FOOD AT FIRMDALE:
IN CONVERSATION WITH ROBIN READ
Our food offering at Firmdale Hotels is heavily centred around the freshest seasonal ingredients. We ensure we use British ingredients as much as we can, sourcing as locally as possible, so that our kitchens offer the best selection of produce. This ultimately comes down to flavour and how the produce is handled and reared, so we can contribute to a healthier and more sustainable supply chain.
We caught up with our Group Executive Head Chef and recent winner of Springboard's accredited Chef Development Award, Robin Read to get an insight into the importance of seasonality and the substantial work that goes on behind the scenes.
- What is your favourite seasonal produce over the festive period?
I love British greens, like sprouts, sprout tops, kales… They’re so flexible with anything on the menu, have such a great earthy flavour and are often grown locally in Essex or Kent, so have had minimal travel time to get from the farm to the kitchen.
- Sourcing locally sourced, fresh produce has always been key for Firmdale. Why so?
It’s certainly not due to ease! But when you set out the standard it becomes fairly easy. It’s so much nicer to work with the seasons and to see the changes within them. I have found that working in this way make the menus flow better and the chefs have more creativity and excitement over the advent of each season. For example, they get enthused about the first fruits of summer or the wild garlic and asparagus in early spring.
Getting produce when it’s fresh and in season means the quality is at its best and we can get hold of the most local produce. Last summer, 80-90% of our produce was British.
- How important is it to establish a good relationship with the suppliers we use at Firmdale?
Our suppliers are everything to us and there are standards that we set. Their level of experience is invaluable for us to source the best produce we can, so having a good relationship really improves the communication and knowledge of the produce. It means the chefs can see the passion that goes into the produce which really invigorates them. Crucially, closer relationships ensure better service on both sides.
- Who is your longest serving supplier?
The turnaround of our suppliers is very low. We have over 40 food suppliers that serve our properties, some of them with only one or two products. Classic Fresh Foods are probably our longest serving supplier but also Upstream Seafood. I think the reason we’ve worked with these suppliers for so long is because they have kept the same service and consistency that they’ve had since day one. We’re loyal to our suppliers as much as they are to us. We aren’t demanding we just want the best quality!
- Where are the turkeys from?
Our turkeys are reared especially for us by Rhug Estate, an Organic Farm in North Wales run by Lord Newborough. He uses some innovative new farming techniques to make sure the animals are at their best and this all starts with husbandry from birth to abattoir. The attention to detail is so important here, especially as it’s the main attraction on Christmas Day. We order 65 turkeys for Christmas Day, and happily feed over 1,000 people!
- If you could only cook with five ingredients this winter what would they be?
This is a tough one… I’d have to go with eggs, cheese, cavolo nero (so versatile), John Dory and bread.
- Which produce grown on the Ham Yard Roof garden do you use in the menus?
The squash and courgette flowers have been the biggest this year. We use the apples and pears for pies. The beets and chillies also do well. In terms of the herbs, we’ve got lots of mint (around 3-4 varieties) and the lemon verbena did really well this year. The verbena is great for syrups that are used for cocktails in the bar.
- Can you tell us an interesting story about how you came across a certain dish?
Tim Kemp, the owner of Firmdale, has a strong influence on certain dishes based on his personal choice. A few years ago, he sent all the chefs across the hotel group ‘Setting the Table’, the best-selling business book from award-winning restaurateur Danny Meyer, of Union Square Cafe, Gramercy Tavern, and Shake Shack. From the book, he picked out ‘eggs daffodil’; a classic summer dish of scrambled eggs with courgette flowers, herbs, gruyere cheese and beurre blanc. We ran this on a few of the breakfast menus and it was very popular. Having a nice story to tell behind a dish, such as this one, makes it more interesting to share with guests.
- What is your ideal meal to serve on Christmas Day?
Turkey, I can’t image Christmas Day without it. Even at menu tastings, I refrain from eating too much turkey before the actual day. Stuffing, pigs in blankets and lots of vegetables are also a given.
- How do you choose which dishes to serve on the menus?
I usually get a fresh notebook and list the ingredients which are in season and go from there. It takes around 2 – 3 weeks to write a menu, as you need time to think and get creative inspiration. I find a lot of my inspiration comes from visual stimuli, such as things I’ve seen online or quirky shots of food presentation on Instagram. Once the menu has been finalised by the chef, we then go through a series of tastings before it’s signed off.
- What is your favourite season to cook in and why?
Autumn and Winter. There’s often more time and work involved with cooking in Winter than in Summer, because food techniques involve more braising and slow cooking. I think this means you can get more interesting, heartier flavours.
- What makes the perfect meal?
The perfect meal involves everyone else around the table - the people, the discussion, the setting. It is not just about the food.