CHEF TALK: FIRE IT UP! with CHEF DARREN VELVICK
When I set out on my Chef Talk adventure I had a list of Chef’s I wanted to meet drawn up. Darren Velvick was on that list. But for reasons that still boggle my mind it was not meant to be until I bumped into Darren at Taste of Dubai and we got talking and then it was just a matter of time before we were sat across from each other having a chat. Darren’s culinary journey has seen him in the kitchens of Gordon Ramsay and Marcus Wareing and quite a few others – my instinct when I heard he had worked with Gordon Ramsay was – you survived (the pre-conceived notions I have thanks to Hells Kitchen) – and then that thought immediately turned to – in order to have survived the number of years Darren has in GR’s kitchen – he must have been pretty darn good! Darren is now is a crusader for eating well, eating healthy and it’s amazing how much he knows about the medicinal benefits of ingredients. Darren is a man who I believe not many can dislike. He is proud of what he has achieved (and so he should be) and when he talks about his experiences you can sense the determination, hard work, sweat and tears (figurately speaking) that has gone into his journey to The Croft.
Name: Darren Velvick
Restaurant: The Croft
From: Newbury, Berkshire, England
Culinary School: Thames Valley University, Slough, England
Knife Hand: Right
Were you a good kid, did you eat your veggies as a child?
Yes. There were certain veggies I did not like but I was lucky enough, I loved broccoli, cauliflower and carrots. I was very fortunate when I was growing up that my mum grew her kitchen garden in the back of our house. I wasn’t a fan of peas though, although I would eat them. I tried flushing down the peas once, but found out that they float. Brussels sprouts was one thing I absolutely hated. My mum, bless her, overcooked everything so I probably got no nutritional value from the vegetable at all.
The name of the restaurant is interesting, how did you come up with it?
When we were young, my mum would take us up to the woodlands about half a mile from where we lived and we could pick blackberries, mushrooms and stinging nettles (it’s a green plant which if you rub your hand on it, it would sting you, but when cooked the sting goes and it has very good medicinal use). This woodland was called Beechwood and that’s the name I wanted to give ‘The Croft’ at the very beginning. It was always one of my ambitions that when I got to a position where I could name a restaurant, I always had it for many many years now as it always had a place in my heart, that I would call it ‘Beechwood’. This little woodland had such an impact on my growing up, and with food and nature – not only was that woodland supplying us with food, it also gave us wood for the fire, we would play up there for hours as kids.
So when Mariott and I discussed this place, and they asked me to come up with a name, I was like – I got it. But the sad thing was that the more that Mariott looked at the name, Beechwood was very common when you look at it globally. So they said, sorry, you’re going to have to find another name. I was so devastated that I could not call it Beechwood. But what happened was that I lived on a road called Beechcroft, and my wife said, why don’t I use the name Beechcroft. The thing with that name is, if you google it, it does not come up looking very great. So my wife said, what about ‘Croft’, and I asked what it meant – and she googled it and it said ‘it’s a Scottish farm house with vegetables, fruits’ – something like a mini farm – but it’s a person’s house. And I thought perfect, it ties in with living off the land, growing vegetables, and in a way, even though I cannot do that here at The Croft, this is the way I try and source my ingredients – as locally as possible.
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
When I was growing up, right from the time I was 7 years old I used to play rugby. Also as a kid, I wanted to be in the army, or a policeman. Since I grew up in a rough council estate we did not have much opportunity in a way. I did not even think of becoming a chef – it wasn’t even in my background.
I loved rugby but the only problem with it in the UK in those days was that it wasn’t a paid sport. Even though I was very very good at it, it was not an opportunity to do it professionally as you would need to have a job as well.
My friend’s dad was in the army – he was an Army Chef – and he told me I should try being a Chef, travel the world when I was about 10 years old. But at that time I pretty much put it to the side. But what happened for me, was when I was 14 years old, Simon, a friend of mine came to my house and told me he had got a job at the Royal Oak (our local pub) in Yattendon and they were looking for help to wash the dishes. I remember it was £1.50 an hour. We cycled up to the pub and I remember meeting the Chef, Richard Smith who reminded me of Basel Faulty (from TV show Faulty Towers). I was really fast at washing up and since I had OCD, when I was given a job of cleaning up I did it perfectly and when I had finished up, no one would ask me to, but I would go and do other things. It used to be a really busy pub so at times I used to be asked to come help plate desserts or over the weekends I would help prep vegetables and as time went, I just got more and more involved in food. Over the year since I joined, I said, this is what I want to do for a living. But the Chefs around would advise me that I should stay in school and finish my GCSEs and they dissuaded me saying that it’s a job with long working hours – but I knew in my head that this is what I wanted to do. What turned around was, if I was naughty at home, my mom would tell me that I could not go to work, and initially I was fine with it. But towards the end when she used that punishment on me by the time I was 15, I would get really upset. I bought my first set of knifes at Argos for about £20.
Once I knew what I wanted to do, I spoke with Richard asking about an apprenticeship and he said he would hire me full time for his new place called the Beetle & Wedge, pay me a salary and send me to college. I worked for 7 years at Beetle & Wedge.
What was your most memorable restaurant job?
They have all had an impact. But if I was to choose, I would say Beetle & Wedge where my foundation of cookery was laid and I learned kitchen operation because I became involved with ordering, Gross Profit – how important it is to make money. I always felt that I did far too much time at Beetle & Wedge – 7 years – and I saw all these other Chefs doing a year here, a year there, learning so much – but Richard Smith was a wise man – he told me to trust him and that one day I would realise what he’s done and to pick up the phone and call him when I realised that he meant. And that moment arrived when I went to work with Gordon Ramsay.
The other kitchen that was memorable was at Pétrus under Marcus Wareing where I learned more about high standards, really long hours – pushing the body to the limit. I learned the stamina side of being a Chef and managing people.
What did you have for lunch yesterday?
A big salad with lettuce leaves, pumpkin seeds, guacamole, carrots, tomatoes, cucumber. I make a salsa with chilli, peppers, tomatoes, onions and coriander and dress the salad with that.
Place you eat most often on days off?
Since my family changed the way we eat, I don’t really enjoy eating out anymore. I prefer eating at home as I know what is going into our food and I also love eating with my family. We eat totally organic. One of the places we go back to is BeStro at Dubai Mall – where they do pure raw, vegan, no dairy food. We have been there a few times and it’s a place we trust.
What’s your favourite ingredient/ condiment to work with?
Himalayan Salt. It just adds a nice flavour to the dish, it’s got great minerals with health properties and also adds a bit of texture to the dish. I always finish every dish with a magic sprinkle of the salt.
If it’s the last weekend on earth – what city are you eating in and what are you eating?
It would be South of Spain in a place called Mijas Costa where there is this lovely tiny place off the beaten track where I will have this fantastically marinated raw octopus ceviche. That is where I would want to go back to and have.
If you left Dubai to cook somewhere else, where would you go?
I think I would like to try Australia next. Maybe Melbourne as it seems to be up and coming, lots of great food, the food trend is really moving forward there.
What has been your biggest mistake in the kitchen?
It was a Beetle & Wedges where there were two boxes of 5kg asparagus which I had spent a long time preparing them beautifully. The Chef there was always adamant that we boil them in small batches and I thought to myself, since the Chef was not around I quickly threw the whole lot – 10kgs of asparagus – into this big boiler to get them done quickly – trying to cut corners really. I put the lid down as I wanted to keep them boiling and I went off to the toilet. And all I heard was “DARREN” – Chef Richard had obviously lifted the lid up as he came into the kitchen and it was like soup. And that cost me £50 out of my pocket and since then I have always cooked asparagus in small batches. We always learn the hard way.
Who is the person you would most like to cook for?
It would have to be Chris Froome, the cyclist for Team Sky who has also won the Tour de France for two years. I have always admired him as a cyclist and have seen him rise to fame. The food I would cook would have to be healthy – I might just make him what I have in a day – a juice, a granola and then a big salad from the earth.
What is the dish on the menu you eat most?
Probably the devilled chicken skewers – although I don’t eat it – I do taste it often to check the spice levels.
How would you describe your food philosophy?
It has changed a lot over time. In the last two years, for me personally, I look at food as what goes into my body – what does it do to me? For my customers, I try to have the same impact but again its difficult to go to that extreme. But I do like to have a few options for people who want to eat healthy ‘coz I know that as a family that is what we like.
What’s the best meal you’ve ever eaten?
Rat, when I was a kid, probably around 11 or 12 years old, in the woods. Me and my friends caught a rat and we killed it and we lit a fire and cooked the rat over it. We were playing something like survival practice and it was a dare as to who would eat it – so I tried some of it. Tasted like chicken actually, and it was a bit more burnt. I wouldn’t recommend it unless you needed to do it for survival purposes. But I can’t say it was a gourmet meal that I have ever had.
What’s the best meal you’ve ever eaten?
The best meal would probably be in 2012 when I went to New York and ate at NoMad which is the sister concern of Eleven Madison Park restaurant. I know the owners of NoMad and I called and told them that I was visiting it the next day. George Clooney was sat behind me and I thought I must be in a good place. I saw them going around the room with this chicken, and although I seldom ordered chicken at restaurants, but it looked really really good and I said to my dinging companion – lets share it – and it was probably one of the most memorable dishes I have ever had in my life. What they did was you stuff the chicken under the skin with foie gras, truffle, bread brioche crumbs and butter and since the skin has been lifted away from the breast it gets really nice and golden and they keep these chickens roasting throughout the day, so if you order one, it is presented to you and then they take it back to the kitchen and break it down. It then came with some asparagus, sweet corn, seasonal stuff – all cooked perfectly. And what they do with the chicken leg, is they take the leg meat off and bound it with a garlic cream with mashed potato and put it in a bowl. So you get the breast on the plate with the vegetables.
What’s your biggest guilty pleasure food?
I still like HP Sauce and I would have it with poached eggs on toast
If you were an ingredient what would you be, and why?
Kale because even today not many people know all the properties in it just like how there are many things within me that people still don’t know about me.
What’s the best piece of advice you have been given?
I have worked with some pretty good chefs who have mentored me well. But I think Gordon Ramsay used to always go on about how you should always lead by example and that is very true – people are watching you and I think even today I till follow that. I am still very cautious of people watching me when I do something.
Richard Smith used to say that you are only as good as your last table you are sending. Sometimes some Chefs by the end of the night get a bit bored and fed up and just throw the food on but Richard would always make sure that the last table you are still had the same attention and the same quality. Even if the kitchen is closed and that cheque comes through, you still treat it with the same respect as you did the first. Another piece of advice from Richard was to always cook as if it was for your mother.
If you weren’t a chef, or in the food business, what would you be?
If I knew what I know now it would most probably be a rugby player now that it’s a paid sport.
Most underrated ingredient? Cumin seeds. I think they add a nice dimension to dishes, a nice little hidden flavour in there. Sometimes I add them to salads and it just gives it a bit of life.
Best culinary tool? It would have to be a Water Bath Circulator. You plunge it into water and set the temperature to hold that water to a specific degree. We use it a lot of poaching our meats and fish and cooking things slowly.
A chef that inspires you? A chef that inspired me most when I was a young lad, who now comes in here to The Croft, quite often actually, is Gary Rhodes. When I was a young Chef I loved what he did with English cuisine, how he made it more modern. I bought his books as a kid, I used to try out loads of his recipes. I remember doing a cooking competition when I was young and winning one of Gary’s books with his signature in it – and I still have it.
Favourite cuisine? I do like sushi a lot – Japanese. More ‘coz its healthy and you don’t feel like you have eaten too heavily. I do like teppanyaki – love the flavours and the theatre of it.
One dish you can’t live without? I can’t do without my morning Mean Green juice – cucumber, kale, apple, ginger and celery. That’s my kick start to the day and have it instead of coffee.
What’s one food trend that needs to end? Buffets – I hate them. One, because they are anti-social if you are in a group. Second, the food looks just dull and boring and non-appetising after a while. And it’s just being lazy – people just do it for convenience, even the Chefs just do it because it’s easy.
Favourite food from your childhood/ Describe one of your first food memories. Blackberry Crumble. We used to go and pick the blackberries from the woods and mom would bake the crumble. Also at the back of our house we had an elderberry tree and mom would make an elderflower cordial and this is something I have on the menu at The Croft – it’s just one of the flavours that reminds me of my childhood.
Last thing you cooked for yourself? I did Salmon – pan fried with salt and pepper. Very simple, the kids had it with rice and we had it with salad and vegetables – broccoli.
Describe your cooking style in 3 words. At The Croft – Nostalgic, fun, innovative. At Home – Raw, organic and healthy.
THIS OR THAT
Food on a skewer or food in a tiny spoon?
Hot curry or haute cuisine?
Buffet or sit-down dinner?
Mints or gum?
Soup or salad?
Greek yogurt or labneh?
Butter or olive oil?
Chicken breast or chicken thigh?
Baked or fried?
Waffles or pancakes?
Lobster or steak?
And lastly, cake or pie?
Well, that’s that! Thank you. Thank you. Thank you!