Balance and Simplicity: Janos Veres
"Traditionally, I’d leave the whole head of lettuce in vinegar for half an hour, so the outer leaves are really sharp but you can only just taste it in the middle."
Having been raised by two restaurateurs in Hungary and working in kitchens his entire life, Janos Veres was always going to be a skilled chef. However, as head chef at Heston Blumenthal’s The Hind’s Head at Bray, it’s Janos’ job to take the maverick celebrity chef ’s vision and deliver top-quality food in possibly the most discerning neighbourhood in the country. Here, Jack Rayner talks to Janos about artichokes, pickled lettuce and professional scuba diving…
Hi Janos! How did your upbringing in Hungary affect your cooking today?
Well, first of all, for me working as a chef is not a job; it’s just cooking. I never saw my job as a particularly hard trade. I worked for my parents up until I was 25, then the opportunity came to move to the UK in 2005 to learn to become a catering instructor – initially just for one year.
Then, one year became two, then I met my now-wife, then two years became four, then eight... Then, I quit the trade and became a professional scuba diver! After I got bored of that, I returned to cooking and the rest is history.
What sort of food were you cooking back then?
A lot of stews and a lot of deep fried foods: breaded meat, vegetables and fish. Where I’m from in Hungary is right on a river, so we don’t have seafood as such – we have freshwater fish. A lot of carp, catfish and trout.
Does what you learned then still inform what you do now?
Yes – a very good example is our tomato salad, which we make using pickled lettuce. At home, we’d serve fish with pickled lettuce, so when the team decided that the dish needed some punch, I straight away thought of pickled lettuce. Traditionally, I’d leave the whole head of lettuce in vinegar for half an hour, so the outer leaves are really sharp but you can only just taste it in the middle.
What’s your overall attitude to food? What do you look to make when creating a dish?
I think it’s all about balance and simplicity in presentation. That doesn’t necessary mean that the dish is simple to create, but it has to look simple on the plate. When a dish is created, we always look for ways to simplify it. Also, it’s the basics: using great ingredients and treating them with respect.
On that subject, where are you sourcing your ingredients from?
We work with about 30 suppliers, which is quite a lot for a restaurant of this size. Our produce comes from all around the UK, and a few bits come from France and Spain – for example, in the tomato salad I mentioned, everything is British apart from the anchovies, which are from Spain. The tomatoes are from the Isle of Wight, the ewe’s curd is from Somerset, and the lettuce only comes from round the corner. We do try to keep it as local as possible, but for example, we cook an Iberico pork loin, which obviously has to come from Spain.
How have you seen the restaurant industry and people’s attitude to food change since you first came to the UK?
There are far more restaurants in general now than there were 10 years ago. I’ve lived in Marlow for 10 years and I’ve seen the transformation – where there used to be all these boutiques, every second place is now a restaurant, coffee shop or sandwich bar. There are a lot more options, from the very simple to the very high-end.
Is that a good thing or a bad thing?
It’s good for the customer, because of course, you have more to choose from, but I don’t necessarily believe that it’s good for overall quality – just because there are more outlets, doesn’t mean that the industry is backed up with the right amount of skilled people with the right attitude. Anyone can speak to you and say “you need to respect the ingredients”, but when you turn your back, they might not be practising that. The problem is that a lot of people working in the trade think they’ve got all the knowledge after only a couple of years. I don’t believe that’s enough.
How much have websites like TripAdvisor and Groupon contributed to this?
Oh, four or five years ago customers weren’t so much focused on ‘deals’ – instead they were focused on visiting a restaurant because they were interested in what might be going on. As for TripAdvisor, I never look at it, and I won’t tell you my opinion of it because you don’t want to write that down!
At The Hind’s Head you change the menus every five weeks – why so often?
Some of the feedback we got from customers before we relaunched The Hind’s Head was that some dishes never came off the menu. So, our challenge was to work out how to adapt the menu more regularly, and what we did was take dishes that came from our experimental kitchen and adapt them based on what was in season at the time.
So the menus still remain very seasonal?
Yes, exactly. They change all the time, so the produce stays fresh and the locals love coming back. It also allows us to be more versatile with what we serve.
What’s your favourite dish that you’ve cooked over the last couple of months?
I really like the scallops with crushed hazelnuts that we had on the menu in July. It had artichokes and turnips – both of them were very much in season and artichokes are my favourite vegetables. We added pickled lemon and rock samphire – really balanced. I would like to say, though, that it’s a group of people putting together these dishes – obviously I’m driving it, but we work very much as a team.
What are you looking to do in the future?
Well, I live in Marlow and Bray is just on my doorstep, so I think of myself as very lucky. I guess my next step would be to work with the board of the company, but at the moment I’m totally focused on what I’m doing. The Hind’s Head has only been reopened for three months, so I’m still making sure that every service is perfect. Modern day cheffing isn’t just about cooking, unfortunately. You have to be just as focused on costing, team management, allergens, descriptions... a lot of it isn’t just to do with knives and saucepans! Coming up with dishes and serving them up on the plate, that’s actually the easiest part.
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