Most Memorable Meal: Thom Hetherington

1 Dec

Thom was amongst the first ‘foodie’ people I followed on Twitter, and having long admired his writing style and food obsessed tweets, finally met at Twitfaced a few months back. Having both worked in the North West food scene, we share a few acquaintances, so bonding over the love of a good cheese and onion pie, he quickly became a firm favourite. Given the food experiences and knowledge Thom has, I knew he’d have a good tale to tell, so enjoy!

A bit about Thom…

Thom Hetherington is a longtime food-nerd, on both a personal and professional basis. After working on bar and nightclub magazines, he was part of the team that created Restaurant Magazine and subsequently launched the 50 Best Restaurants in the World Awards and the College Restaurant of the Year competition. Ten years ago he set up his own company and acquired the Northern Restaurant and Bar exhibition, latterly launching the Northern Hospitality Awards and the NRB50 Powerlist of top Northern hospitality operators. 

Thom sat on the board of Urbis (operator of the The Modern, the Good Food Guide-listed restaurant) and the North West Food Tourism Executive and is a trustee of Prue Leith’s British Food Trust and the North West board of Hospitality Action. In addition, he judges for events such as the Manchester Food and Drink Festival and the North West Taste awards, writes for trade and national press, mystery dines for restaurant groups and guides (including Harden’s, Mr and Mrs Smith and the Good Food Guide) and acts as a northern sidekick for national critics.

Merchant House

A gastronomic epiphany sounds like a medical procedure, but it isn’t. It is a fine and wonderful awakening to the true glories of food and drink; it is the moment you realise that there are sweeping vistas of epicurean enjoyment opening up for your exploration, and that thus far you are barely lacing up your eating boots. It is, to quote Bertie Wooster, the moment that the scales fall from your eyes. Mine happened around fifteen years ago in a sleepy half-timbered town in the deepest darkest Welsh Marches.

I’d returned to Manchester from university just as the whole café society scene kicked off, and so my childless mortgage-less life became one gay social whirl of bars and restaurants. I took my first tentative steps into food appreciation at haunts such as Grinch (goats cheese pizza, it’s the future!), Velvet and the pudding-tastic Market Restaurant, before moving on to the relative foodie sophistication of roof-top dining in Sarasota, and Oliver Peyton’s wonderful Mash and Air (for which I still have my members card, and the bill in a small orange envelope imprinted with “The Damage”).

My burgeoning napkin-sniffing knew no bounds, and my natural curiosity, coupled with Manchester’s lack of Michelin star places (let’s not start that discussion off), meant my better half and I decided we needed to spread our wings and stretch our palates. My dad was involved in the antique trade, and a chance discussion led to him recommending the oldy-worldy tweed and chintz hotbed of Ludlow as having a thriving foodie scene. I checked it out and, ridiculously, this town of 9,000 people had no less than three Michelin-starred restaurants.

Not one to do things by halves, we booked all three restaurants across a two night weekend, and holed up in a sweet little B&B in the town centre. Let me state for the record that all three meals were spectacular. At Mr Underhills the cooking tended most towards gutsy. At Hibiscus the food was silkily refined, and shot through with cleverness – Chef Claude Bosi has gone on to become a giant of the industry with Hibiscus gaining a second star and moving to Mayfair. For me though, the clocks stopped in the higgledy-piggledy setting of the Merchant House.

The Merchant House was the restaurant of one Shaun Hill, previously head chef at the two Michelin star Gidleigh Park (now run by Michael Caines), and a man who had a brush with celeb-cheffing through a bit part on a Rick Stein TV programme and a wonderful 1980’s-style cookbook on vegetables (which I found on my grandma’s cookbook shelves years later). He was humble but feisty; exacting but intolerant of unnecessary faff. He was warm, polite and friendly, but equally quick to say, “Fuck ‘em!” He was, in short, everything a good chef should be.

After a career managing sprawling brigades in huge food and drink operations of high repute, he left it all behind and opened the Merchant House which had 20 covers and a kitchen the size of an airing cupboard, equipped with four burners, an oven and a blender (and a cat-flap in the door – I heard rumours of the cat fishing in the stockpot). It had a staff of two – Shaun in the kitchen, and his wife, Anja, handling baking and front of house – plus the occasional helper, one of whom, Clare, later decamped to Hibiscus and subsequently became Mrs Bosi.

The food was brilliant. It was effortless, simple and steeped in unfussy classicism. The dishes were thoughtful, stripped down, without a wasted beat on the plate. Everything tasted, nothing shouted, ingredients had room to breath and could sing without the need for a backing track, a syrupy string section, a children’s choir or the auto-tune of heavy seasoning. I remember many of the dishes to this day, and that is some feat for a time before camera phones and the gnawing compulsion to tweet or post between every mouthful.

Monkfish in a mustard sauce lifted with the snap of fine-diced cucumber; saddle of venison with sharp goats cheese gnocchi; grilled fillets of seabass, flaking under slight pressure into a silky slick of basil and crème fraiche; mackerel with Indian spices, lime and a creamy nubbly dhal; a chocolate pithivier, flaking then melting in the mouth. It matters less, but all of this was framed by a well-dressed room of significant character, a precise and intriguing wine-list, and service that was warmly efficient. Yes, it sounds like an Orwellian ‘perfect’ restaurant.

I changed that day. I decided that this was the food I had to eat more of. That this, to me, was what food was all about. Sure I get a huge kick from terrifyingly authentic Asian food with offal-strewn dishes and ingredients I have never heard of, let alone eaten, and I delight in the intellectual work-out you get from the envelope-pushing deliciousness of Simon Rogan or Marc Wilkinson. I like a kebab too, but this, to me, felt like home. It was elegant and exact cooking of the highest order, and it set the bar for me for ever more.

In fact it seems an entire legion of eGullet-loitering foodies, from respected industry folk to amateur-fanatics, had similar experiences at around that time. Talk to @MarshallGary or @BapiBhattacharj on twitter, or @AndyLynes (BT Auditor turned Masterchef semi-finalist and latterly food writer and reviewer for the national press). They will all tell you that eating Shaun Hill’s food was a defining moment for them. Not only that but the plaudits kept coming, including a gong in the inaugural The World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards (on merit, I didn’t skew it, honest).

Despite the effusive praise, Shaun remained as no-nonsense and grounded as his food. He signed his cookbook to us essentially telling us to stop worrying about cooking, relax, and eat out more. He banished Hollywood actors taking a break between courses to smoke out of the back door in the rain. When we hadn’t visited him for a year, as we worried that our yowling new-born could upset his punters, he said “If they complain then fuck ‘em, I’d rather serve food to your boy.” (Jack sucked on Michelin star bread in his carry cot under our feet whilst we ate).

The Merchant House closed when Shaun fancied a change, and is currently returned to use as a private house. But fear not, you can still eat his food, as he has taken on the legendary Walnut Tree in Abergevenny, quickly winning it a Michelin star, and one glance at the website demonstrates that the ethos is very ‘Shaun Hill’ indeed: “This site will not offend visitors with smarmy overstatements of what’s on offer.” Refreshing. Not many serious top-end restaurants make that their marketing mission statement.

So go, give it a try. It’s well worth the trip. And to those who go and don’t think Shaun is a life-changing culinary genius? Fuck ‘em

Merchant House

A mesage from Shaun Hill…

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