Ones to watch: Guy Owen

Ones to watch: Guy Owen

by Tom Shingler 19 February 2016

After earning his stripes at Michelin-starred restaurants around London, Guy Owen has returned to his native Cornwall to dish up the best of the country's produce. Tom Shingler learns more about his career so far and how he's finding his new position at The Idle Rocks in St Mawes.

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Tom Shingler is the editor of Great British Chefs.

Tom Shingler is the editor at Great British Chefs. After studying journalism and working on national food magazines, he joined Great British Chefs in 2015 and has travelled the length and breadth of the UK to interview chefs and photograph their beautiful plates of food ever since. Tom is responsible for all the editorial output of the website and, of course, is obsessed with everything to do with food and drink.

It’s safe to say that any six-year-old who will eagerly catch, gut, clean, poach and eat their own fish is probably destined for culinary greatness. This was certainly the case with Guy Owen, who was appointed head chef at The Idle Rocks hotel in St Mawes last year. It’s here that he’s able to cook with the ingredients he grew up with and let the incredible produce speak for itself. He was perhaps always destined to be in the kitchen, as most of his family were passionate foodies.

‘My whole family worked in the food industry – my grandfather managed the Leckford Estate, my grandmother was a very active member of the WI and my parents owned a pub, so I was introduced to it from a very young age,’ he tells us. ‘I suppose if I had to pick one stand-out food memory it would be fly fishing in the River Test with my grandfather. We’d catch wild trout, bring it back and then my mother would teach me how to make a basic pickling liquor. We’d eat it with brown bread, salad cream and baby gem lettuce.’

Guy got a job washing pots and making the salads in a Cornish fish and chip restaurant when he was thirteen, but he still wasn’t sure about a career in the kitchen. It wasn’t until Guy left school and went to St Mawes that he really started to get interested in being a chef. ‘I knocked on the door of Ann Long’s restaurant, who at the time was the president of the Master Chefs of Great Britain, and she gave me a trial,’ he explains. ‘She said I was very scruffy and needed a lot of work but that I had potential, so she set me to work on the bar menu. It was all very classical and I eventually worked my way up to the pub restaurant. She really took me under her wing and pushed me to be my best. After a while, Ann said there was no more she could do for me, and that I had to move up country to develop my skills.’

Afternoon tea
The menu at The Idle Rocks is less formal than some of those at Guy's previous restaurants, but the food is of the highest quality
The bar area has a beautiful view out onto the ocean

The next level

To really get a taste for top quality cooking, Guy moved to London, where he managed to land a job at Gordon Ramsay’s Michelin-starred restaurant in Claridges. ‘The kitchen completely changed my point of view when it came to food – the only idea I had of Michelin dining before that was when I had a meal at Gidleigh Park, and I had no idea how they managed to make such incredible dishes,’ says Guy. ‘The amount of work needed to create a plate food was a complete shock to me; the first few months were really hard work and I struggled to get my head around just how dedicated everyone was. I absolutely loved it, though, and really relished working with that calibre of chefs.’

The very steep learning curve at Claridges meant Guy quickly gained experience preparing Michelin-starred food to very exacting standards. He eventually left the restaurant with a keenness to chase the stars, and ended up at La Trompette in Chiswick, which had a very different approach to cooking.

‘The restaurant served some wicked Michelin-starred brasserie dishes,’ says Guy. ‘The team was small and there were a lot of covers, so there was no room for error. It was very different to Claridges, where everything was very formal and accurate; at La Trompette it was all about letting the produce speak for itself and cooking things simply. They taught me that you don’t have to put ‘sparklers’ in absolutely everything to make food look special.’

From La Trompette Guy moved to Gidleigh Park, learning to cook the food he had first experienced as a young chef. It was here that he learnt how to properly present dishes he had created himself, adding the finishing touches that elevate good looking food to artful masterpieces. However, he had always wanted to return to Cornwall, and when the opportunity to join Chris Eden at The Driftwood Hotel as sous chef, he jumped at the chance.

‘What followed was the most full-on year of my life,’ explains Guy. ‘We were working in a very small kitchen with hardly any kit, but Chris is an unbelievably driven guy and he earned his Michelin star at the end of the first year. It was amazing to be part of that team of maybe three or four chefs as I got to experience just how much work you need to put in to get to that level. Chris absolutely transformed the restaurant and it was great to see.’

After a brief move to Jersey, Guy heard about an opportunity at The Idle Rocks back home. After meeting the owners Karen and David and realising they all wanted the same thing – to showcase Cornish produce – he joined as head chef in July 2015.

Guy Owen
Guy is a huge fan of Cornish produce, and loves being able to use locally sourced ingredients in the kitchen
Guy's food
His artful presentation is thanks to his time at Gidleigh Park

Coast to coast

The hotel restaurant – which became a Relais & Chateaux property at the start of 2016 – sits right on the coast of St Mawes and, as you’d expect, has plenty of fish and shellfish on the menu. ‘If you look at the hotel’s location, it’s so close to the water that at high tide you can practically touch it from the patio,’ says Guy. ‘In late spring we can serve gilthead sea bream caught right outside the restaurant from one of the world’s biggest shoals – being able to tell diners the local story behind a dish is fantastic and something you don’t really get in London. We get all our fish from day boats, a lot of our vegetables comes from the Padstow Kitchen Garden, our butcher can trace the provenance of everything he sells us right up to the specific animal – the quality of ingredients is so good around here.’

This access to fantastic produce is the reason why Guy loves working in Cornwall. It also means he can cook the food how he likes, rather than adhering to a regimented style followed at restaurants like Claridges. ‘There’s no real particular style in the kitchen – it’s not robotic and exact,’ he says. ‘If someone needs to make a purée, then they’ll make one; I’m not going to say use fifty grams of this, twenty grams of that. Produce changes all the time, so a leek might have more of an onion flavour one week when compared to the week before. We need to adapt accordingly.

‘If you order a piece of sea bass when you’re sat next to the sea you don’t want it to be served six different ways – it defeats the purpose,’ continues Guy. ‘One dish that I think really encapsulates Cornish produce and what we’re trying to do here contains a roasted scallop, white crabmeat and a poached lobster tail sat on a light parsley purée with lemon gel, foraged sea herbs and a shellfish bisque. If you’re sat outside on the coast with that amazing dish in front of you, you’ll be experiencing everything that’s good about Cornwall.’