Last week Shaun Hill began to take reservations at his Michelin-starred Merchant House restaurant in Ludlow, Shropshire – where he is the only chef and his long-suffering wife Anja the only waitress for a maximum of 24 customers – for feb 05.
Having taken sufficient reservations to fill the entire month in less than a day, Hill will then close what he bought in 1994 as a private house but subsequently transformed into one of the most respected British restaurants of the past decade for ever.
That is the sad news. On a much happier note Hill will then concentrate on looking for a new, bigger site, ideally closer to Malvern or Ledbury in Worcestershire with easier access to the Midlands and no more than two hours’ drive from London.
Hill will be almost 58 then, an age when, after almost 40 years in the kitchen (he began in 1968 working for Robert Carrier in Islington on a salary of £11 a week), most chefs are planning to move into a more executive and less physical role. Happily, this is not the life for Hill. He wants to please even more customers and, perhaps as an even longer-term bequest, to train a brigade of young chefs in his distinctive style of cooking.
Happily too, Hill’s whimsical culinary philosophy will not change. “We have to move for two reasons,“ he explained as we met for lunch at the recently opened, ultra-smart Simpson’s in Birmingham. “The restaurant has become so popular that only those prepared to book well in advance for a special occasion can get in and sadly there’s no longer room for those who began as regulars to drop by. And the constraints of what still remains no more than a domestic kitchen mean that I can only work with three saucepans at any one time. It’s time to move on.”
“I am not precisely sure what I will be cooking – when I see the right site that will finally determine the menu – but I am not going to change my basic approach. My aim is to cook dishes that are good to eat in the hope that my customers will feel that they were glad to have eaten them. A meal in a restaurant has to be more than refuelling but I certainly don’t believe that it has to be challenging. But it must never be dull.”
Choosing what to eat at The Merchant House has never been dull - in fact choosing has almost been as difficult as booking the table. Hill’s menus are terse, almost spare (he is the son of a Northern Irish journalist who also wrote film scripts for Alexander Korda) but always sensitively and sensibly constructed. Nothing is superfluous or overstated. Recent dishes include a salad of roast, spiced quail; steamed lobster with chick peas and coriander; a saddle of hare with goat’s cheese gnocchi; English grey partridge with foie gras; roast turbot with a wholegrain mustard sauce; and wild duck with celeriac and morels. And as well as slightly more prosaic desserts there is somloi, Hungary’s version of trifle with apricots, walnuts and rum, a dish he mastered while pastry chef at The Gay Hussar, Soho. With this move came a major salary increase, Hill remembered with some pride, to £25 a week. All this for a set price of £35 with no supplements.
“Pricing is terribly important because it sets the level of expectations. I also want to work to a set price because then the customer knows what he is going to have to pay when he makes the booking. And I don’t tolerate meanness either. There shouldn’t be an extra charge for an ingredient because it is particularly expensive or for a second cup of coffee, for example. But customers can come to my restaurant and eat lobster and turbot without any extra charge and I hope they appreciate that they are getting wonderful value for money, But the challenge and excitement for me is that I know many of my customers in the country like game and giblets which means that I can sell plenty of wild duck, currently the most popular and least expensive dish at the moment, and this allows me the opportunity to buy, prepare and cook turbot which is very expensive, even though I may only sell a few portions.”
Hill’s new restaurant will have the same priorities as The Merchant House. His hard-earned capital will be spent on the food and the wine, rather than the peripheral accoutrements. Not surprisingly no designer will be involved. “There will be linen napkins, of course, because I like them, but I want to capture the informality that English people seem to feel comfortable with and ensure that my customers never feel intimidated. Pitching the service at just the right level– finding the middle path between continuous ‘ is everything all right?’ and surliness - won’t be easy, particularly as Anja wants to retire from the front line greeting customers every evening and concentrate on making bread.”
But delivering what Hill has in mind should obviate some of these problems, at least. “ Professional technique is critical – how a piece of meat was butchered for example or just what the chef did with the pan juices – but I hope that with a slightly bigger brigade more of my dishes will be more compatible with a homelier style of cooking. I’ll continue to prepare all my vegetables from raw and in fact I intend to put even greater emphasis on the vegetable and starch component because it’s that combination which really makes a good dish. I think that one of the biggest enemies of good restaurant food today is the plate of vegetables on the side because it means that they have never been thought about in connection with the main course. That’s why I find eating out in French restaurants so unappealing at the moment – the chefs seem more interested in absurd arrangements and intricate garnishes and they just don’t seem to care about the vegetables at all.”
With a glass of Jean Descombes Morgon 2003 in his hand Hill, who lists his pleasures as eating and drinking but not necessarily in that order, looked back philosophically. “I was around in the era of nouvelle cuisine when the talk was of the chef as artist. Today all the talk is of the chef as scientist. I think both are equally bogus but somewhere deep down in each of these assertions there is a germ of truth. It’s a wonderful profession because if there is genuine goodwill on both sides – on the part of the chef to deliver their best and the customer to relax and have a good time – nothing else is quite as fulfilling.”
As we left I wished Hill all the best and yet again he smiled. “Nothing we do now will be as risky as what we did in 1994 when we had no money, no planning consent for the change of use and no business plan. It’s important that what we do next is viable and if it proves to be as profitable as The Merchant House has been, well that’s a bonus.”
The Merchant House, Lower Corve Street, Ludlow, Shropshire, SY8 1DU, 01584-875438,
Simpson’s, 20 Highfield Road, Edgbaston, Birmingham B00 7XX, 0121-454 3434. Open all week, www.simpsonsrestaurant.co.uk