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Striking a balance

Simon Hulstone, head chef at The Elephant, a Michelin starred restaurant overlooking Torquay harbour in Devon, has built his success on high quality, sustainable seafood whether that be locally sourced or Norwegian frozen at sea

How did you get into cheffing?

I’ve been cooking since I was 16 but I’ve been in the trade through my family since I was about 10. It was never my intention to go into fine dining, it just panned out that way. Initially I worked alongside my father in a hotel restaurant, but I didn’t feel that was the way forward for me. I just really enjoyed cooking and I wanted to do restaurant-driven, high quality food. Torquay is where I grew up, but then I moved away and did all my training elsewhere. The Elephant came up when I was home visiting family. It wasn’t in my plans to move back to Devon but it was obviously in someone’s!

Can you describe The Elephant?

We’re a 60 cover, family-run restaurant, serving high quality, sustainable, local produce but without any pretension or pomp. We’re just serving what people want to eat. We’ve been here for 15 years now and we’ve held a Michelin star for 14 of those.

What’s involved in running a Michelin starred restaurant?

It’s all about quality, consistency and using the best ingredients available. The inspectors come each year, we don’t know when they are coming, and as long as we carry on doing what we’re doing, there shouldn't be a problem retaining it. It’s if we were to start cutting corners or compromising on quality that there would be an issue.

Your restaurant overlooks the harbour, so presumably fish is a key part of the menu?

Yes, it is and we serve a lot of different fish. We have Brixham just across the water so that’s our local fish market and we buy all our shellfish, so things like scallops, mussels and crabs, directly from the boats. It’s all about sustainability for us so using the best produce that’s available in season and whatever is best for our seas. Sometimes that’s locally caught fresh fish and at other times it’s Norwegian frozen at sea.

What Norwegian seafood do you serve? Again, we use what’s in season so it can change. We’ve just been using Skrei cod, which is available from January through to April, and that’s fantastic. It’s amazing, it’s fully sustainable, the quality is great and there is an abundance of it for those few months. We also use farmed halibut. As you probably know, halibut is on the endangered list so this is a fantastic alternative and, again, the consistency and quality of it is amazing. And then we have the option of using frozen at sea if need be.

How do you find the quality of frozen at sea?

For me, frozen is a great alternative to fresh when not available. I genuinely believe chefs and friers need to get out there and see where their produce is coming from. A lot of people worry about using frozen fish but, as long as it’s treated correctly it’s as good as, if not better sometimes than, fresh. For us, it’s more about sustainability. We have a massive task making sure we don’t ruin the waters around us. We need to be fishing correctly, buying correctly and choosing correctly. And, of course, marketing correctly to our customers by telling them what is available.

What’s the most popular fish on the menu?

Cod is probably one of the most popular. At the moment we are serving Norwegian caught Fjord cod, which is now in season. But we also use hake, sole and plaice from Brixham. Halibut is a real luxury for a lot of people so that’s a great fish to have on the menu. We try to serve everything as simply as possible really, just beautifully cooked fish in a good sauce with a nice seasonal garnish. A lot of the vegetables we use are from our farm where we grow everything ourselves.

Have attitudes towards eating fish changed in your opinion?

When it comes to eating fish, I think it’s a generation thing. We tend to see the older generation choosing fish, especially the more residual varieties such as pollock, coley, hake and witch sole. The younger generation, if they do choose fish, won’t go for that, they tend to stick to cod or salmon, they don’t get too adventurous. There’s still a bit of a stigma about eating fish and they certainly wouldn’t eat a whole fish on a plate.

What are you doing to try and combat that?

We’re trying lots of different ways to get young people to eat produce like that. On our children’s menu, for example, we do smaller portions of the a la carte menu so they can eat the same as their parents, and by serving high quality fish children can see the pure white or pure pink flesh of the fish.

What’s your favourite fish to cook?

At the moment it’s definitely Fjord cod. It’s so meaty and it has nice big flakes of white fish. It’s just a great fish to cook.

How are you dealing with rising fish prices?

Fish prices are going up but it’s to be expected as fishermen are getting lower quotas and the cost of diesel is going up. What we need to do is make sure we are using bycatch so the fishermen are utilising everything they catch and not throwing away produce and profit. If customers can start buying bycatch, it will bring the cost of prime fish down.

What about staff training, does that play a part?

100%, it’s key to everything. We teach all the staff to know not just where our fish comes from but things like how it’s produced, how old it is when it’s caught, how old it is since it’s been caught. Having respect for the ingredients and for our suppliers ensures everything is utilised and nothing is wasted.

When you’re not hard at work do you enjoy fish and chips? Yes, absolutely. We’re surrounded by fantastic fish and chip shops here in Torquay. Whenever we have guests we always take them out for fish and chips. There are about five great restaurants on the harbourside so I can’t mention just one! But, to be fair, we use all five. We might take the fish from one, the chips from another, the sauce from a different one and garnishes from another. We know which ones do the best of each now!

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