Richard Hughes is one of Norfolk's most accomplished chefs
Richard Hughes, one of Norfolk's most famous chefs, talks about his passion for the kitchen and the best of Norfolk's produce.
"There is nowhere better in the country for local produce than Norfolk," said Richard.
He owns the award winning Lavender House in Brundall, near Norwich and is classed as one of the county's most creative chefs.
Richard is taking part in the Norfolk Food Festival 2009.
Finest local produce
First and foremost Richard, how did you start out?
RH: I've been cooking since I was 15, coming straight out of school in the fens near Downham Market. My first job was at the Imperial Hotel in Great Yarmouth.
Yarmouth at the end of the 70s was a bit like Las Vegas - everything was going on there and for a fen-land boy from a village with one pub and one shop, it was a bit like the centre of the universe.
I stayed there for six years before moving to the Rookery Hall Hotel in Nantwich, Cheshire. I am now proprietor of the Lavender House at Brundall, near Norwich.
Why did you choose cooking in particular?
RH: My mum was a great cook. She cooked every day.
Was moving back to Norfolk a conscious decision?
RH: It was. Most of my family are here. I love Norfolk - it's great in terms of produce and it's relatively accessible. London is only an hour and a half down the road.
Tell us about the Lavender House and your other establishments.
Richard selects the finest local produce from all over Norfolk
RH: We have a strong team here at The Lavender House that caters for all kinds of celebrations. Everything is made in-house. I cook here on a daily basis.
I also have a pub called The Pigs at Edgefield, near Holt.
I co-own it with Ian Wilson, the owner of Byfords in Holt. It's good quality traditional food - faggots, bread and dripping, treacle tart etc. We took Edgefield on in 2006 and it's gone fantastically well for us.
From the look of the Lavender House, it seems you go for something that's not too big, not too overstaffed and with not too much money being thrown at it - just getting the good things right.
RH: All our restaurants are very personal and anybody who works for us actually feels like they own the place as well. That's great for me, because if I get involved anywhere else, I know the place is being well looked after.
Each restaurant has its own individual character and that's the key to the success we have.
What would you say is your mission statement in terms of your restaurants?
RH: We just want people to relax. They're not pretentious places by any means. You go in some places and you're quite afraid about what cutlery to use - it's not like that at all. I just want people to really enjoy the experience, that's what it's all about.
Richard owns a number of restaurants including The Lavender House
Tell us about the cookery school at the Lavender House?
RH: It's a very important part of the business. We do hands-on classes and corporate days for businesses, to give people time to learn in the kitchen. It's very fulfilling for them. Six out of eight of our full time chefs came here at 15 for experience and stayed.
Do you think there are enough places in Norfolk for people to learn the trade?
RH: To learn how to cook is very fashionable at the moment. Norwich has a lot of chains coming in. I think there has to be more space for the independents, because I think that's where budding chefs will get the best training.
Do you think it's important for you to provide a broad service around the county?
RH: As long as you've got the right people, the property doesn't matter. There are some great places to eat around Norfolk. We often have people come in here and say there's nowhere to eat - that's just nonsense. That may have been the case ten years ago, but now there's a huge range of places to eat.
What is the best piece of produce that comes from Norfolk?
RH: I would think for six weeks of the year it has to be asparagus. A lot of people would tell you crabs or strawberries, but the asparagus here around June is the best in the world. I think the fact that it's a short season adds to its attraction.
Do you think Norfolk food is on an upward or downward trend with all the food coming in from abroad?
Richard's favourite local produce is Norfolk asparagus
RH: There is nowhere better in the country for local produce than Norfolk. You only have to look at the number of farm shops that have sprung up - all the selling by the road-side.
I think local food tastes better. If you eat it in season, it should also be cheaper.
As one of the most famous chefs in Norfolk, do you think it's your responsibility to talk up the county?
RH: As a local chef I try and use local food whenever I can. My team try and promote local food and local suppliers. However, I think you can only use local produce if it's better than anywhere else.
As a chef, I want to offer my customers the best of what I can. If I thought the quality of beef in Argentina was better I would buy it. The fact of the matter is - it isn't. It's better coming from Shropham, near Attleborough.
I think everyone should buy local produce, but for the right reasons - the fact that it's better, cheaper and fresher than most things.
What do you make of celebrity chefs like Gordon Ramsey?
Richard is a big fan of celebrity chef Gordon Ramsey
RH: I think some are better than others. I think Ramsey is fantastic at what he does - he comes across as a bit of an ogre, but all his staff are very loyal to him.
However, if chefs put their name above the door, I think they actually should be cooking there. The head chef and I are very involved here.
If I could give you a menu of anything you like, what would you pick?
RH: That's a very hard question. People who come in when I'm demonstrating will know I say whatever I'm cooking at the time is my favourite dish. It depends. I'm very hard pushed to beat fish and chips sitting on Wells sea-front.