Tuesday, 28 September 2021

Down to business - Shaun Dickens at The Boathouse

Down to business - Shaun Dickens at The Boathouse

SHAUN DICKENS and his wife Gemma own the Henley riverside restaurant Shaun Dickens at The Boathouse, which was recently awarded three AA rosettes. He presides over the kitchen and she is front of house. The couple live in Henley with their son, Alfie, four.

Describe your business

We cook and serve the best fresh local British produce prepared in a modern classic style, all in a beautiful riverside setting.

How many people does it employ?

We have 12 staff.

What did you do before you started this business?

When I was 13 I had a job as a potwasher at a country pub, the Shepherd’s Rest, just outside Swindon. I wanted to earn some money but was very quickly captivated by the whole catering experience. The camaraderie, the adrenalin, the sense of urgency and the immediacy became addictive. I trained at the Westminster Kingsway Catering College and when I graduated got a job at Raymond Blanc’s Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons restaurant, where I spent the next four years. It was there that I met Gemma who was working in front of house. I then went to work for Thomas Keller, who owned the famous French Laundry restaurant in the Napa Valley, California, and the New York restaurant Per Se, for 18 months. It was a great experience. On returning to the UK, I worked at L’Ortolan under Alan Murchison and then for two years at Fallowfields, near Abingdon, where I also was responsible for managing the farm. This is where I learned to appreciate the importance of seasonality where fresh meat and produce is concerned.

When did you open your business ?

In 2013 after I found a business partner willing to invest in me. Raymond Blanc cut the ribbon.

What was your objective?

To run a successful restaurant of my own. It’s about wanting to give people “wow” moments and great memories.

Who and what influenced you?

Henry Kayne at the Shepherd’s Rest, where I started, instilled in me a work ethic and enthusiasm. Through him, I learned to treat food with love.

Do you have a mentor or role model?

That would have to be Raymond Blanc.

What would you do differently if you started again?

Not very much. We did buy things like expensive teapots that we never used as people drink coffee after a meal. The teapots are now in a cupboard!

How is your business doing compared with last year?

We’ve grown every year since we started.

How do you market your business/service?

Gemma does a lot of our marketing. We spend a considerable sum on advertising in several magazines and local newspapers, including the Henley Standard. We launched a new website this year which has received lots of favourable comments. We regularly run special events which we promote by email.

What’s the best thing about running the business?

I get to make decisions and experiment. Freedom.

What’s the most challenging aspect?

You can never totally switch off in this business — it becomes your life. I’m living my dream but I have to remember I am responsible for staff.

How important are online sales?

These days anybody who hasn’t been here is almost certain to check out our website, so keeping that fresh and updated is really important.

How has the business changed?

Food is a bit like fashion with changing trends. At the moment more classical dishes are the popular choice.

Do you have a five-year plan?

To keep going and growing.

What’s the most valuable thing you’ve learned?

That the team is the most important thing I have. I used to think it was all just about the food.

What would you advise someone starting a business?

Give it everything you’ve got.

What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made?

I lost a couple of really good chefs because I worked them too hard. I learned from that.

What’s the secret of your success?

Blood, sweat, tears and sacrifice. Making the restaurant the most important thing in my life other than my wife and our son.

How organised are you?

I can be but I’m not particularly methodical, unlike our head chef James Walshaw who is incredibly

How do you dress for work each day?

As a chef!

What can’t you be without at work each day?

My phone. It links me with everything and everyone.

Do you continue to study?

Every day is like a school day. I’m either learning or teaching.

What do you read?

As many cook books as I can get my hands on. It’s great to see how people 10 years ahead of me are still developing.

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