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“The nation's top chefs compete for the chance to cook at an incredible four-course banquet.”
The above is the official BBC description of its programme, Great British Menu - one of the most popular cooking shows on UK television. And it’s a programme with which renowned chef Stuart Collins is extremely familiar. Stuart was recently crowned winner of the ‘central region’ heats, meaning he’s made it through to the national final.
“It’s a cooking competition entered by professional chefs,” Stuart explains. “It’s broken down into regions, and chefs compete to get through to the finals to represent their region. That then gets whittled down to one chef per course to cook at the banquet.”
This year’s theme was ‘British innovation’. Stuart, who opened his restaurant, Docket no.33, in the Shropshire market town of Whitchurch back in 2017, was competing against fellow culinary maestros Shannon Johnson, Liam Dillon and Sabrina Gidda to get his place in the final.
“They were tough opponents. It was Sabrina’s third attempt in the competition, and that plays on your mind. She’s an amazing chef and knows her way around the kitchen. Equally, Liam was very, very strong, and his cooking is exceptional. I’d never met Shannon before, and I didn’t know her cooking. When the canapés go up on the pass, that’s the first insight you have into each other’s cooking. Everyone, in their own way, kept me on my toes.
“The whole process is a massive up-and-down rollercoaster of emotion. Even though I was fortunate to score quite well in the week, it only takes one dish to go wrong and all of that can suddenly be turned around. For the whole week you don’t sleep very well, you don’t eat very well, and you literally take each day as it comes and do the best that you can.”
Stuart started the week with a solid score of nine out of 10 from veteran judge Lisa Goodwin Allen, who was suitably impressed with his ‘Take it with a grain of salt’ pork cheek dish. The ‘cooked perfectly’ dish was inspired by Elsie Widdowson, the food scientist who revolutionised the way the world assessed nutritional values.
Stuart’s ‘Dissected Maps’ main course, meanwhile - which also impressed the judge - utilised a host of local ingredients. These included Rose veal from Staffordshire, beer from Walsall and Vitelotte potatoes from Shropshire. The course received a score of eight out of 10.
“My favourite dish was probably the fish course,” Stuart reveals. “The appearance of it was exactly how I wanted it. It was one of the dishes that was clear in my mind from the get-go. That, and the traffic-light pre-dessert.”
Stuart’s Docket No.33 restaurant, which boasts a front room seating 24 guests and a private room seating 12, has featured in the prestigious Michelin Guide for two consecutive years and offers a carefully curated seven-course tasting menu.
“We really focus on local ingredients, and we use as many Shropshire suppliers as we can. The menu is focused around what’s in its absolute prime at the time. The menu can change almost daily according to what’s available. We normally start with some snacks, then there’s a bread course - we use local beer to make the bread - then there’s normally a vegetable course, a fish course, a meat course, cheese, and then dessert. It’s a lovely journey. We want it to be an experience. There’s an optional wine pairing, too - sometimes there may be a cocktail in there, or a spirit that goes well with a dish.”
During the pandemic, with restaurants being temporarily forced to close, Stuart and his team have been providing an ‘At Home’ service. Each week, Docket No.33 has been devising a three-course dinner menu for customers to enjoy within the comfort of their own home. Dinners are available every Friday and Saturday and are served chilled. A set of simple instructions is also provided, so that people can easily re-heat or cook the meals when they get home.
“We fully intend to carry on with the service even with the restaurant back open. It’s been lovely. We have a few older guests who’ve had it every single week! Every menu is different, and they love coming and getting the ingredients each week. It’s nice for us because it’s almost putting something back into the community. We’ve found, for example, that it also works for young professionals with younger kids. One of the parents can put the child to bed while the other comes and picks up dinner to cook at home. We’ve found two lovely little pockets in the market and people love it. It would be really hard to stop it.
“It’s been good for business, too. It’s helped us pay the rent. We’re not rolling in loads of money, but it’s helped. It’s helped keep us focused. We couldn’t open the restaurant as such, and that’s a great shame after 12 months, but what we have been able to do is make food; to use those local suppliers who are so important to us. Now that we’re reopening, it’s nice that we can pick up the phone and our suppliers are still there. It’s very much a supply chain. We can’t do what we do if we have no suppliers. Just to play a very small part in that wheel has been a lovely opportunity for us.”
Stuart's extensive experience in the industry includes working with a host of well-known culinary experts, including Michael Caines, Gordon Ramsey and the late Gary Rhodes.
“Working at Restaurant Gordon Ramsey was an amazing experience. Whilst it’s about cooking for the name above the door - or with the name above the door - you’re surrounded by amazing people. It was fast-paced and busy in London; a hugely rewarding experience, undeniably hard work, but I absolutely loved it. That then gave me the opportunity to move across to New York when Gordon opened over there - to move there and carry on in that same vain. It was great to embrace New York - it was incredible. Again, I had a whole different pool of chefs to work with, and then it starts to open up your mind. You’re surrounded by different styles of restaurants - the city is different to London - different influences and different ingredients are available. Working at the restaurant was incredible, and being around Gordon and his hierarchy was amazing. It also gives you those wonderful experiences that help shape where we’ve got to today.”
It’s no secret that working in hospitality is a tough gig. From the fast-paced environment to the long hours, it’s certainly not an industry in which everybody would thrive. So why be a chef?
“I kind of fell into it when I was younger. I think just having that ability to be creative, work with amazing ingredients and create something that people can enjoy is a wonderful position to be in. To see people enjoy your food is just an amazing thing. Primarily it was about working in a fantastic team with some really motivated and focused people. And then to work with exceptional ingredients, and then to get it to guests, is an all-in win.”
Stuart’s best piece of advice for budding chefs is to take their time and learn to master their craft: “Everyone wants this fast-track ‘come out of college and two years later you’re driving a Ferrari’ experience, but that just doesn’t happen. I don’t think there would be much fun in that, because you’d very quickly run out of ideas. You see so many young chefs burn out. Take your time, learn your craft, learn the ingredients and enjoy it. As for the money and the fame - if you want it, you can chase that once you know what you’re doing, but it’s a labour of love, this industry.”
With restaurants finally reopening for indoor dining, what are Stuart’s plans? “We need to get back up and running. We’ve got a few events and collaborations pencilled in, which is great. We don’t want to plan too much and for it not to happen, so it’s quite hard. We’re sort of thinking, let’s get to Christmas and see what happens after that. Nothing solid just yet. Getting the wheels back turning is the most important thing.”
One event in the diary is the Big BBQ Bash at Birmingham’s revolutionary dining space, Craft, with Stuart set to join forces at the event with chef Andy Sheridan and ‘Shropshire Lad’ Adam Purnell. Diners can expect bold flavours and hearty barbecue food cooked over flames. Dishes will be presented in full banquet style and served with sparkling wine and summer cocktails.
Tickets are on sale now and can be purchased at weare-craft.co.uk.
By Lauren Foster
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