Lee Clarke: “To be a really good chef you have to know what you want to achieve… that takes maturity”

Within a year of opening in 2011, Clarkes Restaurant had secured a recommendation in the revered Michelin Guide. When head chef Lee Clarke went it alone in 2016 with new restaurant Prévost, his food was back in the Michelin within six months. This year, Lee will be sharing some of his secrets in a series of regular food features in The Moment – and to set the scene, we talk to him about his career, his food philosophy and why he’s passionate about Peterborough

Let’s begin at the beginning – how you got started…
My first job was working at RAF Wittering, in the Sergeant’s Mess. My mum did a function there called the Battle of Britain Ball and I went and did the cheese board, and that was where it all started to kick in. I was 14, and it was probably the first time I ever did any food prep at all. I’ve worked in lots of restaurants, but I still remember the name of the sergeant who ran that Sergeant’s Mess, he left such an impression on me.

What was it about that experience that fired your imagination?
It’s the first time I had ever seen real chefs. I just remember those chef ’s whites – the big tall hat, the white jackets and aprons – and they just looked so smart. I know that sounds silly, but when you’re a 14 year-old boy, it has a real impact. And they were telling everybody what to do, which was great!

How did that lead?
After a few years of not knowing what I was going to do, I went to Peterborough Regional College and trained for two years there, which was a really good basic grounding. They also sent me to Poitiers, in France, on work experience and that’s when I fell in love with fine dining. Everything they did there was fantastic; it’s a really great culinary school and it made me have high aspirations. It was completely classical French. I remember the first thing they served us there was a sheep’s brain and mushroom pie… It was so exotic. It completely grossed me out at the time, but looking back on it was the perfect thing to kick-start my imagination.

When was the first time you felt you were cooking food that you were really happy with?
The first time was probably at Ickworth, at Bury St Edmunds, about ten years ago, in my first proper head chef ’s position. It was modern British, lots of locally produced, shot game, which in many ways is still where I’m at. What was amazing about Ickworth was that it was this country house estate in the middle of 1,600 acres – a National Trust property – with tenant farmers, game, amazing foraging, and it came just at the time when chefs were really starting to talk about growing your own produce, foraging and so on. I was in the right place at the right time, and it really pushed me in the right direction.

You’ve worked in a whole variety of places, including London, so why open a restaurant in Peterborough?
I’m a Peterborough boy. I studied in Peterborough, played rugby for Peterborough rugby club, and I had always felt that Peterborough had the potential to have a fine dining restaurant. It’s a big city, with a great community, but it does knock itself too much. I just felt it was the right time to go for it, and so got together with Dinesh Odedra and Prafulla Gorania and opened Clarkes in 2011. After the first three months we had a five star review from the Peterborough Evening Telegraph, and in 2012 we got a great recommendation in the Michelin Guide. After that, we flew. Once we were the first place in Peterborough to get in the Guide, that established us.

How did the new restaurant, Prévost, come about?
I’d been with Clarkes for six years. I had really enjoyed my time there and got so much out of working with Dinesh and Prafulla, but it was time for me to go out on my own, I felt. They were thinking about moving, so it seemed the right moment for me to set up and be my own boss. I didn’t want to become predictable, I wanted to push things on. And I knew what I wanted to achieve. I wanted a venue that had more of my personality in it, and for it to be able to develop and grow. I saw the building at the beginning of February 2016, and fell in love with it immediately. Sometimes, you just get a feeling.

And you’re already back in the Michelin Guide…
Yeah! We got visited within a month, which really shocked us. I actually knew who the reviewer was from a previous visit, but I didn’t tell any of the staff until afterwards, because I was concerned they would panic and start stressing! I wanted everyone just to be natural and enjoy the experience.

So, what’s different about Prévost?
It’s louder. It’s a little less formal. I’ve pushed the food more, in a more interesting way, from the way we do the menus to the way we plate it. We’ve used products that I would not have used at Clarkes, such as fresh oysters or fresh white truffle. Because of the way we’ve set the menu up we can afford to use products that are a little more luxury-based, because the menu is set. That means not having to carry a lot of dishes that end up being wastage.

Do you have favourites on the menu?
I’m becoming a lot more vegetable orientated, so one of my favourite dishes at the moment is salt-baked kohlrabi with tarragon, trompette mushrooms and reduced chicken stock. On our menu this week we also have slow-roasted onion with dehydrated olives, sage and veal glacé, finished with nasturtium leaves. We do a lot of salt baking, we do a lot of cooking in hay, so vegetables are probably the biggest change with the new place, putting them up front. One of the dishes that we opened with, which really set the restaurant’s character was burnt leek, wild garlic and confit hens egg starter, with locally foraged mushrooms. That was me starting off in exactly the direction I wanted to go in.

What do you think makes a great chef?
To be a really good chef you have to know exactly what you want to achieve, and how to achieve it, and that takes maturity. ‘Less is more’ can be very true in cooking. How many times have you had a dish where there’s a great element, like a fantastic steak, and they’ve plonked so much other stuff on there that you lose the steak? Sometimes you just have to know when to stop. I went to dinner at Heston’s last year, and thought it was amazing. It was really simple food, but with not one single mistake anywhere. Everything was done perfectly. What people don’t understand is that when you put a lot of things on the plate, first it muddles the flavours up a bit sometimes, but also it’s very easy to hide mistakes that way. When you’ve got a simple product on the plate with one or two other things, you can’t hide that. It’s either right or wrong.

How important is it having great products to start with?
The product drives everything. Locally sourced asparagus, Yorkshire rhubarb, quail from Norfolk Quail Company, Denham Estate venison, pork from Grasmere Farm. There’s always a star on the plate, which is a great product – the main focal point of that dish – and then we work out from that. One of the things I really want to do is highlight local producers. That’s what I’m looking forward to doing in the coming months!

20 Priestgate Peterborough PE1 1JA 01733 313623

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