Five minutes with… Shane Hughes

Chef Shane Hughes took up the role of head chef at The Salutation hotel in Sandwich, Kent, last year after new proprietors John and Dorothy took the helm on behalf of its owners, former Gogglebox stars Steph and Dom Parker.  The 41-year-old chef’s career spans 25 years and he worked at a number of restaurants, including The Connaught, John Burton Race at The Landmark, Juniper and Whatley Manor before taking on head chef roles at Ynyshir Hall in Wales, Roussillon in London and Thackeray’s in Kent. Shane talks to Hospitality & Catering News about how he got to where he is now, why you probably won’t see him on TV and future plans for The Salutation.

You’ve been at The Salutation for a year now, how is it going?

I started a year ago, but we officially opened in June. It’s going well, I’m happy with the overall feedback and have a very good team of chefs working with me. The most important thing is the customers are having a very positive experience. We’ve pretty much kept the format of the menus as they were when we started – at lunch we’ve got a small plates menu for people who want a fast more relaxed lunch and an a la carte and seven-course tasting menu in the evening. A few months ago we started offering the three-course Market Menu at lunch for those who wanted something a little more formal and that’s the only difference since starting. It’s working well.

You only use local suppliers at The Salutation, why is that so important to you?

Food miles are, and always have been, important to me. I felt the same way when I was at Ynyshir Hall (Shane was head chef there between 2006 and 2012) where I pretty much compiled my entire menu from within a 24-mile radius. I’m always tempted to buy my lamb from Wales and get good Scottish beef, but the issue of food miles is a real thing and if I can get my hands on good quality produce locally I will always do that. Here, I work closely with my fish and meat suppliers and vegetables are easy to source, because we’re in the Garden of England.

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Ethically it’s also important to choose suppliers well. I have sworn off foie gras since I started here and I don’t have it on the menu. I love the product, but it’s been mass-produced and is no longer an option for me. Twenty years ago, you’d only find it on about 1% of restaurant menus, now bistros and chain restaurants sell it. The demand from the industry became too hard.

Has it been a challenge to shake off The Salutation’s previous image as the home of Gogglebox’s Steph and Dom?

Throughout my career I’ve avoided celebrity as a foundation. I have been asked to do shows like Great British Menu, but I’ve avoided them as I’m quite old fashioned and think chefs should be cooking in their kitchens and not parading around on television. I also wouldn’t have worked under celebrity ownership. I’ve turned down offers before because, although some of them do it exceptionally well, others do it shockingly bad.

We’re singing from a very different hymn sheet now at The Salutation and I think it’s clear it’s a very different environment to what it was, although it has taken our customers a little while to understand that it is now business which is owned by John and Dorothy (Fothergill).

John and Dorothy haven’t worked in hotels before, so it has been very much a suck it and see approach, but I’ve been in hotels for 25 years, so I was very confident about which direction to take the restaurant in and their interior design is very sharp, so they had a clear idea of what they wanted the rooms to look like. We’ve also got a fantastic and experienced restaurant manager, so between us we are a very strong team. John and Dorothy might own the business but we work side-by-side. All ideas are thrown on the table and it’s very open.

You’ve worked in the industry for 25 years, what was it  that led you to first become a chef?

When I was growing up my mother worked three jobs and she wasn’t around very much, so I started to cook for me and my sisters from the age of eight. It was a necessity, but something I found quite fun at the time. Cooking is very rewarding. You start with a raw product and, if you’ve done it right, you end up with a very nice product. I got that from day one, but I wasn’t allowed into the home economics lesson at school because I was naughty.

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When I left school I made a beeline for any local restaurant I could get work in. I started in pubs, but it was back in the days when pubs served frozen lasagne and freeze-dried soup and I had an inkling that that wasn’t the right way to go. I had an interview with the chef at Champney’s and he said he couldn’t employ me because I had zero experience, but he advised me to go to Hartwell House in Buckinghamshire, so I did.

They didn’t have a job but said I could do work experience. I did that for two months when an opportunity to cover a chef on maternity leave came up. That was my first real job and I stayed there for four years until one of the sous chefs advised me to go to London so I did.

My career has happened on the back of some really good advice. If an opportunity came my way I just took it and nearly all my jobs have been secured on the back of recommendation.

What have been the biggest changes you’ve seen in kitchens in 25 years?

Media has had a massive impact. The doors of the ktichen are flung wide open now. Somebody had the idea to put chefs on the TV and it turned out to be great entertainment and great viewing and I think that has changed our industry. Not always in a negative way – for some chefs and companies it’s done them a lot of good – but it has changed things. You now see a lot of chefs cooking on TV who have gained exposure for their restaurants yet are never cooking there and I think that’s a downside.

Who has had the biggest influence on your career?

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In terms of inspirational skill, repertoire and just generally an amazing chef, I’d have to say Martin Burge who I worked with at John Burton Race and Whatley Manor. Martin is just such a technician. It’s impressive to watch him work because of how organised he is. I took a lot from that. He’s got all the skills and his kitchen reflects that.

Who do you most admire in the industry?

I would have to say Daniel Clifford, because he’s trying to turn himself around from his previous reputation to become more of a business man and a better human being. He’s talked about what it cost him to get two Michelin stars and what it turned him into. It’s hard to be that honest and I respect that. It took me years to stop shouting at chefs. I took a long time to improve my temper in the kitchen, but I have and thankfully my team stay with me now. I respect Daniel for talking about it.

What does the future hold for you?

If The Salutation proves to be a commercial and financial success then I believe there are plans to do a Salutation two and three, because at the end of the day, one doesn’t pay for itself, two starts to and three definitely does. There are plans for additional properties in this area. I can’t say it will definitely happen, but I hope it does and if it does I will be a part of it. I’ve never planned to move up to an executive chef position, because I like the physical aspect of cooking, but I’m 41, so I’m looking for a new challenge and a way to push things forward, so for me that would be multiple property management.

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