Ones to watch: Oli Martin

Ones to watch: Oli Martin

by Eliot Collins 5 October 2015

Although only recently thrown into the role of head chef, Oli Martin has managed to notch up twelve years of kitchen experience and now runs a tight ship at Lancashire’s Hipping Hall. Still only twenty-six, we asked Oli about his inspirations, attitudes and love of the North West.

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Eliot worked as a chef partnership manager at Great British Chefs.

Eliot’s first food memory dates back to a Cambozola cheese addiction at the age of two. Growing up with a food technologist father and dairy technologist mother, it was a pretty clear path into the world of gastronomy. Eight years in the belly of kitchens in Sydney and San Francisco followed, and he juggled his role as chef partnership manager at Great British Chefs with creating tasty delights in his tiny Hackney kitchen!

A love of food started at a young age for Oli Martin, who looks back with fond memories to his childhood favourites of baked beans, microwaved chocolate sponges and Nan’s famous toad-in-the-hole. Although only humble dishes to start with, Oli quickly progressed from licking the spoon at home to his first kitchen role, working in a one Rosette restaurant close to home when he was still only fourteen. ‘I fell in love with the atmosphere of the kitchen. I hate sitting still and like constant change, so it felt like a very clear career path for me.’

Working his way up through the ranks, it wasn’t long before Oli was working as sous chef at Hipping Hall. In 2014, and still at the youthful age of twenty-six, he was offered the head chef position; ‘I had no idea it was coming, a total shock! The owner didn’t mention anything until he sat me down and offered me the position. I was totally clueless, but it didn’t take long for me to say yes.’ Once over the shock, and with a little time to reflect, Oli feels the move came at the right time, he says ‘head chef felt like the perfect place to be after my sous chef position. I had eleven years experience behind me so it felt natural. I don't think age plays a massive part… it’s capability.’

This last point is very pertinent. His age is something that gets a disproportionate amount of coverage compared to his hard graft in the kitchen. After surviving his first Christmas as head chef, Oli stayed hard at work while the rest of the team had their January breaks. ‘We were closed in January so I used this as a time for change. I stayed behind while all the staff were on holiday and put my own spin on the menu. I like to think that now the menu has stepped forward a bit and grown.’

A lot of these menu choices stem from a key focus on seasonality and local produce. Again, influenced by his childhood, Oli is immensely proud to have grown up surrounded by green, open spaces, and by counties renowned for producing excellent British produce. He grew up in the small seaside town of Lythan, just south of Blackpool, and was therefore on the doorstep of the huge variety of producers based in Lancashire and Yorkshire, as well the abundance of fish and seafood from the coast. ‘It was a great place to grow up with a very strong community. As a chef I recognised loads of small family-run businesses; a great fish supplier called Lanigans, veg shop called Strong’s, and brilliant places on our doorstep like Fleetwood fish market.’

From this has grown a deep-rooted respect for local suppliers that has carried through his career. He cites the perfect example of a current dish on the menu; lightly poached lemon sole with smoked cabbage hearts, salted pear, local wild rocket and a hazelnut vinegar. ‘This dish basically came from speaking to my fish supplier, Tim Barrow at Nieves fish. What's good and local? He told me that sole had just come in off the coast... I wanted a dish that was screaming autumn – cabbage, hazelnuts and pear. It was purely the autumn season that kicked this off.’

Hipping Hall in Lancashire
Seasonal dishes such as a smoked chocolate, cherry and pistachio dessert

Simple and seasonal dishes are only one half of Oli’s ethos in the kitchen; the other half is focused on innovation and experimentation, some more successful than others... Having strong chef-supplier relationships means that unusual produce often comes by way of the kitchen door. Goat’s heart and deer tongue samples led to many experimental offal dishes, while cooking with herring sperm proved trickier, and was abandoned as a feasible ingredient after three days of attempted recipes. Innovation with familiar ingredient may be more to most people’s taste; ‘I’d rather get ingredients and serve them in unexpected ways. I’m currently serving lightly salted squid, frozen in liquid nitrogen and smashed on to the plate in pieces. We then cover it in wild garlic, sage powder and buttermilk emulsion, so that it really cleanses the palette as the first course. It’s my own twist on squid and aioli.’

Although most of these dishes are Oli’s own brainchild, and he takes the main lead in the kitchen as the head chef, he fully accepts the success of the kitchen is down to a team effort, and his aim is always to lead by example. ‘I want to create mini ‘me’s’ that strive to work to the same standard as the head chef. The kitchen environment is inspiring and constantly changing, so I like to get my entire team’s input. I want to push the lads to think and contribute. I’ve got some lads with great backgrounds, why would I rule that out and say I know better?’ On top this he says, ‘a kitchen should be fun.’

Having a team that look up to him as head chef is incredibly important to Oli, and in turn he credits some great chefs for inspiring his professionalism in his kitchen. In particular, he rates chefs that are ‘aspirational, hard working and possess a never-quit attitude’. In particular he mentions acclaimed American chef Grant Achatz of Alinea restaurant. One of the most awarded chefs in the industry, both Grant’s career and personal story are undoubtedly inspiring. ‘Grant is a total game changer. His style is so out there, even when he was younger. He had the world against him to start, but it was his drive and how daring he was. He didn't let anyone put him down. I wouldn’t compare our food style’s, but as someone that headlines the industry – he’s one of the best.’

Diagnosed with cancer of the tongue, Grant’s career as a chef, let alone his life, seemed in huge jeopardy, but he took a pioneering course of treatment to fight off the disease. ‘The guy’s a chef, and he just refused to have his tongue cut out. He only took six days off work with cancer – he won the James Beard [Best Chef in the United States Award] and stars [Alinea hold three Michelin stars] while going through this. He’s just so talented he knows how things are going to turn out even without tasting them.’

Oli is clear in his respect for such personal drive and determination, characteristics which will certainly push his own career forwards to many further accolades and awards in the culinary world.

Head chef felt like the perfect place to be after my sous chef position. I had eleven years experience behind me so it felt natural. I don't think age plays a massive part… it’s capability