Henley Food Blog – Local & Seasonal: Henley Food Heroes

This is the second in a series of articles on local food heroes, people in and around Henley who contribute much to the local food scene. This week’s focus is on Shaun Dickens of ‘Shaun Dickens at the Boathouse

For a man who has worked with some of the world’s greatest chefs at some of the world’s greatest restaurants (I’ll just drop in here Le Manoir, Le Gavroche and Per Se in New York) Shaun comes across as a modest, almost shy man. There is no pretension or affectiveness to the man who has spent more than 20 years of his life in a kitchen, from his pot washing days as a 13 yr old to owning his first restaurant with its accent on modern British Cuisine. But don’t be taking in by this self-effacing, unassuming character. Start talking to him about ambition and goals and you meet a very different personification, full of doggedness and assurance, a grit borne of hours in the most demanding and brutal high end kitchens and the harsh reality that comes with owning your own restaurant, that just has to succeed. When Shaun’s older brother had a job waiting tables in the local pub, Shaun badgered his parents to let him go there and wash pots. He was addicted from the off, not at first to the food, but to the hard work and the camaraderie of the team. From there the obvious route was to go to college to study to be a chef, he stumbled at first in his home town of Swindon, but then found his place at Westminster Kingsway. He freely admits that his ‘spark’ was not the food but the work ethic and the shiny equipment! After spells in The Dorchester and Le Gavroche, Shaun joined Raymond Le Blanc at Le Manoir Aux Quat’ Saisons, where their respect for the food, and working with the man ‘with the best palate in the business’ hooked a desire to open his own restaurant, focusing on British seasonal food. Throughout our chat two things come back time and again in his conversation, ‘growing and developing’ and ‘not here to be good, but to be great’, you have no choice but to admire his fortitude.

Which ingredients can’t you live without?

Salt! I use a lot in the cooking process and you do lose the taste as the food cooks.

Best ever meal?

Probably a 50 cent Pad Thai in Bangkok. An unforgettable food memory (Gemma will probably kill me for mentioning it AGAIN!)

The Ledbury in Notting Hill for my Head Chefs birthday would also take a lot of beating. It’s not always about the food, for me it is the memory that surrounds it.

And I would have to mention a phenomenal time spent at Core,  Clare Smyth’s debut restaurant.

Who are your food heroes?

Both Raymond Le Blanc and Thomas Keller who are both so inspirational. Neither of them have ever taken their foot off the pedal and everything they do is surrounded with passion and real business sense

What is your guilty food pleasure?

Ok, here goes… a scotch egg, it can be any make, top taken off, filled with New York Mustard and Ketchup! Delicious.

What has been your biggest kitchen disaster? 

It was my first head chef job at Fallowfields and I was doing saddle of lamb for 100 people. For some reason I just absolutely miscalculated the portions and we came up about 35 short! It was a mad panic to find out what was in the fridges that we could use to save the day! We pulled it off but it’s haunted me ever since! It won’t be happening again!

Where do you like to eat?

I’m always looking for something new, unfortunately there is very little choice of independent run, bistro type restaurants that you can just nip out to. We end up going to Marlow all too often. I hope the new development in Market Street Mews puts some life into the restaurant choices for our great little town. We have a tendency to settle for mediocrity which just lets the big food chains in, we need the independents. Parking in Henley doesn’t help either!

What do you see as the next big food trend? 

There is always a ‘circle of life’ in the restaurant industry. I feel that we are going back to a more hearty, honest, wholesome way of eating. I’ve never been a fan of the molecular way of cooking. I want the best, freshest ingredients I can get hold of. I don’t want to take a pea, freeze dry it, crush it into powder, then suspend it in a gel to make it look like a pea again!

How does local and seasonal impact on you?

For me seasonal is an absolute must, we pride ourselves on staying true to what is available from month to month. Ideally I want to get all my ingredients locally but it really depends on the quality available. I love Honeys of Henley so we use them whenever possible.

Finally, what’s in your fridge! 

I know there is definitely a fishcake mix, and rabbit wantons!

Shaun is an award winning chef who has trained at some of the finest restaurants in the world, working closely with chefs of international repute including Raymond Blanc, Thomas Keller and Alan Murchison. Starting his career at the 2 Michelin starred Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons, before travelling across the Atlantic to New York to work at Thomas Keller’s iconic Per se, a 3 Michelin starred restaurant, Shaun has gained experience under the tutelage of the world’s finest culinary elite. Returning to England in 2009, Shaun joined Michelin starred L’ortolan in Shinfield before seizing the opportunity to unite kitchen and garden at the beautiful Fallowfields Restaurant, working as both head chef and farm manager. Shaun Dickens at The Boathouse is Shaun’s first restaurant; it showcases the skills and passion he has developed in the charming, stylish and elegant setting of Henley-on-Thames. The restaurant offers modern British cuisine alongside the stunning vista of the River Thames.

Don’t forget to keep up with other articles and posts on my blog site My HOT Kitchen