> Chefs

Ashley Palmer-Watts

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, and is in the midst of opening 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. Even though there’s nothing on the cards yet I’d love to open one in Asia somewhere, but they take a long time to set up because they’re such big and ambitious restaurants. 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.’

Three things you should know

During Ashley’s first few years at The Fat Duck, the kitchen team had to work with an old Falcon stove with only five working burners, and would have to slow-cook meat in pans over very low heat, turning the protein every twenty seconds. It was this that led them to purchasing a temperature-controlled water bath, to see if it could be used to slow-cook food without the constant need to turn and check on things. This is just one of many examples of how influential The Fat Duck has been on modern gastronomy – water baths are now a common sight in high-end restaurants around the world.

After joining The Fat Duck in 1999, Ashley hasn't worked anywhere else, apart from completing stages at British restaurants Aubergine and Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons, and a month in Chicago working at the famous Charlie Trotter's.

Ashley ensures all the front-of-house staff at Dinner by Heston spend two weeks in the kitchen when they first join, so they gain a complete understanding of just how much work goes into each dish.