Chefs, Food

Neil Smith: head chef, Babington House

With a walled garden and plenty of local producers to call on, the chef finds it easy to write his daily-changing menus. Here’s a little of what he’s learnt in his career, and his advice for young chefs

What’s your style of food?
The chefs who trained me had that sort of River Cottage background so maybe it’s that simple Italian thing, letting the ingredients speak for themselves

How did you get your start in the kitchen?
Like everybody, I started in the potwash aged 12. My parents had a pub so I helped out there, and then I worked in another local pub and went to catering college. I worked in various hotels and restaurants in Somerset, applied for stages at the River Café, Claridges and Lucknam Park, then came here as a young chef ten years ago.

Who trained you?
[Former Babington House head chef] Ronnie Bonetti really pushed my career forward. He’s a great, very passionate chef and loved to teach people. I learnt most of the butchery and fish preparation from him.

How do you decide what to put on the menu?
It’s influenced a lot by the walled garden, following the seasons, what we’re growing. I use quite a lot of grains – there’s a quinoa farm down the road. And the daily-changing menu means that we can do a lot with butchery – buying whole pigs or lambs and using it nose to tail throughout the week, brining the head of a pig to make a brawn, or using the neck of a lamb down to the shank.

Are you into butchery?
Yes, it’s a passion of mine and I’ve had a lot of training through Soho House. It’s easy to buy things that are already done from butcheries, but doing that means you don’t understand the cuts, where it comes from on the animal.

What else inspires you?
I like to cook on fire, especially with our chicken grill, it gives loads of flavour. And I’ve got a big passion for baking, I like to experiment with different breads – sourdoughs, ryes, that kind of thing.

Any ingredients you’re into at the moment?
Cumin and coriander, garam masala, things like curry leaves – making bases and sauces a bit more interesting.

What tips do you have for young chefs starting out?
Put your heart and soul into it, especially when you’re young and you’ve got the time and energy. Put your head down, understand it and embrace it.

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