Chef of The Week – Paul O’Neill, Head Chef at Berwick Lodge Hotel, Bristol

Where did your passion for cooking come from and where did you learn your skills?
My passion and love for cooking and food came from my first job out of college when I went straight to Claridge’s and threw myself in at the deep end. Without this start and grounding I don’t think I would be the person I am today.

What do you enjoy most about being a chef?
I love the variety of cooking and creating new dishes. Everyday brings different challenges. I love the bond you develop with the guys in the kitchen, it’s like a second family.

Name three ingredients you couldn’t cook without
Salt, butter and onions.

What is your favourite time of year for food, and why?
I love all the seasons but I love spring because ingredients like wild garlic and asparagus need so little work and speak for themselves. I also love hearty autumnal food and vegetables that need a little more love and respect but give just as much joy when properly treated.

Which piece of kitchen equipment couldn’t you live without?
I couldn’t live without a Victorinox pastry knife as I use one for everything.

What do you think is a common mistake that lets chefs down?
I think a common mistake is chefs trying too hard and losing the respect for the initial ingredients.

Which of your dishes are you most proud of?
My dishes are constantly changing and evolving so it would be really difficult to name just one that I’m proud of but I guess the thing that I love the most on our current menu is the pig’s head terrine with black pudding puree and gooseberry chutney with gooseberries from our garden. I love producing dishes with the produce we grow and also the cheaper cuts which I believe is more challenging than just using prime ingredients.

How do you come up with new dishes?
When it comes to producing a new dish, we start with one seasonal ingredient and then look at different combinations that work with it. It’s never more than three or four ingredients on one dish and we look at different ways of using those ingredients maybe using two or three different techniques. Each dish we produce should have five things – sweet, sour, salty, umami and texture – even the desserts!

Who was your greatest influence?
My greatest influences are people who I’ve worked for and have had massive influences on my career and still do. My time at Claridge’s really shaped me into who I am today so I would say John Williams, Andrew Jones and Martyn Nail. Also Matthew Budden, who gave me my first opportunity as Senior Sous at quite a young age and really believed in me and also Andrew Wilson who pushed me to do the Roux Scholarship.

What are your favourite cookbooks?
Sat Bains ‘Too Many Chiefs and Only One Indian’ – an incredible chef and such a well written and designed book. I think it’s a book every chef should read and there’s not many cookbooks I can honestly say that about.

Who do you think are the chefs to watch over the next few months?
I think Jamie Randall at Adelina Yard is doing some great things and also Dean Westcar, who has just been made Head Chef of Restaurant Hywel Jones at Lucknam Park. I also think John Watson from No Man’s Grace produces some outstanding food from that tiny little kitchen. He’s a great guy, too.