insideKENT interviews The Secret Garden’s head chef Steven Piddock
Having been voted one of the top 10 best restaurants to eat outside in the UK (OpenTable.com), you can rest assured knowing that when dining at the Secret Garden, you’ll not only enjoy a beautiful setting, but incredible food.
The Secret Garden’s head chef, Steven Piddock, is the genius behind the memorable meals, and boasts over 20 years’ experience from some of the best restaurants in the South East. insideKENT caught up with Steven on a chilly winter’s day to find out more about his inspiration and cooking style.
Have you always wanted to be a chef? What led you to a career in cooking?
I was always interested in food as a child. It was always natural that I became a chef – it’s what I have always done and I have always enjoyed the most.
Have you seen the industry change in your 20 years as a chef?
Yes, it’s changed a huge amount, probably most in the last 10 or 12 years – definitely for the better. It has become a lot more interesting and there’s always new things going on – it’s just getting harder to keep up with it all the time.
What’s been the biggest change?
Probably the introduction of people like Heston Blumenthal, who bring a whole new approach to cooking. It keeps you interested, which doesn’t mean you have to go down that route, but it gives you lots of new ideas, dishes and flavours when you’re in the kitchen.
Do you take much note of celebrity chefs?
It’s hard not to. For the most part they do a huge amount of good for the industry, so they’re very important.
What are some of your favourite ingredients to use in your cooking?
Local produce is important; we grow a lot of what we cook. We’ve got the gardens here behind us, all of the game that we buy is shot on the estate and our food miles are really low. I really enjoy it because as you know, you can’t get fresher than that! Also our fish comes from down in Hythe, so it’s mostly seasonal produce and keeping it as local as we can.
What is your favourite season for getting fresh, local produce?
The winter and the autumn offer the best seasonal produce in Kent. It’s a great time of year for cooking, and you can go foraging for mushrooms and find great food just off your doorstep.
Do you have a signature dish?
Not really. It’s difficult to pin down a dish as your own ‘signature’. Any dish you create would have come from something that you’ve seen elsewhere. Monkfish is a dish that I’ve done a few times now, and it’s such an easy fish to cook because it only has the one bone and it tastes lovely.
From your experience in the industry, what is your philosophy for running a successful restaurant? Consistency. If you go to some restaurants, during one visit it can be excellent, then you could go again another day and it would be of low standards. As well as being consistent, the price point has to be fair. People are on tight budgets these days, but you still want them to come through the door.
Where do you get your inspiration for new dishes?
Eating out, picking up old cookbooks that might trigger something in my mind, or even just talking to suppliers. Occasionally Doug, who owns the business, phones up and says he’s got some wild duck, then asks what I’m going to do with it, so I just come up with something!
If you were cooking for yourself, what would cook?
I think my favourite meal when I’m relaxed and not working would have to be a Sunday lunch. When you’re working in the kitchen every day you just want something simple when you go home.
What piece of equipment can’t you live without in the kitchen?
Well the obvious one is an oven. We have our own smoker here – though I wouldn’t say we couldn’t live without it, it gives us another edge in our cooking. Ultimately I’d probably say a good hand blender; it’s a good piece of kit. It’s expensive and valuable but we use it all of the time!
What advice would you give to aspiring young chefs?
To do well and go far, you have to be committed. You have to put your head down and work hard, and it isn’t easy. We have a young apprentice at the moment and he’s doing very well, but he’s just starting to understand how difficult it can be because of the hours you have to work. The nature of the business just controls your life whether you like it or not, but it gets easier after a while and it’s an extremely awarding job.
What challenges do you see for the food industry in the next five years? Prices are a problem – they’re always on the increase. As a business, you have to try and restrict that for the customers but it’s difficult because your costs are high anyway with staff, rent, rates and even suppliers putting their prices up.
The Secret Garden
Mersham-le-Hatch Business Village