While enjoying my bloggers’ day at Fallowfields last week, I asked head chef, Shaun Dickens, if I could interview him for my Top Ten Cookery Books series. So, a week later, I was heading up the M40 again and looking forward to hearing more about Shaun, his career – and, of course, his book choice.
Shaun’s impressive career has seen him working in some of the finest kitchens there are, so I was intrigued and excited to learn more about the passion that drives him. He began cooking at a young age and got a job washing dishes in the kitchen of the local pub at the age of 13. By 16, he knew an academic path wasn’t what he wanted – he wanted to cook. His parents were less certain about him leaving school so early but the pub landlord – who took Shaun under his wing – helped him put his case across and encouraged him to do it properly and get a good education in cooking. After a year at a local catering college, Shaun moved to Westminster College, one of the most prestigious catering colleges around. Shaun knew even then that being a top chef requires a lot of sacrifices in terms of long and unsocial hours, so, once started, he decided that he wanted to be the best chef he could.
Shaun talked about how much he enjoyed college and his passion for the lectures – which were obviously satisfying his huge appetite for learning. After three years at Westminster, Shaun applied to Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons to continue his training under Raymond Blanc. This was ‘my university’, he said and he had ‘the time of my life’. If you can’t feel passion for cooking at Le Manoir, then cooking isn’t for you, Shaun told me and added, ‘It set me up for who I am now.’
After three years at Le Manoir, Shaun then moved to the US to work in the kitchen at Per Se, a 3 Michelin star restaurant in New York. This was a ‘phenomenal’ experience. While training at Le Manoir, there had been lots of other trainees; at Per Se, the skill level of the team was extraordinarily high for everyone had Michelin star experience. Shaun told me how the menu changed each day. At around 11.30 pm every night, the team would sit round and talk through the menu for the next day, based on what was available. He said they could be arguing over what to do with the produce till 2 am before going home – but if your idea was chosen, then that was fantastic. It’s a privilege, Shaun told me, to wake up every morning excited at the prospect of going to work.
Shaun returned to UK after two years at Per Se and worked briefly in some other top kitchens before moving to L’Ortolan as sous chef under Alan Murchison. Suddenly he had a lot more responsibility and also had to learn pastry as Alan didn’t have a separate pastry chef. He discovered he loved it: the finesse – ‘It’s like a science,’ he told me, and you have to be precise.
With all this amazing experience behind him, Shaun reached a point where he wanted a project he could ‘get my teeth into’ and do ‘my own style of food’. Fortuitously, at the same time, Anthony Lloyd of Fallowfields was looking for a new head chef. Fallowfields, with its kitchen gardens and farm – but nothing very exciting going on in the restaurant – provided the ‘blank piece of paper’ Shaun was looking for. Now he could bring together all his experience in training, food and cooking to create his own kitchen. The biggest thing he’s brought away from Le Manoir, he told me, is the passion for flavour – you had to taste, taste, taste and look for the wow factor. At Per Se it was all about refinement: you had to get it 100 per cent right – or start again. With Alan Murchison – who also trained with Raymond Blanc – he learnt how you could make those classics your own. And his long-term aim is that much coveted 3 Michelin star award . . . Fallowfields is the first place he’s worked with no Michelin star – but, he told me, he’s not thinking about that every morning when he wakes up; he’s just getting on with the job – and loving it.
I could have listened to Shaun all day. I love his passion for his work, his ambition and excitement for what he does. However, I guessed he’d need to get back to the kitchen at some time, and we still had to talk about his books …
1. Indulge: 100 Perfect Desserts, Claire Clark (2007) – Claire Clark is one of the world’s top pastry chefs and was awarded an MBE earlier this year. She works at the infamous The French Laundry in California with Thomas Keller, who has written the Foreword to this book. Shaun describes her as a ‘phenomenal pastry chef’, ‘one of the best – if not the best.’ He bought the book about three years ago when he starting working with pastry at L’Ortolan and found it a stunning read. Each recipe is clean, refined, a piece of art on a plate – but you know it will taste good too.
2. The French Laundry Cookbook, Thomas Keller (1999) – Shaun said this was the first cookbook he ever owned. He bought it while at college. He told me about a lamb rack recipe with basil oil he made for a competition and described working with the recipe to get it right. It’s an inspirational book, he said; every single recipe works and it’s the best book he’s ever owned.
3. The Fat Duck Cookbook, Heston Blumenthal (2009) – Shaun told me that Heston’s food isn’t his style, ‘It’s not what I strive to do.’ However, he went on, you have to respect his genius. You constantly ask yourself, Where did this idea come from? It’s very rare for someone to create something entirely new and, Shaun, adds: ‘It blew gastronomy out of the water.’
4. White Heat, Marco Pierre White (1990) – This, Shaun confessed, was the first cookbook he borrowed and forgot to give back! He described it as the first proper cookbook of its time; trendsetting. He wishes he could be back in those times when White was firing on all cylinders. There are great classics in the book, like Tagliatelle with Oysters.
5. Under Pressure: Cooking Sous Vide, Thomas Keller (2008) – This is one of the first books on sous vide cooking and explains the science behind it. Shaun says he loves the food photography too – Thomas Keller always has a say in everything that carries his name. Shaun told me he appears in one of the photos – while he was working at Per Se, the sous chef was working closely with Keller, so this makes the book special for him.
6. Tetsuya, Tetsuya Wakuda (2001) – Tetsuya is a chef in Melbourne, Australia. ‘It’s a fantastic restaurant,’ Shaun told me, where Testuya combines the Asian influences of his native Japan with a modern European style. Shaun said he was there last year while doing some travelling with his fiancee, and he loves that style of cooking where it’s all about flavour: lots and lots of fresh flavours where it seems little is done – but the resulting dish is Wow!
7. Larousse Gastronomique – First published in 1938, Shaun says it covers everything and goes into a good amount of depth. It’s good to see what cooks used to do ‘back in the day’, what flavours go well together, and what you can do with something you haven’t used before – for instance, the medlars in the Fallowfields orchard.
8. Asian Flavours of Jean-Georges (2007) – Jean-Georges has a 3 Michelin star restaurant in New York. Shaun said he’s been to the restaurant and it’s phenomenal. The food is an Asian-European-French fusion with more Asian. The infusions have great balance, Shaun told me, and everything on the plate has a purpose.
9. Food for Thought, Alan Murchison (2007) – This is Murchison’s first cookbook, Shaun told me, and he spent lots of money getting the stunning design just what he wanted, and lots of painstaking work went into get the recipes right. And now they all work. It’s an easy book to read, Shaun said, with great photos. He likes the chef’s tips, where Murchison will tell you, for instance, what alternative ingredients are if you can’t get one. It’s very Manoir-esque (Murchison trained with Raymond Blanc) but with his own stamp and style.
10. Blanc Vite, Raymond Blanc (2000) – And so to Shaun’s last choice … could he have all Raymond Blanc’s books? Understandable, given the huge influence Blanc has been to him, but I said I thought he should pick out one. So, Shaun chose this one. ‘I have a soft spot for Le Manoir,’ he told me. He loves reading Blanc’s words and can hear the passion that’s always in his voice come through as he reads. Blanc’s love of ingredients and treating them with respect and employing that final French piece de resistance that always gets them just right is what appeals. There are still things on the menu at Le Manoir after 20 years that haven’t changed, but, Shaun told me, Blanc doesn’t need to change them: he set the trends and his classics are perfect and can’t be tampered with.
So . . . what was his No.1? Without hesitation, Shaun said it was The French Laundry Cookbook. As he’d told me, it was the first cookbook he bought and at £55 it was a huge amount of money when he was at college. But he uses it time and time again – and thus it’s well splattered!
I had a great time talking with Shaun and he just has to be a chef to watch out for. He and Anthony at Fallowfields have a 3-year plan . . . they’ve already – last week – been awarded 2 AA Rosettes for the excellence of the kitchen … and they are ambitious to get people heading there primarily for the food. It’s an ambition I am sure they have every chance of succeeding in – and I hope they do.
Update 2016: Since writing this post, Shaun has left Fallowfields and opened his own restaurant in Henley on Thames. Click here for review.