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CLAVELSHAY BARN: INTERVIEW WITH HEAD CHEF PHIL VERDEN

clavelshaybarn_restaurantPerched on the edge of the stunning Quantock Hills, Clavelshay Barn Restaurant is the perfect setting for family and friends to gather, celebrate and enjoy the fabulous food and relaxed ambiance.

Its creator and owner, Sue Milverton, converted and transformed what was a redundant traditional stone built barn with pure heart, soul and utter determination.  A strong advocate and one of the South West’s champion supporters of local farmers and food producers, Sue is always raising the bar and awareness of how businesses should support the local community, whilst acclaiming indigenous food, combined with the upmost respect for the people who grow it.

Phil Verden has recently joined the team as Head chef in Clavelshay Barn’s kitchen.  Sensational dishes are created by Phil who ‘cherry picks’ the very best local produce and then shapes his menu around each individual ingredient. We are a huge fan of Phil and all his best of food intentions. His ‘no compromise’ attitude on quality and taste is evident in every dish that is served. There is a simple honesty that runs through and sets a trend for every one of his dishes, revealing and showcasing how true ingredients should really taste.

We caught up with Phil and asked him a few questions about how he became a chef, what it’s like to work on a farm and if he has a signature dish…

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ABOUT BEING A CHEF

At what point in your life did you decide to become a chef?

From an early age, I can always remember having a general interest in food, whilst watching my mum as she cooked Sunday lunch every week!  My earliest food memory was wanting to know what made the Yorkshire puddings rise up from a milky batter into a crisp pudding!  Mum called them ‘magic puddings’ and that’s what they became known as.  I started to help and get more involved with cooking and like most kids, enjoyed baking.  To put it simply, I always remembered food and enjoying it!  When I started Secondary school I took food as a subject whilst in the media British food was finally enjoying an earth-shaking revolution, with some amazing dishes starting to appear in books and magazines together with a new breed of chefs on TV.  From then on, I knew food would feature in my future career and that’s what I wanted to pursue!

Tell us how your career unfolded.

Having taken my exams, I left school at the earliest opportunity, (much to my teacher’s annoyance), to enrol at my local catering college.  I really enjoyed taking the basic Level 2, which I would highly recommend, as it taught me respect for the classic of the trade.  However, I felt college was very slow and didn’t have the buzz of a busy kitchen, so having sort permission, I doubled up on my studies and finished college early, achieving my qualification and being awarded Student of the Year.  I bought a copy of the biggest chef magazine, ‘The Caterer’ and wrote to every hotel that was featured in that issue!  Having received only one response which happened to be located 500 miles away in Scotland, I jumped on a train to set off for an interview!  I was offered the job and within a matter of weeks headed for the Old Course Hotel St Andrews.  Two years later, I moved to a beautiful country house hotel called Hartwell House, gaining my first experience of a top level kitchen as it held 3 rosettes.  From there I went to a famous and some say the original country house; ‘The Bell’ at Aston Clinton, Buckinghamshire. During 1999 I became a Sous chef at Thornbury Castle near Bristol; although young the experience made me grow up fast and this time also marked the start of my love for the west country.

My first taste of being a Head chef followed at Ston Easton Park near Bath and it wasn’t easy at all! I then returned to Thornbury as I loved the hotel and was over the moon to be offered the position of Head chef. After almost 2 years, I felt I needed a new experience and decided to spend a year in Australia.  This was a huge positive experience and one that will stay with me for life! Upon my return, I found a new job as Sous chef at Summer Lodge Hotel. This was a huge position for me and I loved it.  I then became Head chef at Summer Lodge working alongside the Executive chef where I learnt how to hone my skills and so much about the trade and customer experience.  During this time, I really matured in myself. After 8 years at Summer Lodge it was time for a change of scene, so I took over The Lord Poulett Arms in Hinton St George.  At this very popular little pub I was very proud to be voted best dining pub in Somerset, together with a Michelin mention.  Finally, I spotted what looked like a perfect job at Clavelshay Barn and that is where I currently reside!

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Who was a major influence on you, both in terms of food and otherwise?

My very first chef, Mark Barker, was a huge influence on me, I was both petrified and in awe of him in equal measure! He showed me what modern food really is and started my love affair with the modern American food scene by introducing me to my chef hero, Charlie Trotter. His vision and boldness blew me away and I was just soaking up as much as I could by reading these beautiful books. He taught me to be bold but not crazy with food pairings, garnish for a reason not just to make things pretty and how raw food can bring new levels to dishes. It took me 12 years but I have finally managed to visit the USA and his restaurant to realise a life ambition!

ABOUT CLAVELSHAY BARN RESTAURANT

Describe the experience of working on a farm.

The first thing I noticed about being on a farm is how hard farmers work.  There is always something to do, even the simplest ingredient such as milk, requires a huge effort, every day all year round, just to get products in our kitchens. The best thing for a chef being on a farm is the huge potential on your own door step! There is space to realise any ideas that you have, to grow fruit and vegetables or rear live stock. There are professionals on hand to help and make things happen.  It’s also a beautiful place to work and there is so much growing in the wild that’s ripe for foraging!

Do you source as much local produce as possible for the restaurant and does this have a big impact on the menu?

I source or try to find out the provenance of all my ingredients.  I feel and believe this allows me to cook with conviction and respect with whatever arrives in the kitchen every morning! As we try to source locally this will mean all the food is seasonal.  However, this doesn’t limit the menu but it does dictate how long a dish will stay on the menu for.  I like this as it keeps me thinking and the menu is constantly changing, as one thing runs out and another comes along, with winter proving quite a challenge for a chef as it’s generally a quiet season for produce.

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ABOUT THE FOOD

Which season do you look forward to the most for its ingredients.

I am torn between winter and spring! I love the spring as some of my favourite ingredients arrive and you get very excited. Asparagus is a true highlight of spring, also radish, such a humble little thing but grown in your own garden, taste so much better. It’s also a sign that the garden is awake and there is plenty to come in the next few months. Spring also is a favourite time to start foraging and the first sight of the frothy white elderflowers gets me out into the countryside picking as much as I can carry, ready for some delicious cordial and desserts!  Winters arrival is also a favourite time as I love winter food, good hot hearty stews and comforting stodgy puddings on a cold day is very pleasing.

Do you have a signature dish?

I don’t actually have a signature dish as I feel my cooking is still evolving and I am constantly learning new things and finding new ingredients. A signature dish could leave you set in your ways and that’s not good. However, since being at the barn there have been a few dishes that I have really enjoyed cooking and they use some of Somerset’s finest ingredients and go down very well.  I often revisit these dishes so they could possibly be a future signature!  The ones that spring to mind is the Stream Farm Smoked Trout with Pickled Lentils & Cider and the Quantock Pheasant Waldorf.

What is your favourite meal to cook at home?

My guilty pleasure is a love for American food!  I love to cook a traditional Deep South chilli con carne with chunks of melting beef brisket in rich spices, served with warm buttery corn bread. Or if we are feeling very naughty, buttermilk fried chicken. Last year I bought an outdoor BBQ smoker and have started experimenting with long slow cooking of meat outdoors, such as pulled pork or brisket, which takes 12-16 hours.  This is a new way of cooking that I enjoy, I just love cooking outside!

What advice would you give to home chefs who are inspired by your style of cookery?

Best advice is simply just give it a go! Try new things, eat out as much as possible to educate and enjoy yourself, read and consume all food media. When you’re in the kitchen trust your senses and cook what feels right, use recipes for support but just go with your gut and enjoy it.  If it feels done then try it, taste all the time and add what you feel it needs, but you must enjoy it or it becomes a chore and there will be no passion.

EAT AT CLAVELSHAY BARN RESTAURANT

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