Chef of the Week: John Paul Medhurst, Head Chef at Crab & Hammer in Paignton, Devon

How long have you worked at your current restaurant?
Crab & Hammer Paignton is a new opening set for a soft launch at the beginning of next month, opening for bookings to the general public on the 12th July. A new, quayside ‘Crab-Shack-style’ dining concept in Devon aims to become the first of its kind in the UK to use humane methods to kill or dispatch shellfish prior to cooking.

The Crab & Hammer is a new restaurant owned and operated by The Blue Sea Food Company and will celebrate the amazing bounty of Devon’s coast by offering an unrivalled menu of shellfish, harvested by Managing Director’s own fleet of fishing boats and local day boats fishing out of Kingsware and Salcombe.

Where did your passion for cooking come from and where did you learn your skills?
I remember breaking my neck every Friday in the eighties to get home and watch Keith Floyd. What he lacked in technical ability, he made up for in terms of fun. Food was slowly becoming fuel, incidental and almost an obstruction to the speed of people’s lives. With Keith, you always felt like you were eating a story. As a kid, every day was a two or three course meal from scratch, and now fosters that yearning to create an atmosphere that turns a plate of food into a memorable event. I was a bus boy by accident in Florence, while looking after the wine section of a supermarket. One missing pasta chef later and I’m in for life.

What do you enjoy most about being a chef?
I enjoy bringing a million seemingly unrelated things together to a successful conclusion and a successful night. Sitting on a worktop when everybody’s gone, with the emergency lights on, a glass of wine and the kitchen gleaming. I feel very proud. That never goes away.

Name three ingredients you couldn’t cook without.
Three ingredients I couldn’t do without…in a strong field, I’ll go for olive oil, fresh herbs and miso paste.

Which piece of kitchen equipment couldn’t you live without?
I have had many bits of equipment that I couldn’t do without at the time. They always seem to be the things that goes missing most from the kitchen…my spoons, my dogleg, my micro plane, the list goes on.

What food trends are you spotting at the moment?
The trend I have been waiting for is on it’s way back. This pandemic has given most people a new-found sense of family, of community spirit and togetherness, and while food is undoubtedly the star of the show, where you are and who you are with are once again component parts of a wonderful, immersive experience, which is how memories are made. I also noticed back in 08, Inaki at Le Chateaubriand in Paris was delivering plates sometimes with only two components on it. I used to get his overspill and quickly saw what he was up to. Best of the season…pull it out of the ground, rinse it under the tap and put it in your mouth. Provenance is paramount, which is why I’m delighted to be involved with the Crab and Hammer. We have our own Crustastun crab stunner, which sets us apart from anywhere I know. I could put empty plates on the tables and just wait for the crab to walk through the door. In terms of what’s ethical, the bar has been raised.

What do you think is a common mistake that lets chefs down?
I think it’s a huge mistake for chefs to stay where they are. Go cook in another country…any country, immerse yourself in culture and tradition, learn the language, see what a vital role food plays in a country’s identity. Knowledge is one thing, wisdom is another. Better still, go and a do a stage in Paris. You’ll never complain again about how hard your day was.

What is your favourite time of year for food, and why?
It is hard to pick a season, as I love them all for their own reasons and most things are now available all year round in some form. As far as the UK goes, eating seafood on a beach, with sand between my toes and a glass of Chablis as the sun goes down is hard to beat. So summer.

Which of your dishes are you most proud of?
If I’m not proud of something, it doesn’t leave the kitchen. I made a fruits de mer one time, with blue curacao through the crushed ice, so it lit up neon, dried spaghetti trellis with a lobster tied to it and a lemon in it’s claw. Took me twenty minutes to assemble and looked awesome, but I hadn’t thought of the consequences. I got hammered on that one dish all night. I never made it again.

How do you come up with new dishes?
Like finding a new guitar chord, just when you think that there can’t be any more original combinations, here comes another. Flavours I remember are like old friends I haven’t spent enough time with and I like to bring them back and look at them in a new way.

Who was your greatest influence?
My greatest influences are the people with the stories. My bourguignon recipe, sitting in a field in France with a farmer drinking Calvados. Sitting in a kitchen in Napoli, furiously taking notes on the best lasagne I ever tasted. My head chef in Spain, pulling out some wonderful dishes, while the smoke from her cigarette curled into her eyes. She taught me about “la lingua”… like a g-spot on the tongue, where everything comes together.

 Tell us three chefs you admire
Daniel Humm at Eleven Madison Park, I like very much. Inaki at Le Chateubriand and when I launched L’Eto Caffe, and Yotam at Ottolenghi had me crazy about colour.

What is your favourite cookbook?
I don’t own any cookbooks, though my Dad has hundreds. I have one from 1876 Virginia, which includes such delights as barbecued squirrel and has recipes for melancholia and reviving ladies who have fainted.

Who do you think are the chefs to watch over the next few months?
I am a little bit out of the loop in terms of chefs to watch and favourite new places, though I am confident that this is the rebirth of the hospitality sector and I am excited to see what happens now.