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British chef Dominic Chapman on his love for Indian food, working with Heston Blumenthal and more

British chef Dominic Chapman, who was in India recently to curate the Taste of Britain Curry Festival, on cooking honest cuisine and why Indian food must be respected and celebrated.

Written by Shantanu David |
Updated: April 16, 2016 12:52:53 pm
chapman 759 From Indian breads to kebabs, to the tea, to just the way you guys cook rice, Indian food is beautiful. In the 1950s, there were five Indian restaurants in the UK. Today there are 12,000. It’s so integral to our cuisine, so why shouldn’t it be celebrated?

While Chef Dominic Chapman has been cooking for more than two decades, his family’s collective culinary experience is a far more formidable figure. Chapman, 42, is the fourth generation of his family to don the chef’s toque, his family having owned and run the celebrated luxury Castle Hotel at Taunton, Somerset (the UK), which was originally a Norman fortress, for the last 60 years. Chapman’s father, Kit — also a chef and author — is the present owner, operating it with his other son.

Chapman wanted to carve out his own career and stand on his own two feet, and started out by deciding to skip university and travel the world instead, at the age of 18. He payed his way through the US, Mexico, Greece, New Zealand and Australia for five years by working in various kitchens in different capacities. “I was in New Zealand when a chef advised me to return to the UK and undergo a formal culinary training, so I returned home,” Chapman says, adding that his time spent abroad proved a valuable learning experience.

Once back, Chapman was determined to get the best possible training, and worked with Heston Blumenthal at the iconic Fat Duck in 2002 as a chef de partie. This was before Blumenthal became enamoured with scientific cooking and concentrated on classic British staples, a style Chapman was already familiar with, thanks to his father. He worked with Blumenthal for four years, witnessing first-hand his mentor’s burgeoning affair with all things chemical, as the Fat Duck transformed into a place where food and science came together onto a plate.

Meanwhile, Chapman continued his own journey, working with chefs Charlie Trotter and Rowley Leigh before returning to work with Blumenthal, heading the kitchens at The Hinds Head. In 2007, he earned his first Michelin star at Michael Parkinson’s The Royal Oak, where he worked until he took over his own restaurant, The Beehive, in White Waltham. It was here he brought all his experiences to bear, evolving his own cooking style, which he summarises in one key word. “Delicious. If the food’s not that, there’s no point to the rest of it,” he says, adding that he likes to think of himself as serving “honest cuisine.”

Interestingly, he eschews scientific cooking despite his exposure to it, averring that a lot of it is “gimmickry”. “Working with Heston was a great experience but it’s not my cuisine. Food should be as it is. Just follow the seasons, use the best possible ingredients and cook with your heart. And don’t cook for stars. They will follow if you’re doing it right,” he says.

That being said, he still hopes to earn a star (or more) at The Beehive. “We’ve only been open for 18 months, so it’s early days, yet but we hope an inspector will one day visit us. It would be an affirmation of our efforts,” he says. While critics have heaped praise on his “gastropub”, Dominic himself winces at the term. “That term has been used and abused to death. I run a restaurant where people come to eat, and it also has a pub. The focus is on the cuisine, which is fiercely British,” he says. The menu, which changes regularly, features dishes such as Rabbit and Bacon Pie, Cambridge burnt cream with sable biscuits, rhubarb pie and curry parsnip soup. And speaking of curry, Chapman says he loves his Indian food, from “Indian breads to kebabs to the tea to just the way you guys cook rice. It’s beautiful.”

He enjoys adding elements of different cuisines to his dishes to complement them, and a bit of Indian is a winning combination. “We pair a lot of fish with spices. For instance, we do a lovely cod served with a Dal tadka and it tastes just brilliant,” he says. Chapman also regularly works with Indian chefs back home, giving talks and demonstrations on how to cook at a Michelin-star level, as he wishes to tackle the discrepancy of Indian food being loved, but not respected. “In the 1950s, there were five Indian restaurants in the UK. Today there are 12,000. It’s so integral to our cuisine, so why shouldn’t it be celebrated?,” he says.

His dad acts as an invaluable sounding board, regularly visiting his son’s restaurant and dining there. The elder gentleman has written several books, including An Innkeeper’s Diary, Great British Chefs volumes 1 and 2, and most recently, My Archipelago. Chapman himself has a book in the works, writing it “whenever I find time.”

His penchant for travel never having abandoned him, Chapman still travels regularly, working at various kitchens around the world to learn new cooking styles, saying there’s so much one can learn. He’s visited India thrice, coming every year since 2014, something he plans to continue. While in Delhi, he was also looking forward to exploring the city. And of course, visit the Taj Mahal.

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