Former MasterChef the Professionals contestant Zak Perrin is one of a current crop of young head chefs locally to have worked in Peterborough under Lee Clarke, now chef-patron at Prevost. Zak, who appeared on the BBC show in 2014 when he was just 21, has been the head chef at the Talbot Hotel in Oundle since January.
Where did it all begin - how did you get into the business?
I got into hospitality when I decided to take a gap year after 6th Form. I was due to start a motorsport engineering degree, deferred my place for a year and took up an apprenticeship in professional cookery through South East Essex College.
I started at the Royal Oak Pub, in Stambridge, before moving to Elderberry Restaurant in Rayleigh; a fine dining concept opened by Michael Joslin, formerly of The Ledbury.
Shortly after the completion of my apprenticeship, I had the offer to go and work in France under Frederic Bau, famed pastry chef, founder of L’ecole du Grand Chocolat de Valrhona, and Chef Patron of Restaurant Umia. This came at the sacrifice of my place at university and I moved to the Village of Tain L’hermitage and immersed myself in the world of French (and Japanese) cuisine!
What were your ambitions then - and now?
When I was younger I’d always had ambitions to work in London, either at Pied a Terre, or even Restaurant Gordon Ramsay and just absorb the culinary techniques of those I would have worked under. I was pulled in other directions and ended up in France for three years. In this industry it’s important to have a target, either a year ahead, five years ahead, or even just what you want to take out of your current job! My ambitions are constantly changing in my current job. Six months ago my ambition was to just learn my new role as head chef, being mentored by David Simms our group’s executive head chef. Now my ambition is to put out the best food not just in Oundle, but the area. The reviews recently are speaking for themselves. We are seeing a lot more five star ratings on Trip Advisor compared to this time last year, and a lot more repeat custom!
Who have been your influences?
Frederic and Rika Bau, my old bosses, and their head chef Olivier Giry have proved to be my biggest influences in my career, along side my parents. Fred, Rika, and Olivier pushed me hard to give me a decent grounding in the early years of my career, and formed the basis of the chef that I am today, teaching me both classical French and Japanese techniques. It was hard work, but extremely rewarding.
My parents always supported me, no matter what my decisions were (even motorcycle racing, sorry mum!) When I decided I wanted to become a chef they bought me my first knives, a Wusthof Cook’s knife, and paring knife. My father was a motorcycle mechanic for many years and only used the best tools. He made sure I had the best tools for my trade. When I made the decision to move to France to pursue my dream of becoming a chef, it was my mum who paid for my passport to get fast tracked, pushed me to try and at least learn basic French before going!
How did you come to be at The Talbot?
I moved to the Talbot as sous chef, after a stint at Clarke’s restaurant as the pastry chef. Shortly after Lee left the business, and we were told that the Clarke’s team would be relocating to Folksworth, I decided to take up the position here, working alongside my old friend Aaron Johns (at the time the head chef) . Before working at Clarke’s, I was a chef de partie at The Bell Inn Hotel in Stilton, and before that I worked for Frederic Bau, founder of L’ecole du Grand Chocolat Valrhona and Chef Patron of Restaurant Umia, in Tain L’hermitage, France
How important is the team around you? Is recruitment difficult?
Without the team around me I just simply couldn’t do my job. We work together, supporting each other as we go, and they all bring a fresh view to our evolving style of cooking. Recruitment is difficult across the country at the moment in the hospitality industry. Staff here are paid for every hour they do which adds an incentive to the inherently long hours. Saying that, being out in the Northamptonshire countryside does add some difficulty to recruitment!
What can people expect from your menus?
The food here at the Talbot is 1AA Rosette standard, with a fresh twist on some classic dishes. We aim to please a broad range of people, from those wanting a refined sit down dinner experience, to those wanting a humble fish and chips. Everything produced is done to the best standard.
What was the first dish you put on a menu - and what is the most recent?
The first dish of my own creation that I put on a menu was the “chocolate, coffee and cardamom” dessert at Clarke’s. A rich Madagascan chocolate cremeux, coffee whipped ganache, and a cardamom ice cream.
Favourite dish on the menu at the moment - and why?
My favourite dish on our current menu is our rump of lamb, with pommes anna, chargrilled courgette and black garlic. A classic bit of cooking and nice and summery!
What gives you most pleasure working in a restaurant?
I love the ability to teach my staff and help them exceed their own expectations.