Andrew Wilson has returned to Ashdown Park Hotel in Sussex for the third time and he is now executive chef. It’s not difficult to understand the appeal: it’s the quintessential English country house hotel – Gothic Victorian architecture and more than 180 acres of grounds.
Andrew heads a team of 25 in the kitchen at the Elite Hotel Ashdown Park’s Anderida Restaurant but I caught up with him at the Bluebell Railway station at Horstead Keynes. No, he wasn’t waiting for a train but rather serving afternoon tea on a polished and gleaming Pullman carriage during the Sussex Food Festival weekend.
This chef has a relaxed manner and a quick smile, his conversation is peppered with compliments for the quality of baked goods at the show, and for his staff who joined him on this cool, blustery day. He comments that he would love to offer his hotel guests some of the locally produced jams but he would need so much that a small producer would have trouble consistently filling the order. Ashdown Park Hotel is, however, a sponsor for the Sussex Food Festival, which allows small producers to have a forum for their quality wares.
I asked Andrew why he chose to become a chef. “My eldest brother was a chef in the Royal Navy, and as the youngest in the family I looked up to him, and was always interested in what he was doing around the kitchen. My mother has a small wedding-cake business, too. As I ‘slipped through the net’ when the school was picking the football team, catering was what I decided to become involved in, and I wanted to get to the top. It’s been long hard hours, long hard days, some very tough restaurants and some very good restaurants to get here.”
Andrew is a Dorset lad and wanted a local culinary education. “I went to college in Bournemouth. You have to plan out your route to where you want to get to; I was determined to become an executive chef, so I set my goals and worked towards them from a young age.
“I did some stages at restaurants while I was at college – Le Gavroche, The Hyde Park in London – to get a ‘taster’, to get that experience. That process is designed so that a youngster can see what it takes to get to the top places: that’s when it hits home! But you have to work hard at any job; it’s true that catering is long hours, but it’s very rewarding, and it was more of an inspiration to me – I wasn’t put off.
“After college I worked at a small hotel in Weymouth, where the food was traditional, and at the Sea Cow Restaurant where the chef/patron was head of cuisine for the British Culinary Olympics team, and where the emphasis was more on fine dining. From there I moved up to London to gain experience in Michelin-starred restaurants. I wanted to work in London, but I always knew that was only temporary.” Andrew is still a country lad at heart.
Andrew’s food is contemporary British so I asked him how he viewed the place of British restaurants in the international culinary arena. “There used to be just a handful of Michelin-star restaurants in the ’80s, and most of those in London, but these days they are everywhere. This is both a good thing and a bad thing: it’s good that there are so many chefs at that level now, but it can take the shine off that Michelin star: there are so many different styles of cooking, so you can go to a pub and have good steak and chips and they’ll have a star for it, or go somewhere else and have an amazing gastronomic experience, and that restaurant will earn the same star. The criteria are so mixed now, and no-one’s quite sure what you have to do to gain a Michelin star. But we do have some very clever chefs and very innovative chefs, and it’s a good thing that Britain’s on the culinary map – not just France and Spain. It’s changed massively in the last 15 years.
“We have a clientele from all over the world, and my job is to ‘wow’ them with the food, so it’s traditional with a contemporary twist, and I use modern techniques and equipment. We don’t go too mad on the ‘molecular gastronomy’ side, but there is an element of that – it’s important to keep it in context, and use it to your advantage.”
Andrew has worked at Ashdown Park on several occasions during his career and it seems to be a magnet for him. “I’ve been at Ashdown Park for 7 months now, and we have changed the food dramatically – flavours, techniques, getting the best out of the ingredients. When you have worked at 2- and 3-Michelin star restaurants you realise that their techniques are so different, so precise, and you can bring those elements from a 40-cover restaurant into a hotel of the size of Ashdown Park. Customers are starting to notice the difference in style. It’s important to motivate the team, and to keep everyone interested, because the industry is changing all the time. This is a big establishment to manage, so although my name’s on the food there is a big team, and there is some management too, it’s not all cooking!”
Sourcing produce locally for Ashdown Park is important for Andrew and he likes to support the Sussex economy where possible. “Guests like to know where the food comes from, so, price permitting, we will buy from local suppliers where we can – we have fantastic produce around here, like the 32-day aged beef from Lamberhurst. I don’t have what you’d call ‘signature dishes’, but there are a couple of things that I’ve kept on the menu: we have a salmon that we cure in black treacle, served with a passionfruit jelly with peanut dressing and a little spring roll with mango, chilli and coriander; then there’s our duck with squid, which works so, so well, and we do a duck dumpling with it, with lime and peanut – Asian with a difference! These are two dishes that I take a particular pride in.”
What does Andrew like to eat at home, and what were his childhood favourites? “At home I appreciate the comfort of sausage and mash, a shepherd’s pie or a nice bacon sandwich! But my wife Roberta cooks very well, and we do take it in turns – I have to have some down-time, otherwise I’d be thinking 24/7; cooking food away from the restaurant is vital for me. I remember a cauliflower cheese that my grandma used to make for me: I didn’t like cauliflower cheese when I was younger, so she made one with crisps on the top and then baked it – I’ll tell you what, I loved it, and from then on it had to be crisps on cauliflower cheese! And Gran’s steamed puddings and crumbles – you couldn’t beat them.”
Yes, Andrew has an appreciation of tradition, but he wants to take that forward and showcase the exciting face of new British food, while retaining the essence of his local ingredients.
Ashdown Park Hotel & Country Club
Near Forest Row,
Phone: 01342 824988
Fax: 01342 826206
Visit Ashdown Park here
Interview by Chrissie Walker © 2018