Meet The Chef – Claire Nicholls Castle House Interview
Claire Nicholls has been with Castle House for more than eleven years and at the helm as Head Chef for seven. A local girl, Claire has always been passionate about food, cooking from the age of six! While living in Hong Kong for two years, Claire discovered a love for Asian food which has had a great influence on much of her cooking, but she is steeped in her roots, sourcing as much produce as she can from the Marches and from the farm of hotel owner, David Watkins.
During her reign as Head Chef at Castle House, the restaurant has been awarded 2 AA Rosettes. Claire is quietly proud to be one of the very few female head chefs in the UK to have achieved this.
How long have you been cooking professionally?
22 years and over 12 years at Castle House
Where did you train to cook?
Herefordshire College of Technology, Birmingham College of Food.
Do you have a signature dish or a favourite dish you enjoy cooking?
I get asked this a lot, but I can honestly say I don’t. I have ever-changing favourite dishes. I probably have a favourite ingredient though, it’s beetroot.
How important is it to you to work with local/specialist suppliers – are there any that are key to your cooking?
Its’ very important to work with trusted suppliers and local where possible. We are really lucky to have our own kitchen garden at (our owner) David Watkins’ Ballingham farm. I think it is one of our key selling points and one that our guests appreciate. I have a good relationship with Colin (Brown) who looks after it. We’ll discuss what we need and he plants and grows it all. George Watkins, David’s son, who works at the hotel, is also very involved with the kitchen garden and we love it when he comes in with all the fresh veg, fruits and herbs. George has a pedigree herd of Herefords and rare breed sheep at Ballingham which he looks after when he’s not working at the hotel! Many of our guests get very excited when Ballingham Beef or lamb is on the menu!
Run us through your average day as chef at Castle House Hotel
If I’m not on breakfast duty, I start at 9am. I’ll check the deliveries that have come in that day and contact my suppliers and speak to Colin or George to find out what is good from the garden that week. Next, I’ll start work on a section setting up for the day’s service. This section changes daily, as we are a small kitchen and all help each other out. At 12 o’clock we are in lunch service until 2pm, so I’m am cooking. Around 3pmish I’ll cycle home on my split shift until 5pm. Then, it’s back to work for the evening’s service which ends at about 10.30pm.
What has been your most interesting/fun experience from your time working as a chef?
That’s a hard question! We have lots of great events and food themed evenings at the hotel which take you into new territories. I think travelling is always important and it is usually interesting and fun. I also think that working with so many different people and nationalities and using their influences to come up with new ideas and flavours is equally important and educational.
Is there another chef you most admire?
I like Angela Hartnett. She’s a role model for female chefs in what is a very male dominated industry.
What would your ‘last request’ dish be?
Finally, any advice for any young chefs out there?
Yes. Be organised and always be prepared to listen; there is so much to learn out there. You have also got to be thick-skinned, it’s a hard industry but it’s a rewarding one.