Words by: Suz Inman – Mightier Words
Guy Owen is Head Chef at the super-stylish Idle Rocks in St Mawes. He lived in Ashton growing up, so he knows Porthleven well: in fact he used to buy his fish in the fishmongers here and admits to catching his personal best wrasse off the pier! It’s a place he tries to get to as often as he can and he loves watching the storms here. And he’s very excited about coming to cook for us in the Chefs’ Theatre at this year’s Food Festival.
We caught up with Guy to find out more about his background as a chef, his cooking and living in Cornwall…
Tell us about your life in cooking? Where did it all begin?
My mother has always cooked as a career choice and as children my siblings and I were always surrounded by fresh ingredients cooked from scratch. This meant that we always ate a very balanced diet and saw things created from start to finish. At the age of 6 or 7, I was a very keen angler, fly fishing on the river Test in Hampshire with my Grandfather. Whatever we caught, I was expected to kill and prepare ready for cooking. Early food memories would be eating a poached trout, served simply with a little lettuce, buttered brown bread and some salad cream. That still stands out as one of my most favourite dishes of all time. Delicious.
When I was a young teenager I had various part time jobs as a trainee chef in local restaurants around Mevagissey, from frying fish in the local chippy, to a 2 AA rosette restaurant called the Salamander.
When did you know you wanted to chef as a career?
I think it was when I went to work for Anne Long, at the Rising Sun Inn at the age of 18 (which is funnily enough, opposite The Idle Rocks). She was a Master Chef of Great Britain and taught me the classical finesse needed to cook food. Being taken under the wing of somebody as good as Mrs Long totally changed my perception on cooking, and made me very hungry for more. So after some advice, I moved to London to continue training. I wanted to see the best of the best, and at that time in my career there was one chef who stood out, that was Gordon Ramsay.
I trialled for Gordon Ramsay at Claridges and got a job as a commis chef. It was brutally hard, but it changed everything. Suddenly I was seeing chefs in search of perfection, every little thing had to be immaculate to make the grade. I loved it.
After Ramsay’s I moved to La Trompette in Chiswick, a stunning Michelin starred brasserie, which taught me that the beauty of ingredients is the most important thing. Suddenly a fillet of fish or a vegetable had so much meaning to it. Respecting the ingredients for their natural beauty was key.
After La Trompette I wanted to move back towards the Westcountry, and got a job working at the 2 Michelin starred Gidleigh Park in Devon, working under Michael Caines. Gidleigh is without a doubt one of the most beautiful and special places in the Westcountry, and working there was just very special. The food was incredible, as was the attitude to standards. Gidleigh taught me all about the discipline needed to become one of the best in the country. Very tough, long hours, but very rewarding when you saw the food leaving the kitchen.
What brought you to Cornwall?
After Gidleigh, I was at a crossroads, do I travel to Australia or America to train and see a new part of the world or stay in England. It was then I received a phone call from Chris Eden at the Driftwood Hotel in Porthscatho. Chris had 3 rosettes and a burning desire to gain a Michelin star. As he puts it, ‘he read me the riot act’ and said it’s going to be tough but fantastic at the same time. He took me on as his sous chef, still one of the best decisions in my career. The Driftwood is one of the most romantic restaurants I have worked in. A small team, some serious grit and determination, and a forward thinking, driven chef. As a cook, you felt you were part of everything moving forward. And Chris’s work and focus was rewarded when the restaurant won its Michelin star in 2012. That moment still stands strong in my head, we found out at midday on 6th October. The celebration after service that night was quite something as well. I spent four years at The Driftwood and seeing where the restaurant is now is incredible.
After the Driftwood I felt it was time to take a head chef role. So I did a bit of consultancy work waiting for the right job, and in April 2015 the phone rang. It was The Idle Rocks. After meeting with the owners and understanding their ethos and drive, I knew it was a perfect match for me. I started in May 2015 and haven’t looked back. It truly is a very special place to be a part of.
What makes food at the Idle Rocks so special and is there a set style of cuisine? Does the location influence the menu?
The Idle Rocks terrace forms the actual sea wall protecting the village from rough sea, so what makes the food so special? Definitely the location, coupled with the vision of owners David and Karen Richards to design a space that’s sophisticated, yet relaxed, and totally in keeping with the area, makes for an amazing canvas to cook from.
Our style of cuisine is modern British with influences of France and Asia. We take an ingredient, and build a dish around what that ingredient signifies. When we design the dish we draw on everything around us. From our suppliers to the naturally growing ingredients on our doorstep. We like to keep things local, so if you are sat on our terrace in the warm summer sun we want to ensure you are eating fish and seafood caught in the waters that you can see right in front of you. Everything we cook is influenced by our location.
What’s your favourite dish to cook and why?
It’s tricky to pick just one dish. The best way for me to answer that, is to say using anything that comes locally. I don’t prefer to cook meat, or fish, or vegetables, I like all of them. We have recently collaborated with The Lost Gardens of Heligan, to supply us with some beautiful heritage vegetables grown using traditional Victorian methods. So my favourite dish at the moment is a vegetarian dish we have created with them called Heligan’s Garden. This is a resident dish on our menu that evolves and changes showcasing what’s in season from their Garden throughout the year.
Where’s your favourite place to eat and why?
It’s difficult to pick just one, with so many restaurants offering so many different things. Of course Kota in Porthleven has to be on there, Jude’s food is superb. The Seahorse in Dartmouth. Mitch and Matt are amazing cooks.
The Polgooth Inn near St Austell. It’s a great pub, super simple pub grub done well. The Pony and Trap in Chew Magna, Bristol. Josh Eggleton serves great food with an amazing understanding of flavours (look out for Josh and Jude from Kota in our Chefs’ Theatre programme).
What would you say is your signature style?
My style is all about the main ingredient which should be the main focal point of the dish and making sure it is treated delicately. My local suppliers dictate what ingredients we use, if they say they are going to give Bass a break, then we don’t try and source from elsewhere — we work with them and look to use something else. I utilise the skills from Asia and France with our dishes. Nobody understands purity of flavour more. I am constantly left in awe of how simple, yet delicious Asian cuisine is. The French influence is fundamentally familiarisation. I want our guests to feel comfortable in their knowledge of what they are ordering.
What’s special about living in Cornwall?
Everything! Cornwall is just the most beautiful area of the country for me, especially as a chef. I can come into work, do the long hours, the high intensity and discipline, and on my day off I can go and enjoy the sea and the coast. I can really relax here, there’s room to think in Cornwall.
Can you recommend a great place to visit in Cornwall?
The Lost Gardens of Heligan. It’s stunning. As well as being an attraction, they grow their own produce in the Productive Garden, which they use in their kitchen restaurant. They are very focused on the produce they grow, the traditional methods they use and on educating the public who visit them. Very few places are that interactive, Heligan share their knowledge and ethos with the public wherever they can. Walking around any business and being able to talk to the people putting in the hard work makes for an authentic experience. It further educates visitors in just how much love and attention goes into it all. With our recent collaboration, we work very closely with the managers of their Productive Garden, Nicola and Iain who sit behind a desk, but work with their teams and with the produce all day every day. Their commitment and dedication to their job makes for impressive results with the produce, which we are very lucky to be able to work with and offer our guests.
Guy will appear in the Chefs’ Theatre at the Porthleven Food Festival at 1.15pm on Saturday 22 April.