I’ve known Shaun Hill for – what? – over 25 years. He has just passed the 65 mark. It seems scarcely credible. His curly hair, which looks like a barrister’s wig, is whiter, and his tummy a little rounder than when I first met him at Gidleigh Park. But, unlike me, he still has hair to curl, he still talks out of the corner of his mouth, and he still wears the same smeared glasses behind which his eyes sparkle with the same humorous intelligence.
Intelligence – it’s not often that you get a chance to use that phrase about a chef and his food, but intelligence has always been the hallmark of Mr Hill and his food. He described it once to me as ‘the rough side of Michelin’, and there is something uncontrived about the way the food appears on the plate. Not for Shaun the precise placing of particular ingredients, the exquisite arrangement of elements. Visual beauty – and there is plenty – is accidental, not calculated, with a Hill dish. What is never in doubt, however, is the mastery with which the ingredients are woven together, that sense of absolute correctness about the integrity and balance of a dish. I never look at a Hill menu and think ‘Bloody hell! Why’s the old boy done that?” I just think ‘Oh, oh, oh, I’ll have that and that and that and that.’ It’s not unknown for me to want to eat the entire menu from first to last.
At 65, most sensible chefs have hung up their clogs and apron, and Shaun has retired once, a couple of years back. He’d been garlanded with stars and awards. He worked in tandem with Paul & Kay Henderson for years to make Gidleigh park one of the finest country house hotels in the land. He’d turned The Merchant House in Ludlow into a place of pilgrimage for anyone seriously interested in food, and for his fellow chefs, he decided that he had enough. With his wife of many years, Anja, he’d educated his three children and seen them off into the world. He was a grandfather. He was lauded and loved. What else was there? But somehow the reality of a pottering retirement proved not so appealing as the dream, and when the opportunity to rescue that landmark rural restaurant, The Walnut Tree at Abergavenny, one of the very few that really deserve the description iconic, presented itself, he took up his chef’s jacket, buckled it back on, and went back into the kitchen.
And there he is to be found most evenings, presiding over the work with a genial precision born of long, long practice. He is the most relaxed of chefs in the kitchen. You know he has seen every kind of mistake, disaster and hiccup, and knows precisely how to deal with them. He may actually be utterly unstressed as he appears, but the food moves smoothly through the stages, gets out to the customers, 40, 50 a night, with an easy flow.
And the food maintains the same high intelligence, the same unobtrusive deliciousness – John Dory with potatoes rasam. ‘Where did that recipe come from, Shaun?’ ‘Oh, I found it on the internet.’ How many chefs would have the honesty to admit to that? And of course, he polished it up, turned it over, so that it became his own, sweet, meaty fish, lightly spiced potatoes used as a sauce, a happy, beautifully balanced mouthful. And then squab pigeon with sweetbread and morel boudin, pigeon as soft as suede beneath a resonant sauce. The crisp casing of the sweetbread and morel boudin had broken apart slightly, but who cared? What a fabulous combination, the morels bringing a bit of bosky muscle to the light delicacy of the sweetbreads. And what an intelligent way of stretching the expensive morels with the cheaper offal. What a clever, clever idea, and how good to eat. Toffee rice pudding with pineapple was pure indulgence, but, bloody hell, why not? Let’s treasure the man and his food while we’ve still got him, before he retires again.
[A version of this homage appears on the Great British Chefs website]