Keeping it fresh & simple
PUBLISHED: 15:11 03 July 2014
For DARREN SWALES, head chef at the South Sands Hotel in Salcombe, food is best cooked simply without overcomplicating it
What is your earliest food memory?
My dad had a small allotment. I used to help plant the vegetables, then pick them and prep them and cook Sunday lunch with my family from the age of 10 or 11.
How did you get into cooking?
Dad was a butcher for 13 years and my mum worked in hospitality for 15 years while I was growing up, so it has always been a big part of my life.
What made you decide to be a chef?
From an early school age, I had planned on being a chef in the army, however I got a washing-up job in my local pub and as soon as I saw the hustle and bustle of a busy kitchen I was hooked.
What was your first experience of cooking professionally? I first worked at The Dunn Cow Inn in Sedgefield, near where I grew up and the same place my mum had worked for 15 years. It had a really good reputation and Tony Blair and Niall Quinn both ate there often. I remember being amazed at how busy the kitchen was and the amount of fresh food that would be delivered and seeing the preparation and cooking involved to get it on the plate for the customer. I met Simon Walsh there and he was the first real professional chef I had worked with and I subsequently worked with him in three different hotels.
What successes or failures did you have in the early days? The main thing that sticks in my mind and I will always remember from my career so far is working with Albert Roux, while I worked at the Close House County Club in Northumberland. He came in once a month and we created a tasting menu. It was a great privilege and experience to meet one of the greatest chefs ever. Also, getting appointed as South Sands head chef as it’s something I have worked towards for a long time
How did you progress to where you are now? I have been very lucky to work with some great chefs who I have learned a lot from and worked in some amazing places like Portugal, Corsica, the French Alps and of course Salcombe.
What sort of foods and flavours inspire you? Working right on the coast in Devon my main inspiration is fresh, local fish. I still get amazed daily by the quality of local fresh ingredients right on our doorstep.
What are your food ‘hates’?
When chefs overcomplicate dishes with too many flavours, purées and foams you lose the flavour of the fish or meat you are serving. I just think that when you have beautiful, fresh ingredients why try to and hide it or change it?
Do you have any signature dishes?
I don’t really have a signature dish. I’m a big fan of the lemon sole we serve with brown shrimps, capers and samphire but my favourite dishes at the moment are the sharing dishes for two as I like the idea of putting a whole sea bass or brill in front of two people with a nice sauce and side dish, making it a more sociable, friendly and relaxing meal.
How important is sourcing to you?
Sourcing is very important to me and South Sands, especially as we have great quality on our doorstep. We use a lot of Salcombe crab which is caught and picked within two miles of the hotel and our meat comes from less than a mile from our hotel.
Who are your preferred suppliers?
I really like the local smaller suppliers that we use at South Sands as we know we’ll get consistently fresh, ingredients and we have great relationships with the locals. Matthew Stevens fish is another supplier I am a really big fan of.
Who inspires you in the cooking world?
Simon Walsh was a chef who really inspired me - I worked with him from when I was 17 for around five years.
What would be your one professional’s tip for an amateur home cook?
High quality ingredients cooked simply. If you get a beautiful piece of fish just serve it simply: don’t overcomplicate things.