Chef of the Week: Charlotte Vincent, Head Chef at The Five Bells Inn in Clyst Hydon, Devon

How long have you worked at your current restaurant?
I joined the Five Bells in July 2019 and become its first female Head Chef. Our family used to come here in my early teenage years so I have very fond memories of the pub in its heyday.

Where did your passion for cooking come from and where did you learn your skills?
Initially it was my mother and grandmother that got me interested in cooking when I was still very small – I have fond memories of licking cake batter from the spoon and bowl. As I started my own career I realised it was an inward need. I have a degree in Psychology and Human Biology and tried to take a different path but the ‘spark’ of my love for cooking would not go out. I trained in the British Army but learnt the bulk of my techniques and knowledge during 10 years in the role of pastry chef at Gidleigh Park.

What do you enjoy most about being a chef?
First and foremost, putting a smile on our customer’s faces – it’s a privilege to be part of Devon’s burgeoning culinary scene and linking our amazing landscape to the food that I put on their plates. Every day I get to work with superb local ingredients and to now be one of the UK’s Top 50 Gastropubs gives me a massive sense of personal achievement.

Name three ingredients you couldn’t cook without.
Venison – it’s a true winter meat. Naturally free roaming, a lot of care and understanding is required to maintain a healthy herd of these beautiful beasts. I am very lucky to be using a fantastic supplier, a young man called Curtis Pitts who is local to the pub – he shoots, butchers and delivers each animal himself. Moving on to new ingredients it has to be gold chocolate, it’s so versatile and I make the Five Bells fudge out of it. Also Macha green tea – it’s a superfood with a super flavour and I’ll be putting it on the menu in early summer.

Which piece of kitchen equipment couldn’t you live without?
My tweezers…. they are an extension of my arm and I use them for everything.

What food trends are you spotting at the moment?
Vegan food – I’ve discovered an insatiable desire to create vegan everything and I’m not vegan myself. For instance my wild mushroom wellington in vegan pastry and then for dessert, caramelised pineapples with pineapple sorbet and coconut cream.

What do you think is a common mistake that lets chefs down?
Patience! We fail more times than we succeed; fall down seven, get up eight is my mentality. And trust…. we have to trust ourselves with decisions every day and know they are going to work. Finally, knowing your own self-worth – it takes a special someone to take criticism every day and still come out smiling!

What is your favourite time of year for food, and why?
Probably late Spring going into early summer. The countryside is well and truly awake and everything has a beautiful freshness and vibrancy to it with the promise of longer evenings to come. I’m always excited to see the first new season potatoes, peas, courgette flowers and of course tender local asparagus. Sea bass and lemon sole are both excellent at this time of year with local lobsters not far away. Chefs are literally spoilt for ingredients!

Which of your dishes are you most proud of?
It’s probably one of my desserts – a gluten-free chocolate fondant with caramel, pecan praline and vanilla ice cream. It’s not as simple as it sounds so don’t be fooled – this one took me years to perfect! A gluten-free fondant that is decadent and tasty and knocks your socks off is a tough ask. Local free range duck eggs provide the base for this little fondant nestled among sour cherries, milk chocolate mousse and salty pistachios. It’s all crowned off with a cherry sorbet that sends you on a flavour trip of Bakewell tart and hot summer days in the garden.

How do you come up with new dishes?
By exploring the countryside around the pub (both on foot and on my horse) and breathing in the smells that each season brings. Also social media….. it’s where it drops first! Instagram and good bloggers in the know – you can see what’s on trend, grow and adapt. When I get time, watching other chefs on TV is good – I have no shame in admitting I love the ‘oldies’…. I grew up watching the likes of Delia Smith and the late, great Gary Rhodes. Both very different but so inspiring. Finally there’s the young crew in the kitchen that I have been nurturing. As they grow in confidence it’s been great to bounce ideas off each other.

Who was your greatest influence?
It was a French chef who was a friend of the family. I used to watch him cook and held an aspiration to cook like that one day. He had a way with food, a true love for the produce and it came out in his cooking.

Tell us three chefs you admire
I admire and follow Michel Roux Jr, his calm approach to cooking is something I aspire to. Closer to home, in the West Country I’m a big fan of Emily Scott in Cornwall and also Elly Wentworth in Dartmouth. It’s great to see these ladies lighting up their kitchens, winning awards, cooking from the heart and encouraging the next generation.

What is your favourite cookbook?
Tom Kerridge’s ‘The Hand and Flowers Cookbook’ is my current favourite and it’s really inspirational.

Who do you think are the chefs to watch over the next few months?
Ruth Hansom at The Princess in Shoreditch. I love her style and also the fact she’s flying the flag for us ladies in the capital.

What’s been your favourite new restaurant opening of the last year?
I’m super excited for all of us to be ‘reopening’ – it’s been a tough year, one to forget almost,  and I really want to see everyone trading again, doing well and producing awesome food. We as an industry are proving our strength and unity. On a personal note, I can’t wait to get down to the St. Tudy Inn again – their ethos and style of cooking is one that I really admire.