You know that you are talking about next level dining when the chef is asking you not to reveal what eating one of his dishes is like so you don’t spoil the surprise for others.
I am talking to Hibiscus Head Chef Sam Squires and manager Elliot Knight in The Orangery at Delapre Abbey. They are Gold winners for Dining Venue of the Year in the Weetabix Food and Drink Awards 2020/21, Sam also won Chef of the Year, so the ‘next level’ is not really in doubt.
But when I ask them what their favourite dish on the menu is an interesting tale emerges.
Elliot says: “I was at home the other night and I had an idea for something, a slightly different take on something we had done before and I rang Sam the next morning to see if he thought it could work…”
“You rang me at 10pm!” laughs Sam.
“Can I show him? It’s called Forbidden Fruit. It’s this…” Elliot shows me a picture on his phone of what is apparently a shiny apple sitting in a mist of dry ice.
“We did it before when Hibiscus was at Derngate. The theatre was showing Snow White so we did a big red apple but it is not what it seems. It is not what you think when you cut into it, I don’t really want to say any more,” Sam smiles.
I know that it’s an unfair question to ask people who have lovingly constructed a menu of fine dining dishes to pick one over the others but the duo’s enthusiasm for creating a special experience for their customers shines through.
“We are really committed to making the fine dining experience work for Northampton, the great food, the great service but also being friendly and accessible,” says Elliot.
Hibiscus moved from Derngate into Delapre Abbey just a few months before the pandemic struck.
“I joined in July so it still feels new to me but we have closed and reopened so many times in lockdown, it has felt new every single time,” says Elliot.
“It has been like a fresh start every time. We have been evaluating everything we do. We talk to the customers and incorporate their feedback into the dishes. I think it has taken some time to reflect on what we’ve been doing and what works well for our guests. We have been tweaking the experience for them. The dishes tend to evolve but I have also used lockdown to finesse some a bit more,” says Sam.
Hibiscus is licensed to serve alcohol until midnight but Elliot says the atmosphere in the room is about diners finishing their wine in a relaxed environment.
“I treat the restaurant like its my home and I wouldn’t throw guests out of my own home,” he laughs.
Head chef Sam has devised a menu that is about British produce, locally sourced when possible.
“At the minute we have got wild garlic on the menu which comes from near Rugby. From this week we are using Hamtun foods, so that is Cobblers Nibble and Northamptonshire Blue. We try and go as local as we can. It is seasonal and exceptional quality,” says Sam.
“We align our goals with Delapre Abbey which is a charity and is all about being environmentally sustainable, it makes sense that we do the same. Microgreener, AB Fruits, socially responsible and they safeguard the environment,” says Elliot.
“We use eco friendly suppliers. Michael Greener grows in the town. He has a hydroponics vertical growing farm set up in a warehouse. Everything he does is carbon neutral,” Sam explains.
Elliot has also been working with wine suppliers to ensure they meet the same eco conscious standards as well as doing charitable work. Hibiscus itself supports the charity which runs Delapre Abbey. It is not necessarily a recipe for guilt free hedonism but it is a nice touch to make treating yourself to a good meal benefit others.
The honours for Sam and Hibiscus come on top of an AA rosette. The short term plan is to increase the number of AA rosettes and continue offering a unique and welcoming eating experience to Northampton.
“We have got plans for all sorts of one off events. It’s exciting. We have a medieval kitchen here we can make use of. There is so much we can do,” says Sam.