INTERVIEW: Chef/owner Paul Foster of Stratford-upon-Avon's only Michelin-starred restaurant Salt
In keeping with its name Salt, Stratford’s only Michelin-starred restaurant, is showing its true grit by continuing to offer innovative food and fresh thinking. Here chef-owner Paul Foster, 38, tells Gill Sutherland about the business and how he’s kept busy through lockdown. (Although as a dad of two primary schoolchildren the latter is a given.)
Remind everyone about how Salt first came to Stratford.
It feels a lifetime ago now, but we came four years ago, in March 2017. We are a small team just trying to do something different for Stratford and the locals was the plan. My food is also very niche and personal. We were never going to go mainstream and be just another tourist place. The ideas was to do something really special and stand out.
Then a year and a half later we got a Michelin star which was an honour and a lifetime goal and a shock really.
Had you been aiming for a Michelin star?
It was something I had always wanted. I’ve been a head chef at two Michelin-starred restaurants previously, Mallory Court, Leamington, and Tuddenham Mill, Suffolk, and I thought that that wasn’t going to happen for us. Even though I knew we were worthy of it, we were just cooking good food for the guests and not aiming for it specifically, like ‘this is going to get us a star’.
I didn’t even know we’d actually got a star until someone from the Herald actually rang and told me. And I didn’t realise it was the first ever in Stratford.
Who are your big influences and how do you find your style?
I have so many influences, all great chefs. Gary Rhodes’ book Rhodes around Britain was the first book I bought. I was 13 and I still love collecting cookery books.
When I was 16 I heard about this restaurant in California called the French Laundry. I was just blown away by it. That was before the internet was that big so there wasn’t much information about it. Back then things seemed a million miles away – a little corner of Napa Valley and this tiny little restaurant. It felt like it wouldn’t be achievable to get there.
Then when I was 24 I did six weeks’ work experience there. I wrote them a proper letter and paid for everything myself. It was one of the best experiences ever for a young chef. It was a complete eye opener and how they operate and how their food comes together has been the biggest influence on my philosophy
What was your route into cooking?
I’m from Coventry and went to Henley College. My first job was at a small two-rosette restaurant in Balsall Common. After that I went to work for Raymond Blanc at Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons [which has two Michelin stars] for a year which was very tough. Then I was part of the launch team of Simpsons in Birmingham [another one Michelin star restaurant
Then I won the William Heptinstall award which they give it to one young UK based chef a year. They gave you £3,000 back to use as you wish and I put that to work around the world: my French Laundry experience; L’Auberge de l’Ile; and wd~50 in New York. Three very unique restaurants in different culture with different styles of food with one, two and a three stars. That incredible experience has really shaped the way I cook.
When I returned I went to work for Sat Bains in Nottingham. I’ve been a head chef since then, so ten years.
Do you come from a foodie family?
I grew up in very buys pubs in Coventry with live music – drinkers pubs but my mum always did the food. I always loved the buzz of the kitchen. I was very shy as a kid and I loved producing something that made people happy. So I used to bake cakes and give them to the doorman. It was just a pleasure creating something and it all sort of stemmed from there. From aged 10 I’ve always said I wanted to be a chef. I even used to do my hair like Gary Rhodes.
For you what’s been the most sublime dining experience you’ve had?
It was the year before last. I got taken out by Nestlé to a three-Michelin-star restaurant in Sweden called Frantzén. It was just the most unbelievable experience I’ve ever had. The service, setting, food – all encompassing. A lot of chefs forget how important the rest is and just worry about the food. The food can be the best in the world but if the service isn’t great and the setting is crap then you’re going to view the food badly. It’s all about how you’re feeling.Frantzén seemed to get everything right. We had about 20-odd dishes. There were loads of other chefs on the trip and I was teased about the expression on my face when I ate a dish – each one put me in a tranquil place.
What was your vision for the Salt experience?
It was about bringing my food to a place where I was comfortable with it being served.
A big country hall like Mallory Court didn’t suit me, I wanted something that could just be where I felt relaxed and to express myself really. My philosophy on food is about purity of flavour using the most incredible ingredients and not manipulating them. I wanted to bring that to Stratford because there was nothing like that in the area. I thought there was real market for it. If people wanted a nice meal they’d go to Birmingham or London. There was nothing on the their doorstep. So I found this property; it is small, and we can only do 30 people, but it’s ideal for what we wanted to do.
How are you feeling about the future?
OK really. It was very much touch and go last year. We were very successful, we had got the Michelin star and awards and had invested money to do my first cookbook which sold really well.
When I viewed this property this was just a living room upstairs. We invested all our capital in getting all refurbished and it’s now a cookery school and a chef’s table where I can cook in front of up to ten people. It’s more like a private chef for the night, and we have guest chefs and do podcasts from here.
The government support and loans and things we’ve kept going. Otherwise we would have completely gone under.
When people have dined here what feedback you get? What dishes have people been blown away by?
The menu is constantly changing, but there’s one that’s been on the eight-course menu since 2017. It’s a carrot cooked in chicken fat and it’s become a bit of a signature dish. It’s quite a simple one. Food critic Jay Rayner raved about it and people come for it specifically. People are genuinely blown away by that, and just the style and how relaxed we are.
If you have a Michelin star people may think that you are not approachable. But we don’t have a dress code – I just want people to be comfortable and relaxed. We’ve kind of found a place where you come on a Saturday night and someone could be wearing jeans and a t-shirt and someone else could be dressed up and neither would feel out of place. It works because of the environment and the style of service and the food.
You’ve created a gorgeous coffee table cookbook, and have just signed a six-book deal. And you’ve just contributed to new compendium Hacks, tell us about that.
It’s the third cookery book and part of the Great British Chefs brand. I’m flattered to be alongside all these great chefs. Every time they ask me to do something with them I’m always up for it. It’s a beautiful website with great recipes.
What hacks have you shared?
There’s a podcast we are doing at the moment with hacks that even chefs are like ‘what really?’. Then there are fun ones, like opening a tin of baked beans upside down which means no scraping as all the beans fall out. Another favourite is if you’re using a box grater to grate cheese turn it on its side and it all stays inside.
From doing our cooking school I’ve learnt with teaching home cooks it’s not about teaching them really fancy techniques it’s about showing them the basics properly. We take it for granted because we do it all day everyday. Every piece of fish is salted and then either brined or cured before it’s roasted or poached or something. All the osmosis that happens, or the blood removal, or the seasoning. We throw words around like that willy-nilly. All those things that happen that most home cooks just aren’t aware of.
Do you think this period of closure during the pandemic will make any difference to the world of food in the long term?
In terms of being appreciated I think it will and hopefully it will last. We noticed it straight away when we reopened in September, people were not taking eating out for granted. Even when I was just grabbing a coffee at a little independent coffee shop, I was really looking forward to it. It’s not just restaurants, people are buying more independent or locally sourced food. People are favouring farm-produced over the supermarkets when they cook at home. Hopefully they will be a lot more of that.
HACKS How Chefs Make Dishes Go From Good to Great from Great British Chefs is on sale now priced £14.99
Salt are currently offering a three-course menu prepared by the team for you to finish at home (with simple instructions) on Fridays and Saturdays, and pre-booking its cookery school courses. Find our more at www.salt-restaurant.co.uk