Interview by: Suz Inman, mightier.co.uk
Perched in an enviable spot overlooking the harbour in Torquay, a striking three-storey converted Victorian townhouse is home to The Elephant Restaurant and Brasserie. Interiors are simple and stylish, there’s a seaside casual feel and a menu focused on in-season food that’s locally sourced (mostly from the restaurant’s own farm). Just don’t mention Faulty Towers (oops, we did!) to the man who gained Torquay its first Michelin star and has kept it for twelve years. We caught up with The Elephant’s owner and Head Chef Simon Hulstone.
Tell us a bit about your background as a chef? Where did it all begin and where have you worked?
We moved to Devon in the late 80’s. My father was a chef and we moved to Torquay for him to work at the Imperial Hotel, which was a 5-star at the time. When I was a at school I did my paper round but need a bit more money so ended up working as a kitchen porter. And it was just a real buzz working in the kitchen – the camaraderie with the chefs. I was 14 years old and there were 45 chefs in the kitchen. I got quite a lot of stick because Dad was the exec chef and I quite enjoyed that. Then my father actually left whilst I was still working there. New chef came in. I got even more stick. And I found it fun. Probably a little bit perverse really but it was quite enjoyable.
Then once I left school I decided I would like to go into the industry and my father set me up with a hotel in Croydon – a place called Selsdon Park and the chef there was very well known in competitions internationally — he was a fantastic chef. So I went to work there for my apprenticeship and then bounced around and worked for the Albert Roux consultancy at Hanbury Manor then did my training in fine dining in country house hotels around Bath and Bristol and eventually ended up back here in Torquay.
What took you back to Torquay? We all know it from Faulty Towers but what’s it really like?
Faulty Towers comes out in every interview and it gets a bit boring It’s from the early 70s, is based on one person’s visit to Torquay and wasn’t even filmed here!
My parents and family still lived in Torquay and even though I had done my training round the country I came back for a weekend and saw an advert for a chef in a fine dining restaurant. I didn’t believe there was one in Torquay and I contacted the agency to be nosy, really and find out where it was. We came in for lunch – it was awful – I thought ‘I could do better than this’ — lovely building… And here I am twelve years later.
If you come to Torquay now you’ll see an absolute difference. The investment and redevelopment has created somewhere that everyone is very proud of. It’s not the Torquay of old. We’re getting amazing investment from top hotels and Brownsword who own Bath Priory and all the Abode Hotels has bought the Imperial. The go-ahead has just been given to build a four star hotel on the harbourside and Hilton are looking to move here now. We have a beautiful marina and loads of chefs are looking at us because we have such wonderful produce here. It’s not like what people who haven’t been think at all — not even close to it.
Can you tell me a bit about The Elephant and what people can expect who come to your restaurant?
We’re based right on the harbourside with views of the harbour and marina. We’re a 60-cover restaurant. We don’t class ourselves as fine dining we just cook what we enjoy, what customers want. It’s not chef ego-driven, it’s purely based on seasons.
We’ve go our own 90-acre farm that we get as much produce as we can from throughout the year. Menus change all the time to match what we’ve got so we’re using everything at its prime. We’re surrounded by fantastic suppliers and producers and it’s something very unique for Torquay but something we put a lot of love and heart and soul into that we’re very proud of. We just enjoy doing what we’re doing and we’re not led by any trends — we’re cooking enjoyable food in a nice environment. That’s it. If we win awards that’s great but we’ve never gone out to do it – that’s not our aim. The aim is to keep a roof over our heads and customers happy.
Is the restaurant industry a hard one to be in?
It’s getting harder. It’s quite easy to order food and you can be a very good chef but to work out your business rates and electricity and VAT is a different skill and it’s crucial. And you have to think about those things to keep going. Awards don’t pay the bills and a lot of young chefs are very good cooks but forget the business side.
Do you have a favourite dish or style of food to cook?
Not really. Because our menu changes so often and we have such fantastic ingredients. Every time we get a new ingredient that will influence a new dish. There’s always a background to each dish that we may have done before but it always comes back to what comes through the door – so if we got fantastic baby leeks or Jerusalem artichokes in today and it sets our minds racing. So we never have a dish that is stagnant – they’re always changing and being added to. It keeps us fresh.
Do you ever come down to Cornwall?
Absolutely. I love Devon and Cornwall out of season I love to go down in November, January, March when it’s not bounding with tourists. I like to see the real Cornwall and enjoy the beaches when they’re nice and quiet — see the rough sea and the locals as they’re meant to be. We like to bounce around a lot and we’re down quite regularly. The children love exploring too. And I like that it’s independent-led with lots of chef-run restaurants – you can really understand the chef at places like that and they’re not influenced by anything else.
Have you been to Porthleven before?
I’ve driven through it but never actually stayed there but my wife used to holiday in Porthleven when she was younger and the food scene looks fantastic from what we’ve seen. So we’re very much looking forward to it.
Simon will be cooking live in our Chefs’ Theatre on Saturday at 12:15pm.
To be certain of a seat, buy one of our VIP Gourmet tickets (or take your chances on the day).
Find out more about Simon’s restaurant: elephantrestaurant.co.uk