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Ones to watch: Simon Ulph

Ones to watch: Simon Ulph

by Tom Shingler 18 October 2017

After working with Michelin-starred Robert Thompson on the Isle of Wight and discovering a love for the flavours of Japan with Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto, Simon Ulph is back in his native Kent cooking an eclectic menu at The Swan Wine Kitchen at Chapel Down vineyard.

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From the Garden of England to California by way of London and the Isle of Wight and back again – Simon Ulph certainly doesn’t seem to mind upping sticks in search of inspiration. And at only twenty-seven, he’s part of the next generation of young chefs looking to make a name for themselves in the British food scene.

After falling into cooking by accident when working a weekend job at a little restaurant in Kent, Simon did a trial shift at The Swan in West Malling and realised he wanted to be a chef. ‘Two days after I started, I rang up my mum and dad and told them I was staying for a couple of weeks,’ he says. ‘As soon as I finished my GCSEs I went straight there – no catering college or anything – and stayed on for three years.’

This is a little bit different to the average chef’s career trajectory – learning on the job is certainly important, but going in without any formal training meant Simon had to learn fast. ‘It was a bit difficult at first, being a sixteen-year-old kid in an environment full of men. You think you’re all that coming out of school, but you end up burning the candle at both ends trying to learn as much as you can. It was pretty hardcore.’

Once Simon had found his footing and become a capable chef in his own right, he moved up to London to work at The Swan at the Globe Theatre for a year. But it was his next move – to work with Robert Thompson at The Hambrough on the Isle of Wight – that made him realise the kind of chef he wanted to be.

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Simon's most important mentors were Robert Thompson on the Isle of Wight and Japanese chef Masaharu Morimoto
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Mackerel, salt-baked celeriac and hazelnuts

‘Going from being nineteen living in southeast London to a little town on a tiny island was a bit of a culture shock, but it was good,’ he says. ‘It was a massive change of pace – at the Globe we were doing 110 covers pre-theatre, around 100 à la carte and then as soon as a show finished we did another eighty post-theatre; it was ridiculous. At The Hambrough, which had a Michelin star and three AA rosettes, there were just fifty covers, so you could take your time and use really nice ingredients. It was the first time I’d done anything like tasting menus, amuse bouches and canapés, so it was a whole new ball game. But I wouldn’t have changed it for the world – the way Rob talked about food and how he cooked definitely made me realise what I wanted to do with my career.’

After two years, Simon’s itchy feet got the better of him and he decided to leave to do a stage with the legendary April Bloomfield in New York. On returning to the UK he landed a job cooking at the 2012 Olympics, where he met Japanese chef Masaharu Morimoto – the famous face of the Iron Chef television series – who offered him a job at his eponymous restaurant in California’s Napa Valley after just three days of cooking together. Simon jumped at the chance, and moved over there the second he could.

‘It was incredible to see just how simple Japanese cuisine was,’ he says of his time there. ‘I think the busiest service we had was something like 487 covers, but because there were so many chefs everything was done fresh daily. Making 120 dim sum every morning wasn’t great at the time, but it really helped me to hone my skills.’

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Lamb, miso-braised shoulder, pickled carrots and soy
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Caramelised cauliflower risotto, Vacherin Mont d'Or and sherry vinaigrette

After a year of immersing himself in Japanese cooking and the Napa Valley’s rich food scene, Simon returned to the Isle of Wight to become Robert Thompson’s sous chef at The George Hotel in Yarmouth. The two then left to open Thompson’s, where Simon was eventually promoted to head chef. That was where Simon stayed until early 2017, when the draw of his native Kent proved too much. He became part of the I’ll Be Mother restaurant group, working a brief stint with Scott Goss at The Twenty Six, just outside Tunbridge Wells, before taking on the head chef role at the group’s Swan Wine Kitchen at Chapel Down Vineyard.

‘Kent is home, and it’s been a long time since I’ve lived here,’ says Simon. ‘I love catching up with old friends, just going down to the pub for a quick pint or something. I’ve loved living everywhere else, but I knew I’d always end up back here. It’s part of the reason I went for the job at The Swan Wine Kitchen.’

Simon’s time cooking Japanese food in California obviously influenced him greatly, and he loves incorporating the techniques and ingredients into his menu at Chapel Down. ‘I just love Japanese flavours,’ he says. ‘One of the dishes I just put on the menu is barbecued lamb rump with a miso-braised shoulder, some little pickled carrots and then a dressing made from lamb fat, sesame, soy and a bit of mirin.’

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Simon plans to introduce a tasting menu – with paired wines and beers – at The Swan
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Rolled leeks, goat's cheese parfait and truffle

That’s not to say his food focuses solely on Japanese cooking, however. ‘The Swan at Chapel Down started life as a very English restaurant, but I’m introducing all sorts of things that I’ve picked up from all over,’ explains Simon. ‘It’s a mix of everything, which is good, as I’ve got 100% freedom to do anything I want. My team is great, too – my sous chef Lloyd is coming up with some really nice ideas, and everyone gets down to work.’

Of course, cooking at a restaurant in the middle of a vineyard means the wine offering is just as important as what’s on the plate. ‘I’m looking to introduce a tasting menu with wine pairings, as Chapel Down are working with other vineyards around the world that do some really unique things – we won’t just be selling Chapel Down’s wines all the time. But the beauty of this place is that it’s got a brewery too, so I can come up with dishes that go well with the beers. I’m working on a venison dish at the moment – roasted loin with a smoked pear purée and a miso and teriyaki shoulder – which would go great with Chapel Down’s Curious Brew.’

While Simon’s only been at The Swan Wine Kitchen for just over a month, he’s already making his mark on the restaurant. New dishes with international influences, a menu that changes whenever he gets tired of a particular dish and a newfound focus on food and wine matching is already boosting business, with around eighty coming in for lunch and sixty for dinner. But for Simon, it’s all about doing what he loves. ‘I just want to be in the kitchen smashing out food that I want to cook and that people want to eat. If I can go into work everyday and see the diary is full, then I’m happy.’

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