sell it that evening – so from field to plate it is 12 hours, it’s amazing. It has given me a love for the quality of ingredients, for how we grow then and how we look after them. When I see the chefs overcooking a vegetable now it is so annoying because we have grown that from scratch, we have been there on the journey with it and we want it really respected.’
With their own West Country farm supplying their produce, the menus at The Elephant very much revolve around the seasons; and being so close to the sea, the fish dishes are held in particularly high regard. The Soy and beetroot marinated salmon with fennel pollen cream makes for an unusual starter, and the Pan-fried sea bass with butter spinach, clams, poached cod cheeks and fish sauce, or the Halibut fillet glazed with lardo, parsnip purée and a verjus and spring onion sauce are examples of beautifully balanced mains. As a restaurant that raises their own meat, The Elephant’s dishes, such as New season lamb with a pine nut and wild garlic crust and tarragon gnocchi, are a celebration of their carefully produced local bounty. Locally shot game, such as Loin of venison with soy glazed baby beets and roasted turnip purée, also makes an appearance.
With three children all named after unusual herbs – Tansy, Cicely and Betony – it is perhaps unsurprising that a bright, colourful range of delicate plants and flowers both flavour and decorate Simon Hulstone’s dishes. However he is keen to stress that ‘everything is on the plate for a reason’. Take his Sweet pea panna cotta with crab and cicely, mango-dashi sorbet and brown crab toast, for example – summery and unusual with a touch of creative whimsy. This dish is a prime illustration of Simon Hulstone’s style, which displays a deep understanding of the different elements of flavour that make a dish work, but finds those elements in unexpected places.
In 2015 he also took over the running of Burridge’s Café Tearooms in partnership with his father, serving beautifully executed, traditional English afternoon teas and ploughman’s lunches. He also has plans for a pop-up hot-dog café in the works, which will be located near the tearooms on Torquay’s beautiful harbourside. He says of his pop-up: ‘It’s about doing something cool and different and about me really just dipping my fingers into something new. It will also give me the freedom to try something different that I don’t have at The Elephant, because I can’t stick a hot dog on the menu here. I do enjoy eating them and going out and doing those sorts of things and I don’t think I should hold back my ideas and my enthusiasm for other styles of food just because I’ve got a Michelin star.’
Simon Hulstone has gone from a child who wouldn’t eat ketchup because it contained a vegetable to a Michelin-starred chef with one of the best kitchen gardens in Britain. He has achieved amazing success the highest levels of international competitive cooking and is now transforming Torquay into a top culinary destination. His beautiful, colourful plates celebrate the very best of south-western produce – from the freshest fish to the wild flowers of the hedgerows. Although his days as an event competitor are now over, he’s still pushing forward. He says: ‘Now we’re only competing against ourselves, because we’re striving to be better. Every dish that goes out has to be better than the last one you send.’ We’re excited to see where that leads.