Interview with an Innovator

Caprice Holdings’ Tim Hughes: 'I’d like us to be more adventurous with vegetarian food'

The chef director for the group behind The Ivy, Le Caprice and J. Sheekey’s on experimenting with Asian dishes, the abundance of raw food and why he avoids being too ‘cheffy.’ 

2 November 2018
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Hughes on Paper – CV

  • Honed his skills under Marco Pierre White at The Oak Room and Harvey’s
  • Took his first head chef job at the age of 24, running the kitchen at Morton’s House Hotel
  • Worked as sous chef and head chef at Le Caprice, before being promoted to chef director of the entire Caprice Holdings portfolio in 2005

Caprice Holdings has a very busy month ahead. As part of the ongoing expansion of the Ivy brand, it is opening a four-story Manchester spot that will contain the first Ivy Asia, alongside a brasserie, rooftop garden and private dining area. Almost simultaneously, it will debut its Brasserie of Light inside Selfridges.

Overseeing the culinary offerings for the company – including J. Sheekey, Scott’s, Sexy Fish and Le Caprice, among others – is Tim Hughes, Caprice’s chef director.

It might seem like an enormous job, but Hughes explains how it’s “not massive change, but slow change” that keeps the company’s restaurants relevant to the evolving food palate. Essential is understanding the changing needs of London’s high-spending customers, which now means paying close attention to provenance, ways to make food lighter, and innovative vegan and vegetarian food.

Keeping a handle on the different styles clientele expect from restaurant to restaurant is part of the challenge, as is ensuring that the menus are well written, which is key to sales. Sometimes all it takes is “just one change of word” to make a dish fly off the menu, as Hughes tells Food Spark.

 

It’s essential to understand your clientele. If your menu is too cheffy, it frightens people off. The challenge is to keep menus creative. 

Our famous restaurants are all different.  The Daphne’s clientele is different to Scott’s as they’re more local. However, our restaurants in Mayfair are different to the West End. The Ivy is a famous restaurant within Britain. A super restaurant. Whereas J. Sheekey is more the Londoner’s restaurant. Scott’s is one of the most powerful business rooms in London.

Marco Pierre White changed me as a chef. Marco was classically trained, but he had something about him that was a bit different. Everyone says he took a dish and made it better. That really changed my outlook in cooking. It was a different style of cooking I hadn’t seen. Everyone was doing the same sort of garnishing, plates looked the same, but when you went into Harvey’s [Marco’s iconic, now closed restaurant] it was like, “Oh wow! This is so different.”

Le Caprice made me realise food didn’t have to be intense. It was a casual luxury brasserie. There was a fish cake on the menu, it was different. I had been stuck for 10 years doing high-class Michelin food, but this was more casual. A bit more fun, really, because Michelin can be quite daunting – you’ve got to be very focused in that style of cooking, but Caprice opened the cuisine door. You could do a bit of Spanish, a bit of French, a bit of Asian – a whole new world to me.

Everyone follows trends. But it depends on your restaurant how you can put that trend into your menu. We’re all magpies at the end of the day, we take bits from everybody and put a spin on it and do your own style of cuisine within your own restaurant.

As a group, we’ve changed a bit recently... because we’ve put Asian cuisine on our menus. We think it’s Asian cuisine, but Asian people probably think it’s not! You’ll see a lot of sashimi, teriyaki, a lot of miso being used, even in our desserts. This influence is coming out and we’ve embraced that a lot.

We want to use as much British produce as we can. Use the British but mix it with different flavours from all around the world.

Chefs need to understand the classics, how to make a great sauce… and you need to understand basic pastry. Those sorts of classic things will always be there. Then you can take those ideas and mix them. You don’t need to be classically trained, though.

You see a lot more fish being eaten these days. People are enjoying fish – we have three very successful fish restaurants. Dishes are becoming a lot lighter as well, you see a lot of the heavy sauces are going, the diet is lighter, a lot lighter. And that’s not just women, it’s men as well. A lot of people are conscious of what they’re eating, you see that everywhere. People are asking for their sauce on the side.

We put raw sections on quite a few of our kitchens now and they fly out. Every other table has got a sashimi, a tartare, a ceviche or a teriyaki.

Yellowtail and salmon sashimi at Daphne's
image credit: Jean Cazals

Customers stick with the same thing for a long time. They’ll always go to Le Caprice and have the steak tartare. We say, “Why don’t you try something different?” And they say, “Wow that’s really good! I didn’t know you had that on the menu?” And I say, “Well, it’s been here for three months.”

We make dishes healthier by… taking away a rich sauce and replacing that with a dressing or a light mixed dressing, or a sauce that’s not so heavy. Fish you’ll do a lot plainer, to get the fresh quality of the product that you’re trying to serve.

Cuisine is coming back to being about three or four items on a plate, and not so complicated. A few years ago, things got complicated, we called it hits on a plate, but it’s not what everyone wants. If you have seven flavours on a plate, you don’t know what you’re really looking for.

Some tasting menus try too hard. When you’ve got 12 dishes, I would probably have liked four of them but a bit bigger. I tend not to go for tasting menus, I just think they’re too much.

I don’t like the term modern British, and I don’t like the term modern European. Cuisine is cuisine. If you’re a fish restaurant, you’re a fish restaurant, and within that menu you have different influences in there. If you’ve got shellfish risotto, you know it’s an Italian dish, but it might be next to a truffle souffle.

We don’t change suppliers much. We use a mad scallop man in Scotland’s Isle of Mull called Guy, he’s great... He has a wonderful product, an ethical scallop company. He’s been fighting a long time with the dredgers, who you’ve got to be careful you don’t upset because you’ve got to make a living. Some people say dredging is perfectly okay, some say it’s not.

There’s a lot of miscommunication about fish. The fisherman’s practices of old were probably bad, and we chefs were probably to blame for that, but I think now there’s a lot of good things in progress to get great sustainable fish. They were just taking up too much.

I mean, how much tuna is there in the sea? If you go to every restaurant in Britain, a lot of restaurants have tuna on the menu – that’s a lot of tuna.

The beef we’ve used for 15 to 20 years is cross breed. There’s a lot of cross breed animals, we did a lot of work on it when we opened 34 Mayfair. It could be a Hereford crossed with a Charolais, for instance. They cross them to make the muscle formation bigger.

The same beef we use is going to into M&S and McDonald’s. What McDonald’s do with it afterwards, I don’t know, but they take top quality beef. We’ve also got a rare breed guy who’ll get us rare breed, but that’ll be like a five-week lead time as they must hang the meat.

When an ingredient is in season, we’ll use it. There are pockets of the year we really look forward to. We look forward to the spring because we go through a long winter and it gets a bit boring, then spring suddenly opens up and we get these wonderful new vegetables and food gets a lot lighter. You’re getting rid of the braising and the heavy things and you’re going into salads and lighter things like gull’s eggs. Then you get into summer and you get all the lovely fruits, and then autumn is lovely too, as the game season comes in.

Chargrilled squash salad, whipped goats curd and pumpkin seed pesto at Le Caprice
image credit: Jean Cazals

I’d like us to be a bit more adventurous with vegetarian food. Vegan is a tricky one for a lot of restaurants, because when you look at vegan food, there’s so many obstacles. But it’s a big movement, a lot of people are doing it for health reasons. A lot of sport people are coming out saying it makes me perform better, and we’re embracing it. Now, I’m saying to my pastry teams it would be good to get a vegan dessert on because vegan desserts are very limited.

For our vegan dishes, we’re... using tofu, flourless and eggless puddings, and substituting milk with coconut. For a thickening agent, we’re using seaweed. You cannot be resistant to vegans or vegetarians; our menu has to be very balanced.

When we change menus, we go through every dish one by one. We tick things off then circle ones we potentially want to change – then we look at seasons and question why we have certain dishes. The engineering is very important.

With pastry, it must be a balance. It can become too chocolate, toffee, caramel or nutty, and I say, “There’s nothing refreshing in that menu, someone will want something clean, a citrus or a balance.” It’s very easy for pastry chefs to not look at their menu properly.

Plating is also very important. We assess each dish by how it’s going to eat and serve, and then how to word it. Some wording can put people off. If you’re in a conservative restaurant and you say a trendy word, it’s alienating.

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