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Lee Scott: feeding the tastemakers

Chef Lee Scott cuts a relaxed, no-nonsense , figure as he greets me in the dining room of Hibiscus, his new fine dining restaurant at Royal & Derngate in Northampton.

He’s in a white T-shirt, apron over the top and plods about in a pair of crocs which I notice because mine are black too.
“Yes, so comfortable,” he smiles as I point them out.

He’s on his feet far too much to worry about what is in vogue footwear-wise and these are busy times.

Lee is emerging as the food industry equivalent of Director of Football for Tom Hewer Catering – the rapidly expanding Northampton company behind Frank’s Hamburgers and a number of concessions including the tricky Delapre Abbey coffee shop contract.

Hibiscus 1

I take him to task over the Frank’s burger recipe – we’ve all got our opinions over what the perfect burger should be but he’s ready for me.
“When did you last try one?”
I begin to um and erm. I’m not sure.
“We’ve given the recipe a little refresh, about four months ago. We have made the texture of the burger more… crumbly,” he says pausing to pick out precisely the right word.I get the impression that if we were in a kitchen he would just get a pan out and show me what he meant.

He’s got ideas for Delapre Abbey as well.
“It’s obviously not going to be about fine dining. It’s more of a cafe type experience. I would really like to put together a nice cream tea to serve there but it’s a beautiful place, an incredible building.

“The possibilities for it are so exciting. It’s a great venue for weddings. You can have all kinds of events there.”

Lee’s style is about rolling his sleeves up and getting on with it – in fact he is rarely pictured out of a white t-shirt, sleeves in effect pre rolled-up and displaying a hint of upper arm tattoos.

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There is a down to earth quality in his approach to his work which belies his skill.
Anyone who has attended the Carlsberg Food and Drink Awards in recent years can attest to the quality of his cooking. He masterminds the menu and leads a kitchen in the production of nearly 600 meals for the most discerning palates in the county and beyond.

This year’s special guest is Antonio Carlucci – a name which makes Lee break into a grin.
“Antonio is a great guy. He’s a fantastic character but he’s also a good businessman. He is very financially astute. It will be great to see him,” says Lee whose career has seen him rubbing shoulders with celebrities from the culinary world and beyond.

Lee was the chef on “The Claridges Of The Sea,” the world’s smallest and most exclusive cruise ship, with only 65 passengers, each spending £10,000 per week.

Jim Carey was among his customers although the film star and his retinue made Lee’s job easy with their preference for hot dogs and burgers.

For the moment the Michelin starred restaurants and megastars of his past are taking a back seat to the subtler charms of Northamptonshire, a county that is something of a sleeping giant in food and drink terms.

The unheralded good work in the sector in the county was partly the inspiration for the Carlsberg Food and Drink Awards, now in its 14th year.

It has already impacted Lee’s career as it was at the awards that he met the man he now works hand in glove with.

“I met Tom Hewer through the Carlsberg Food and Drink Awards and we just hit it off. You know we both care passionately about the food and drink world and we seemed to think the same things. It just clicked.

“We’re trying to do something different here for Northampton. There is no fine dining in the area and what better location could you have, here in the cultural quarter in Royal & Derngate Theatre.

“There are people travelling over an hour from the town just to go out and eat. At Hisbiscus we will do three courses for £30 which is pretty reasonable for fine dining.

“We are an option for pre-theatre dining – you need to allow about-an-hour-and-a -half for three courses. But you can also come here for a nice evening out.

“We make everything ourselves, we bake our own bread and we are always looking for good local produce to bring into the menu. I am out and about sourcing food every day.
“It’s modern but it’s not off-putting. We did all the decor ourselves. We are very proud of the crockery we are using. It’s modern but familiar, beautifully made, it has a beaten metal look, but it’s pottery.”

It doesn’t take long to pick up on what Lee thinks is the key to good cooking – good quality ingredients, whenever possible locally sourced. Northamptonshire’s embarrassment of riches in terms of food and drink producers must have been an attraction – fresh fish is the only real challenge.

The food doesn’t need to be exotic to be good either.
I try to wheadle out of him what he has got in mind for the Carlsberg Food and Drink Awards menu.
“It’s going to be beef. I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a nice sticky rib in there with the meat just falling off the bone,” he says with a twinkle in his eye.

Lee doesn’t just pay lip service to the awards. Last year’s Young Chef of the Year now works for him and one of the contenders for this year’s award is also an employee.
“Getting the right staff is so important. Waiters need to be attentive but not so much that people feel uncomfortable.

“We have got a finishing kitchen upstairs and the main kitchens downstairs in Royal & Derngate. And I’m right there, people can see me working. I’m the first thing you see when you come in. I’m talking to people if I’ve got time.”

Lee wouldn’t talk in such grandiose terms but at Tom Hewer Catering he is uniquely placed to effect something of a culinary revolution across the area and beyond, adding his special touch to everything from a burger you eat at a cricket match to the banquet you would enjoy on a special night out.

It begs an obvious question about what happens when his email is set to out of office.
“My wife does the cooking. You know, I get home from a 16 hour day, but if I’m there I’ll do some. At home I like good simple hearty stuff like a lasagne. My wife’s a good cook…”

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