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How Michelin-starred food has changed over the years

How Michelin-starred food has changed over the years

by Tom Shingler 09 October 2017

Tom Shingler pays a visit to Hambleton Hall – which has held a Michelin star since 1982 – to talk to head chef Aaron Patterson about how the fine dining food scene has changed over the years.

Vegetables boiled into a mush, bland stews and unhealthy deep-fried dinners – that’s how most people used to describe British cuisine. But in recent years our appreciation of good food has experienced a complete transformation; we’re now home to some of the best restaurants in the world, we absorb international influences with ease and know that at the heart of any good dish lies fantastic ingredients – many of which can be found locally. It’s in the Michelin-starred kitchens of the UK that we can see the most obvious change; this year’s guide awarded chefs such as Andrew Wong, a champion of regional Chinese flavours, and Mark Birchall, a pioneer of modern British cuisine.

However, turn back the clock twenty-five years and you’d be hard put to find a contemporary Chinese restaurant or a chef specialising in foraged British herbs in the Michelin Guide. Not only were there far fewer Michelin-starred restaurants in the UK, almost all of them focused on classical French dishes, with brigades of chefs getting through incredible amounts of butter day after day. While being trained in classical techniques is still an important skill for any chef working in Britain today, as a nation we’ve moved away from the heavy French dishes that used to dominate fine dining and have instead found our own culinary style.

Hambleton Hall is the only restaurant in the UK to have continuously held a Michelin star for thirty-five years, an incredible achievement when you look at how different eating out is now compared to the 1980s. And it’s thanks to Aaron Patterson – who has been head chef there since 1992 – that the restaurant has been able to move with the times whilst simultaneously retaining a stellar reputation. There’s no one better to talk to about how Michelin-starred dining has evolved over the past few decades, as he’s experienced it first-hand. I paid Aaron a visit to find out how all aspects of being a Michelin-starred chef – from the way the kitchen is run to how dishes are presented – have changed.

Aaron on…

…working in the kitchen

‘Kitchens used to be terrifying places to work. You had to be very careful – there was quite a bit of sabotage and backstabbing amongst chefs. But that’s all changed now because you simply can’t get away with it. When I first became head chef I was a bit of a nightmare to be honest, but I quickly realised you get through far too many chefs leading like that. When you get a bit older you become more experienced and more patient, and realise that a nice working environment is good for everyone, so long as they’re all pulling their weight.

‘While I think it’s great that cooking is considered cool now, the change in younger chefs coming into the industry has been unbelievable. You get youngsters coming from catering college to do a trial and they do well so you hire them. But when it comes to the nitty gritty, doing it day in day out when you’re broken and tired, the stress, the hours – it’s too much. All they see is the fame and glamour of TV chefs, and unfortunately half of TV chefs can’t cook to save their lives. When they get a taste of reality they soon change their minds. You do get the odd one come through who’s fantastic, but most are very disillusioned. I don’t think they were ever expecting the amount of work it takes to cook at this level.’

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This crab dish, served at Hambleton Hall in the 1990s, was no doubt delicious
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But compared with the crab dish Aaron serves today, it suddenly looks incredibly dated

…ingredients

‘I remember when I was working with Nick Gill thirty years ago we’d get two fish deliveries a week from Billingsgate – that would be it. Now you can get fish delivered twice a day, and that’s the same for meat and veg. In my experience chefs have always believed they’re only as good as their ingredients, but the access to great produce and the way kitchens used to be managed meant that was harder than it is today.

‘Sea vegetables are something that you never used to see, apart from samphire. They’re delicious and there’s loads of it now. Back then though, nobody really knew it was edible, so there was no demand for it. English truffles are a big thing now too, because the climate’s changed – I get so many phone calls from people saying they think they’ve found some, and I tell them to bring them in straight away!’

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This giant marshmallow surrounded by fresh fruits and a coulis was probably the pinnacle of British fine dining twenty-five years ago
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Today, it's desserts like Aaron's Hambleton Granny Smith – which encases a panna cotta, apple sorbet and flavours of apple and blackcurrant inside a sugar dome – that really get diners excited

…techniques

‘It’s one of the biggest changes that’s happened in the kitchen over the past twenty-five years, and it’s all Heston’s fault. I love slow-cooking and it really brings out the flavour of meat, particularly fatty cuts like shoulder of lamb. You might’ve seen the odd piece of pork belly back in the old days, but the cuts that are popular now weren’t really seen in restaurants. There was an element of snobbery there, and people wanted fillet. But I don’t want fillet on my à la carte – I want a piece of medium-rare Jacob’s ladder, slow-cooked for thirty hours at sixty-three degrees so when you eat a piece it completely melts.

‘A lot of food was French back then, with beurre blanc, cream and butter everywhere, but I think that all started to change when people became more health conscious. It’s better in terms of flavour, too – twenty-five years ago, if you wanted to make a fennel sauce, for example, you’d chop up some fennel, add some cardamom, maybe a bit of vanilla, then two packs of butter and some cream, before reducing and puréeing it. It’s still delicious, but by cooking it for so long you lose the fennel flavour. Today, you can use a Thermomix to blitz some fresh fennel with tomato essence, pass it off and you’re left with a liquor that you can thicken with natural starch. That leaves you with a n intense, fresh fennel flavour that really hits you. It elevates anything it’s served with.’

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Aaron used to have to put up with two fish deliveries a week twenty-five years ago, but now he can get two a day if he wants to
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This means he has access to the very best, freshest ingredients imaginable – a vital component of any great dish

…presentation

‘It was crap, wasn’t it? I was looking at some of the old dishes that used to be served here – they weren’t mine, thank God – and some of them were shocking. I think it was certainly an afterthought; you look at the classic French dishes, and presentation was pretty poor back then. While it’s much better now, you have to be careful how far you push it. If you over-elaborate and you put too many things on the plate you can confuse the diner and lose clarity of flavour. You can’t just put something there because it adds colour – it has to add flavour too. Desserts are a little bit different, as you can show off a bit more with them, but with starters and mains you want to concentrate on the flavours and ensure they have that wow factor.’

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Aaron became head chef at Hambleton Hall in 1992, after working with previous head chef Nick Gill as a youngster
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Twenty-five years later, he continues to ensure Hambleton Hall is one of the best restaurants in the UK, making the most of local produce sourced from the stunning surrounding Rutland countryside

…formality

‘Eating out has become much less formal, especially at lunchtime. When I first started here if you had ten in for lunch you were busy – today we’ve got forty-five. That all started when we began offering lunch for less, and it really helped kick off our local business. People soon realised that you didn’t need to spend an arm and a leg to eat here, and once they arrived they saw that it wasn’t as stuffy as they probably thought. It’s the same in the evening, too – not everyone is suited and booted. I’m pleased it’s not as formal as it used to be. You certainly wouldn’t get kicked out for not having a tie on – twenty years ago you probably would’ve.’

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A mise en place like this would be a rare sight in a Michelin-starred kitchen twenty-five years ago
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Dishes were served in simple ways, with presentation often an afterthought

…the future of fine dining

‘When I first started cooking it was a lot like it is now – all about simplicity and good ingredients. Then it started to become fashionable to serve something really complex, to an extreme really; when I was at Le Manoir there were fifteen pans for one dish! So in ten years we might go back to that again. But as far as I’m concerned, it’s all about coming up with something new in the kitchen every day. I think food will become lighter, with diners wanting flavours and combinations they’d never expect to work. But you can’t read into it too much – you just have to cook well.’

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