Ashley Palmer-Watts


Ashley Palmer-Watts

Only a handful of chefs around the world can cook with the same complexity as Ashley Palmer-Watts, who was an integral part of Heston Blumenthal’s The Fat Duck Group for twenty years. Responsible for creating the two-starred restaurant Dinner by Heston, he has since co-founded Artisan Coffee.

It’s difficult to convey just how influential The Fat Duck has been over the past few decades. Almost every high-end restaurant in the UK (and indeed the world) has learnt from the boundary-breaking methods Heston Blumenthal implemented at his Bray-based restaurant in the early 2000s, be it working with water baths, paying attention to the sensory experience of eating as a whole or simply questioning why we have always cooked in a certain way. When Ashley Palmer-Watts walked through The Fat Duck’s door on 28 August 1999 he probably had no idea just how important his role would be in this important chapter in British gastronomy, but over the following twenty years he grew into one of the world’s best chefs, helping to open Fat Duck Group-owned restaurants across the world.

Originally from Maiden Newton, a small village in Dorset, Ashley’s first taste of kitchen life came when he landed a job washing pots at the village’s Le Petit Canard restaurant. ‘I used to go in there every day after school, even if I wasn’t needed,’ he says. ‘I very nearly joined the army but when I was eventually old enough to sign up, I decided to become a chef instead. The day after I finished my exams I joined the restaurant as an apprentice.’

Ashley spent the next few years at Le Petit Canard, travelling with the owners to France, the US and Sweden (‘an amazing outlet to have for a seventeen-year-old in rural Dorset’) until they sold the restaurant and moved back to Canada. By this time he was working the afternoons and evenings in the restaurant, but was also a part-time watercress farmer in the mornings, and after reading about The Fat Duck in Food Illustrated went to eat there with the farm’s owner, cousin and wife. ‘This would have been around 1998, so the menu was very different back then, but I knew I just had to go and work there,’ says Ashley. ‘I wrote to Heston and he gave me a stage, but I had no idea what was going on. The food was bold, simple and clever, but it was before it all kicked off and people started focusing on the wacky things he was doing. It was a very magical place to work, and after months of badgering him for a job a spot came up and I joined full-time.’

As one of five chefs at The Fat Duck, Ashley joined at a time when the kitchen was an incredibly difficult place to work in. ‘It wasn’t a very harmonious environment – I can best describe it as angry – and the equipment was awful. We were trying to cook food that was way beyond what this old pub kitchen could produce, but we were all really ambitious and just carried on. It already had a star when I joined, but when we got the second star in 2002 everything started to really kick off. We refurbished the kitchen, things kept snowballing, and by the time we got the third star in 2004 it all just went mental.’

This was a time that Ashley describes as the most exciting time of his life. He was made head chef in 2003 (when he was just twenty-five years old), and after winning the third star he and Heston started working with neuroscientists and specialists who helped them approach cooking in an entirely new way. But it wasn’t without its downsides. ‘I look at how hard we work now and it was nothing compared to back then. We were working over 100 hours a week, with no idea of what was happening outside the kitchen doors; all we were focused on was how to make the restaurant better. The Fat Duck was all-encompassing, and we went from five of us in the kitchen to around forty chefs with loads of stagieres, development kitchens and laboratories. We grew incredibly fast and were breaking down barriers that no one had ever even considered before.’

Ashley believed he would work at The Fat Duck for the rest of his career, as he was such an important part of its rise to the top and, despite the intense workload, he loved every minute of it. But when the opportunity to open a restaurant at The Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park Hotel in London arose in around 2008, he and Heston knew they could create something just as special as what they’d done in Bray. ‘Heston always wanted to open a restaurant that sat somewhere between The Fat Duck and The Hind’s Head [another Fat Duck Group restaurant in Bray], and this felt like the perfect opportunity,’ explains Ashley. ‘We wanted to root the menu in historical British cooking and make it as high-end as we could get with a high amount of covers, with a simplicity and pureness to the dishes. We were incredibly ambitious but made sure we could execute what we were planning to do in such a large restaurant. We opened Dinner by Heston in 2011 and by 2013 we had two Michelin stars, which just blew us away.’

Dinner by Heston is a seriously fine-tuned operation – a world away from the frantic, hectic way of working Ashley experienced when he first joined The Fat Duck. Before the restaurant even opened, he and Heston worked with food historians from The British Library and Hampton Court Palace to put together a 100,000-word document full of snippets and pieces of information taken from Britain’s rich (and mostly forgotten) culinary history. Taking inspiration from these and breathing new life into them in a contemporary way is hard enough, but to consistently serve the incredibly complex dishes to over 150 covers every night at a two-starred level takes an awful lot of work.

‘We document and record everything we can in incredible detail to eliminate as many variables, guesses and mistakes as possible,’ says Ashley. ‘It’s a little bit like how a pastry section works, but we use it to run the whole kitchen. The skill and instinct of a chef is an essential, but when you’re running a kitchen with over fifty chefs on the roster it’s much better to have everything done to an exacting standard. The actual cooking isn’t the hard bit; it’s the repetition, volume and intensity that gets to people. But when a chef leaves here we know they have gained a huge amount of skills and discipline that means they’ll be able to hold their own in any top kitchen around the world.’

Since opening and turning Dinner by Heston into a two-starred restaurant, Ashley certainly hasn’t been slowing down. He oversaw the opening of Dinner’s second outpost in Melbourne, along with a third Dinner in Dubai. ‘We always planned to have four or five Dinner restaurants around the world, incorporating local history into the menu where appropriate,’ he says. ‘London will always be the flagship, however. I like to be on the pass here in London at least two or three days a week if I’m in the country, but I’ve also got an office in Bray so I’m there a lot as well. The team here is incredibly solid, though – I wouldn’t be doing my job properly if the restaurant couldn’t run without me here. I know Dinner is a real success when I can just sit back and watch the kitchen run like clockwork.’

At the beginning of 2020, Ashley announced that he was leaving The Fat Duck Group after twenty years at the heart of its meteoric rise to fame. The following year, he launched passion project Artisan Coffee Co, an online company creating speciality coffee and beans.