Clive Dixon is unstoppable. Shonali Muthalaly talks to the Michelin star chef who criss-crosses the globe revamping restaurants
A chef at the age of 18. A head Chef at 23. A Michelin star at 25. And Clive Dixon was just getting started. He worked with a string of successful restaurants, adding a string of stars to his resume. He opened a gastro pub, The Snooty Fox, which rapidly multiplied into three. Then, he gave it all up to work with Heston Blumenthal, rock star of the culinary world and guru of molecular gastronomy, as Head Chef at The Hinds Head Hotel in Bray on Thames.
Now Dixon is in Chennai, putting together a dinner menu at Sheraton Park Hotel and Towers with Chef Nikhil Nagpal and his team. He takes a break to discuss his distinctive food style, honed by years in different award-winning kitchens, and how important it is for chefs to know their basics.
“My style is classical European with a modern twist,” he says, adding “I use some molecular techniques — but only if it benefits the produce.” Dixon says his focus is on ingredients. “If you haven’t got fantastic ingredients to start with no amount of molecular cooking or fancy technique will help.” Despite his familiarity with molecular gastronomy, he’s insistent that basics are what matter. “The chef needs to remember that taste is the most important thing. I’ve seen chefs so clever they can take a piece of meat, make it into sauce, foam, jelly. They can intensify the taste, concentrate the flavour. It looks amazing. It’s always very complicated. But if you ask them to just cook it on a stove, in a pan, they have no clue how to do it. Chefs are their own worst enemy. It’s all about their ego.”
He says, “When I spent time with Heston we used modern technique, sure. But everything was in stages. We would interpret a simple dish to make it interesting. A shepherd’s pie for instance is something almost every mother in England has made at some point. We would brine the lamb for 24 hours, then cook it for twelve, then create different components from every part. Preparation took three days.”
However, he emphasises, he’s against unnecessarily over-complicated food. “We once conducted an experiment with Sous Vide cooking. We made 20 steaks, 19 of which were cooked sous vide, each at a different time and temperature. The 20th I cooked myself, just searing it on a pan. In the end, everyone ate mine.”
Starting in a kitchen at the age of 18, (“Mainly peeling potatoes and getting knocked around”), he worked his way through three restaurants till he got an offer to be head chef of The Old Swan And Mill in Oxfordshire. “I did modern European food there, with flavours from Asia.” From there he moved to Lords of the Manor in the Cotswolds, which is where he became one of the youngest chefs to get a Michelin star. “It was amazing. I was the most shocked in the world. I was at home on my day off when the news came. My boss drove to my house, and knocked on my door. He had never visited before, so I thought “oh my god, what’s gone wrong!” He came in and just started jumping up and down!” Dixon laughs. “Later in my career I worked with a Michelin guy and he said my restaurant had been visited eight times. It’s about consistency. You have to be the best in your class.”
Determined to run his own professional kitchen, he moved into the gastro-pub arena. When his own pub The Snooty Fox, began to expand, he quit. “It was too crazy and I got out of the game, swearing never to go into pubs again.” That’s when he got a call about a position as head chef of Blumenthal’s Pub, The Hind’s Head. (Next door to the multiple award-winning, three-Michelin starred Fat Duck, at Bray on Thames.) “The pressure’s immense. People will take a detour for a two star, but they will fly into the country to eat at a three star. There are people who save all year to eat there.”
Now, as a consultant, he travels the world fixing restaurants and advising chefs. “I was watching Gordon Ramsey on TV and I felt like I was cheering for the home team. That’s exactly what I do,” he grins, “Often menus are too long, food is complicated, and quality is inconsistent.”
He adds, “You don’t start out with molecular gastronomy. I see young chefs coming in with thermometers and probes to see if the meat is done. They can’t tell by touching it,” he shrugs, adding “They’re losing those skills. My advice? Learn to cook first.”
Lesson two? “When you’re working with Heston you’ll notice he’s always asking questions. Why if? Why? How? Heston is who he is not because he invented molecular gastronomy, because he didn’t. It’s because he asked questions.”
(Chef Clive Dixon is at On The Rocks till August 28. Call Sheraton Park Hotel and Towers on 2499 4101 for more details.)
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