Chef Q&A: Simon Johnston, St Michael’s Manor, St Albans

PUBLISHED: 18:10 13 October 2014 | UPDATED: 18:10 13 October 2014

Salmon and crab, St Michaels Manor, St Albans

Salmon and crab, St Michaels Manor, St Albans

Belle Momenti Photography

The head chef at The Lake Restaurant gives an insight into his kitchen

Simon JohnstonSimon Johnston

Describe your style. To coin a phrase, ‘British Modern’. I’m trained in the classical French style and use this as my base and update it with current techniques and trends.

How do you decide your menu? This is dictated by seasonal value and quality. I find out what is available and create my menus around the products, rather than decide on a menu first and then source the ingredients.

Do you use Herts producers? Yes, it makes such sense. They’re on the doorstep and often pop in with suggestions and ideas. To name three I use British Premium Meats from Welling, AC Butchers in St Albans and Stickleback in London Colney. Also they help spread the word locally about the hotel and what’s on our menus.

Which menu dish do you most enjoy preparing? Fish, any type really. It’s just so adaptable and as a food it just doesn’t compare with anything else of the same quality. Halibut is a particular favorite of mine as it is appetizing and has such great flavours.

What ingredient is most important to your cooking? It’s got to be seasoning as it makes all the difference. The trend is not to use salt but carefully done it’s the best way to enhance the natural taste of a dish. Try it, and pepper, even on a simple salad and see what it does.

Best culinary idea? Making consommé in a steamer. Not the traditional way of cooking it as it needs to be done at 100 plus degrees in order to separate the fluids, but it worked because steam is created at 100 degrees anyway!

Who did you train under and what did they teach you? Max Pettini, 2006 AA chef, taught me to love cooking and how to enjoy it while doing it. He showed me how to involve the kitchen team when contributing dishes to the menu, which helps keeps them motivated. He now runs a gastropub in Oxfordshire. I’ve worked under other various famous chefs in London and taken the best practices from them, in particular precision and kitchen management.

Prediction for the next food trend? Modern British cuisine will continue to develop and absorb trends and influences from other styles. Some of the best chefs in the world are British and this country is becoming more and more ‘foodie’ thus more innovative, hearty but simple food is appearing. I also think there is an increasing demand to take the formality out of dining and it’s becoming more casual.

I’ve also seen an increase in the appearance of high-end American-style diners offering top quality produce, such as Wagyu beef. It will be interesting to see if they make it into locations outside London.

What’s in your home fridge? French cheese, saucisson and cured meats. 

Favourite quick meal? Gnocchi is a particular favorite, served with seasoned and cooked sliced meat and olive oil. 

Top three tips for home cooks? Be prepared (thanks Baden Powell!) – measure out all quantities, peel, chop, and sort out utensils and cooking pans in advance. Use all five fingers, to taste as you go and season in small doses. Stay sharp – it’s easier to cut, chop and peel if your knives are in good nick.

Best cookbook? Larousse Gastronomique by Prosper Montagné...every time!

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