Tuesday, 18 December 2018

Chef with big ideas says he’s just warming up...

Chef with big ideas says he’s just warming up...

FOR chef Shaun Dickens, success in the restaurant trade is a family affair.

He runs Shaun Dickens at the Boathouse in Station Road, Henley, with his wife Gemma, who is front of house manager.

The couple are also teaching their five-year-old-son Alfie the tricks of the trade and he already has his own chef’s whites.

Mr Dickens, 33, opened the business at the former Hobbs of Henley boat shed in March 2013, having learned his trade at Raymond Blanc’s Le Manoir Aux Quat’Saisons, near Oxford, which has two Michelin stars.

He has just completed a £10,000 refurbishment of the restaurant.

He and his wife, 38, repainted the interior with the help of his father Graham, an accomplished DIY enthusiast.

They have also purchased two £950 garden “igloos”, which consist of a semi-spherical white frame draped with a sheet of translucent plastic, and installed them on the rear deck of the restaurant which overlooks the River Thames.

These retain heat so will allow diners to eat outside even in winter.

Each igloo has a large table and is decorated with a rug, soft fairy lighting and trails of artificial foliage chosen by Mrs Dickens. They also have wireless speakers connected to the restaurant’s indoor sound system, which has also been upgraded.

Mr Dickens, who won planning permission to use the outdoor area until 9pm instead of 6pm last year, had previously installed an awning but this didn’t make the terrace warm enough to use in winter.

He said: “It’s such an amazing spot with a beautiful view of the river but it effectively becomes redundant from early November through to March.

“Last year it was still too cold and windy despite the awning so we decided to have another shot at bringing it back into use.

“We thought the whole igloo feel was really fitting for this time of year so we looked at the dimensions to see if we could squeeze two in and were pleased to find they went in as snug as a bug. Gemma then added the more feminine touches to complete the look.

“We’re really chuffed with them. They’re pretty toasty when the temperature drops and should hold out as it gets really cold, fingers crossed.”

Mr Dickens snr did most of the painting inside. The chef said: “He is a dab hand at DIY and makes it look really easy whereas I struggle quite a bit.

“My parents have always treated this place like a second home and projects like this give them a little bit of ownership. They understand that it has always been a dream of mine so they were over the moon when it opened.

“I’m also very lucky to have Gemma to tell me to slow down and plan things because as soon as I’ve got a brainwave, I just want to get it done straight away.

“We had a really good summer when we were incredibly busy but the restaurant does take an absolute hammering with the number of people that comes through our doors.

“It’s only just started getting quieter and we felt it was best to wait and do the redecorating properly instead of juggling various changes with the day-to-day running. It was a case of getting a big list together and working through it methodically.”

Mr Dickens said the restaurant had always been part of Alfie’s life and his first mouthful of solid food was a piece of rabbit wonton he ate on the decking when he was just over a year old.

He said: “Alfie strolls in through the back door like he owns the place, says ‘hello’ to all the chefs, runs to the bar and helps himself to apple juice, always asks for brownies and knows where the chocolate is kept in the dry store. He’s quite a little picker but that’s part of being a family-run business. We take ourselves seriously and are passionate about what we do but we also ‘keep it real’, if you like.

“Sometimes we struggle to find a babysitter so Alfie will watch me working in the kitchen. There are times when he’ll just run out into the restaurant and pull on his mum’s skirt for attention.

“We have to explain to guests that it’s a family business and he’ll be working here one day! We’ve never had anyone say anything other than ‘isn’t that lovely?’ and it’s a big part of who we are.”

The family live in Gravel Hill and Alfie attends Trinity Primary School in Vicarage Road.

Mr Dickens said: “Our house and business are both in Henley and Alfie goes to school here so we’re very much a part of the community.

“We’re open five days a week but here for seven and often joke that the restaurant is our second child.

“Alfie has his own little uniform that we bought as a present and he does enjoy cooking.

“It wouldn’t surprise either of us if he took the reins here one day as it has always been part of his life. He’ll come in on most weekends when we’re doing breakfast and is making his own pancakes now.

“Gemma gets a bit nervous when he goes near the flames but I always say that he has to learn to work in a kitchen. He also does lots of baking at home so I think he has quite a sweet tooth.

“He’ll be free to do whatever he wants but the option to work here will always be open and I’ll expect him to wash pots for his pocket money, which was the first job I did when I was 13.”

Mr Dickens hopes to earn his own Michelin star and he has already received a number of awards, including Tatler magazine’s 2014 Best of Britain award for best restaurant outside London, two titles in that year’s Oxfordshire Restaurant Awards and more recently three AA rosettes.

The restaurant is also listed in the Michelin Guide 2019 and holds the Assiette Michelin, or Michelin Plate, for restaurants approaching the standard required for a star.

Mr Dickens said: “You have to get yourself on their radar and you can send them menus and updates about your activities. The inspections are anonymous and there aren’t many inspectors so it’s an incredibly difficult award to win.

“Michelin would doubtless say that you cook for your guests first and foremost, which I agree with, but I respect the guide so much that winning a star would be the ultimate goal.

“When someone says ‘that was phenomenal, one of the best meals I’ve had’, that’s enough of an accolade in many ways because you can go back to the kitchen and share it with the rest of the team. However, the Michelin star just gives you that outside validation.

“I think we’ve done all we can now to give ourselves a chance and we’re all proud of what we do every single day. I’m not the kind of chef who sits at a computer doing paperwork all day — I run my section, I taste, I develop and am a full member of the team.

“I’m madly in love with the place and everything we’ve created, from the style of service we’ve developed to every dish that leaves the kitchen.”

Mr Dickens devises his menu in partnership with his head chef James Walshaw, who was a chef de partie at L’Ortolan in Shinfield when Mr Dickens worked there as a sous-chef.

He said: “Either he or I will have an idea based on a seasonal ingredient and will develop it from there.

“We complement each other well because we’re equally as passionate, while his strengths are my weaknesses and vice-versa.

“He’s a great organiser and always thinks about the future whereas I’m rubbish at that.

“I’ve got drive, energy and a whole load of crazy ideas but he’s the one who’ll turn it into a workable plan and I trust him to maintain the kitchen to the standard I require. We often joke that we’re like Maverick and Goose from Top Gun because we have a similar relationship!”

The restaurant has about 12 employees, four chefs and a pot-washer, four waiters and waitresses and a small team of casual serving staff who are called upon at busy periods.

Mr Dickens is keen to recruit newcomers and encourages team members to follow their passions.

Bar manager Dan Thorpe, who is interested in spirits, has just developed a winter menu of hot cocktails while restaurant manager Rob Moulster is developing the wine list.

New waitress Amber Flint is learning the ropes under Mrs Dickens, who worked front of house at Le Manoir for nine years and was Mr Blanc’s first trainee.

Mr Dickens said: “We’ve also got two young lads who’ve just joined us in the kitchen. We want to cultivate that raw talent and hone their skills. We all had to start somewhere and I have to remind myself that my knife skills weren’t always as good as they are now. It will be very rewarding when they’re absolutely flying a few months from now.

“It can get very busy but we just have to ensure everyone pulls their weight and has each other’s backs, particularly during periods of short staffing. There were times last summer when the chefs had to wash the plates because there was no choice.” Mr Dickens said he liked Henley and planned to stay for the foreseeable future.

He said: “No one knows what’s round the corner and I’ve got huge ambitions but this restaurant will always be our focus.

“We chose Henley over a big city like London as the turnover there is so high and we wanted to build something with solid foundations.

“We have good relationships with other businesses and help each other out if we have shortages.

“The town is more seasonal than I could have imagined before we opened — there’s the huge summer influx then it goes very quiet in winter.

“Things like the igloos fit well with the theme of Christmas, which is always a very competitive time, and our marketing initiatives like our ‘bring your own bottle’ nights on Thursdays have proven popular.

“It would be absolutely amazing to have a hotel boat moored nearby with six to eight rooms so that guests could stay after their meals.

“That’s obviously a wild dream for now but if you work hard enough and stay focused then anything is possible.”

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