Shaun Hill: Legendary Michelin-star chef still runs one of Wales’ finest restaurants at 74
At 74 and having helmed the kitchens of some of the country’s finest restaurants for almost 50 years, Shaun Hill is one of the most legendary names in British cuisine.
But the man who has run the Michelin-starred Walnut Tree in Abergavenny since 2008, and whom other chefs like Tom Kerridge have described as “an inspiration”, nearly retired from the kitchen before he even take the direction of the restaurant.
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Born in Belfast and raised in London, Shaun is best known in Wales for his association with the Walnut Tree. However, he had a long and distinguished CV before arriving in Monmouthshire.
After earning a degree in Classics from the University of Exeter, Shaun began his career in 1966 working for American chef, restaurateur and TV presenter Robert Carrier at his namesake restaurant in Islington.
Carrier’s approach to food was to have a big impact on Shaun’s cooking style.
“It was a big influence because it showed there was some interesting food out there that wasn’t just versions of classic French cuisine,” Shaun said.
“They had the weird Moroccan dish and they were even quite famous for a Greek dish at the time, which was lamb in a Greek patisserie. You couldn’t buy filo at the time because you’re talking about late 60s. It was very good, I could eat it now.”
Shaun was also a fan of Carrier’s philosophy.
“It was kind of an attitude of eating for pleasure, rather than back then people were eating to mark a birthday, anniversary or a business deal. In fact, very few people at that time ate for pleasure.
Shaun went on to cook at other famous restaurants in London, including The Gay Hussar in Soho.
“We largely fed Harold Wilson’s Labor Government at the time and shared the kitchen with a full load of live carp. But some of the dishes were wonderful, especially the cakes and puddings.”
It was during a nine-year stay at Gidleigh Park in Devon in the 1980s that Shaun earned his first Michelin star. And when he took over the Merchant House in Ludlow in 2004, he put Shropshire on the culinary map, as the restaurant won a Michelin star and was named the 14th best in the world.
After ten years, Shaun closed the Merchant House when he felt he had accomplished all he could in the small seven-table restaurant.
As he planned to retire from cooking, in 2008 the lure of taking over the iconic Walnut Tree in Abergavenny was too great.
One of Wales’ most famous restaurants, the Walnut Tree had been a dining destination since the early 1960s when it was owned by Franco Taruschio.
“I used to eat at the Walnut Tree when it was an Italian restaurant when Franco had it and it was my favorite restaurant,” Shaun said.
However, its reputation had taken a dent under subsequent owners, Francesco and Enrica Mattioli, following an appearance on Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares.
“It was still good when Francesco bought it, but it had financial problems. And so eventually it was taken over by the bank.
“I had planned to retire and work in consulting, but it had gone wrong and I thought I’d like to try to get it back on its feet.
While Shaun hoped to only get involved part-time, it turned out to be a much bigger undertaking.
“My hope was to come here and do a few days a week and get it set up and running and keep an eye on it. But the truth is, it’s been full-time for 14 years.
He was also keen to follow in the footsteps of someone as renowned as Franco Taruschio.
“When I took the Walnut it was against my better judgment. The last thing you need if you have a good reputation yourself is to go somewhere where you’re going to get kicked. behind the back for not being someone else and then ruining someone else’s favorite restaurant.
Shaun quickly distanced himself from the restaurant’s Italian heritage to avoid comparison.
“I didn’t even eat pasta as a side dish for two years just so everyone knew there had been a change in management.
“I still get a lot of people asking where is vincisgrassi (one of Franco’s most iconic dishes) and stuff like that. I too would like to, but I’m not Franco and Franco is retired.
Having held a Michelin star for nearly 20 years at his two previous restaurants, Shaun quickly regained the distinction at The Walnut Tree in 2010.
However, although he appreciates the star, it is not something that motivates him.
“A pat on the back is always better than a kick on the back, but that’s not what I worked towards. I had a Michelin star every year, I had the place in Ludlow , so it was no shock that they were looking for it to be of the same quality.
“My last place at Ludlow had only seven tables. I was the whole kitchen brigade and so the Walnut Tree, which has an actual kitchen brigade and can serve 70 people, was a very different kettle.
“So I guess it was good that they awarded it, but that was never the only goal. The goal is to make food that I like and that I think is good. ‘good value for money and that enough people show up and pay to make everything financially stable.’
Many Michelin-starred restaurants are known for their formality and fussy presentation, but The Walnut Tree is beloved for its relaxed atmosphere and cuisine that emphasizes flavor rather than thrift stores.
Typical items on the menu include beef tenderloin with salted brisket hash and sticky caramel pudding with vanilla ice cream.
“We spend a lot of effort on the food, but we don’t spend the effort decorating it to look like an entry for the Turner Prize,” Shaun said.
“We focus our efforts on the substantive elements. We manufacture everything. We make four kinds of bread a day, we make petit fours, we make black pudding with pig’s blood, and we do everything like that. But once I’ve cooked it and someone orders it, I like to put it on the plate and take it out as quickly as possible so it’s in front of them.”
While other chefs obsess over the bells and whistles of fine dining in search of Michelin stars, that’s not something Shaun blames for the famed French restaurant guide.
“Chefs do it, I don’t even blame Michelin. It’s not run like a Waterside Inn lookalike contest, but a lot of the chefs think they must have a lot of little bits and some very expensive tableware. It’s possible that once you hit the three star level they’ll start to expect that level of opulence, but at one star they’re looking for somewhere worth stopping by.”
Another notable feature of the Walnut Tree menu is its international influences, dishes like Keralan fish curry to venison kofte with tabbouleh.
Many of them stem from Shaun’s love of travel.
“I have always loved to travel. I was very lucky not to have paid for airfare on British Airways for 25 years as I did their first class menus with Michel Roux from the Waterside Inn. And so I used to get a huge ticket allocation and go all over the world, including South America, India, China, and Australia.
“And I would go to Kiev for the weekend or Damascus, Beirut or Jerusalem or somewhere like that, and I found it completely fascinating.
“It’s been two years since I’ve been able to go abroad because of all this Covid and I honestly miss it. I love going places.
Over the years, Shaun has trained a number of talented chefs who have gone on to open their own Michelin-listed restaurants. Notable names include Dan Saunders from The Gaff in Abergavenny and Roger and Marta Brook from Parva Farmhouse in Tintern.
However, Shaun is philosophical about their departures.
“It’s always sad when people who are good leave because it leaves a void that needs to be filled, but it’s a natural process of maturing and being yourself.
“A good chef, someone who has a sense of food, will have chosen what they want and need in your style and then have developed what they want to do themselves and I think that’s ‘is great.”
While Shaun had been contemplating retirement for many years, at 74 he looks almost ready to hang up his apron. And without the pandemic, his retirement could have come even sooner.
“I’ve been planning to retire for the past five years but it hasn’t worked out so far. I can only retire when the place is working absolutely the way I want it to and I’m happy and confident to bail in. It’s better at the moment, I have a good team so I’m very happy but it will still take a month or two.
“I take each month or each day as it comes and hope for the best. But it’s been a tough two years with all the lockdowns and Covid restrictions.”
When Shaun finally moves away from the kitchen, he plans to stay in Wales, having gotten used to the place instead.
“I wouldn’t offend the good people of Wales by pretending to be a son of the ground but I like it here and I like Welsh things.
“It’s very attractive and I’ve gotten used to it and hopefully they’ve gotten used to me.”
Whoever takes over the kitchen at Le Noyer will have big boots to fill. However, Shaun doesn’t think they will be compared to him like others were to Franco Taruschio.
“No, I don’t think so, I hope not. Only if they b****r that!
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