With a tremendous respect for ingredients and his culinary craft, Roux scholar Chef Paul O’Neill has carved a career out of a combination of determination and good quality food; encapsulating the latest wave of modern British cuisine. We talk to O’Neill as he prepares for his London Produce Show and Conference 2015 (LPS15) demonstration
From just a short conversation with Paul O’Neill, it’s obvious he was meant to be a chef. “Quality ingredients, cooked with respect is really where we are with modern British [cuisine] – with the odd influence of all the rich cultures that our society encompasses,” says the ingredient-passionate head chef, who at the time of the interview was enthusiastically making the most of self-foraged wild garlic at his restaurant within Bristol’s Berwick Lodge hotel.
“We forage and source locally when we can, but when local may not be the best, we have to put quality first. We get a lot of ingredients from Wiltshire producers and we use Bristol wholesale market, which I visit when I have time to see what’s in season and just pick what we want. I love the British seasons and products like wild garlic, wild mushrooms and asparagus. We need to make as much as we can out of the things that are only available at a certain time of year.
“It’s great to get chefs out of the kitchen to see where the produce comes from, as with that comes understanding and it makes you respect the product a little bit more. Food is getting fresher and less heavy. Traditionally, British food has been quite substantial, but it is becoming lighter and more seasonal, as people understand food more and also don’t want to go out of restaurant feeling like they have eaten too much.”
Living the dream
Having started out at Claridges, O’Neill took on his first head chef role at the Victorian country mansion 2 AA Rosette Berwick Lodge last year and launched his appointment with a 10-course tasting menu for 65 people. His aim is to make the restaurant a stand-out dining destination, rather than just a restaurant in a hotel.
“This is a small boutique hotel with 14 rooms and 80 covers in the restaurant,” explains O’Neill, whose favourite dish on the menu is a Moroccan-inspired harissa lamb shoulder pastilla with chickpeas and a lamb loin in spiced breadcrumbs. “Until last year, people generally stayed at the hotel and then dined in the restaurant. I want it to be a destination. People now, more and more, eat and then stay because it is also a hotel.”
Chichester-born O’Neill talks of his talent as if it had snuck up and surprised him. At 15, he left school, where ironically he says he “didn’t do very well”. Then he found that, more importantly than any ambition on his part, he was accepted and welcomed into a working kitchen.
“I wanted to go to college and the only real career options offered to me were catering or hairdressing,” he explains, quipping that he thought he might be a better caterer than hairdresser. “I had done some cooking at home, but I wouldn’t have called it an interest. Once I got into kitchens, I found it was something I really enjoyed and I had a bit of flair for it. I enjoyed the working environment and the younger demographic of the kitchen. From college onwards I flew really and went straight to London for my first full-time job, at Claridges under John Williams, which is where I learnt an awful lot.”
Fast-forward seven years, aged 22 O’Neill became the senior sous chef at the Felbridge Hotel & Spa. The fact that he was at the same age as when most of his peers would be leaving university, has not escaped him. “Everywhere I worked I pushed for promotion,” says O’Neill, who also points out that he owes a lot to chef Matthew Budden, head chef of the hotel at the time [who will also feature in the LPS15 chef demonstration], for believing in him at such a young age. “That experience stood me in good stead and helped me when I moved on to bigger brigades.”
By the age of 28, O’Neill became The Roux Scholarship’s thirtieth scholar and the first winner to have his journey filmed on television for all to see. His winning dish – the salmon, Chambord style, with sauce genevoise – was his ticket to working in Restaurant Pierre Gagnaire in Paris, where he put his first-hand Roux experience into practice.
“The Roux Scholarship was a real turning point in my confidence,” he confides, saying the win came as a big surprise. “I was respected as much as anyone else, even though my career was not studded with Michelin stars and I was competing against people working at The Savoy. It made me believe in my food and provided the boost I needed to push my career forward.”
Quality comes first
It was in Paris where O’Neill discovered a lot more appreciation for the ingredients he uses day to day. “It made me have a lot more respect for ingredients,” he says. “Everything came in with feather or scales on it, and you had to gut it all. I started to understand the products more and to have a lot more respect for producers and what they do.
“Chefs need to understand the product before cooking it. I learnt so much about flavour combinations and then I understood what I wanted to do with my food when I returned to the UK. I came back with a more cemented view of what I wanted to achieve whereas before I would have tried to overcomplicate. Now I stick to concentrating on the quality of the ingredients and using them properly.”
O’Neill will be doing just that at LPS15 during his demo, where he will be cooking a summer vegetable salad and make the most of the best ingredients at the height of one of Britain’s most abundant seasons. After having a bit of a commercial forage around the exhibition floor, the chef will serve up summer veg, cooked simply with curd cheese and a rapeseed oil mayonnaise.
“This is another great opportunity to show what British chefs are doing at the moment, as well as highlight the culinary scene in Bristol,” says O’Neill. “I’ll be looking for broad beans, peas, heritage carrots and whatever else comes my way.”
Chef O’Neill demonstrated his skills at the London Produce Show and Conference 2015 on June 4 at the Grosvenor House Hotel, London.