'Grandma Taught Me Everything': Inside the Kitchen with a 'MasterChef' Veteran
If Sam Hughes (above) looks familiar, you probably remember him from his appearance on “MasterChef: The Professionals” a few years back. These days he’s the chef-proprietor of La Perle restaurant in Milford on Sea, Hampshire.
We’re big fans of La Perle (and not just because we’re running this rather excellent dinner-for-2 deal for £39) so we thought we’d have a chat with him in a bid to discover how to cook like a pro, getting tips from your grandma, and if “MasterChef” really is as terrifying an experience as it appears.
What’s the very first thing you remember cooking?
Probably an omelette… is that exciting? That’s the only thing my mum would ever let me cook. Until I started college I wasn’t really interested in cooking. A friend of mine was doing it and then I really fell in love with it. Also my grandma was a chef in the Second World War – maybe a little bit of that rubbed off on me.
You worked with Raymond Blanc. What’s the most important thing you learned from him?
Simplicity. Learning when to stop putting things on a plate, learning to let the natural flavours of the food really come through. For example, when you’re cooking a piece of turbot, it should really be the star of the dish and should only have a few accompaniments as opposed to it being lost amongst many different garnishes and too may techniques on one plate. Also knowing the provenance of your food, knowing where everything comes from is really important. We try to keep everything as seasonal and local as we can which ties in with the philosophy of the restaurant as well.
What’s the secret to great presentation on the plate?
That’s a really good question! My secret? Erm, probably simplicity again. Maybe trying not to make things look as they aren’t, if that makes sense? I think quite often when you go to a restaurant there are lots of things on the plate, but you cant really recognise what they are because they (the chefs) have spent so long turning them into different shapes and sizes.
How would you describe your style of cooking?
Very, very seasonal, very local – 90% of our menu is sourced in Dorset and Hampshire. Quite simply, we try to use the very best ingredients and really make them sing on the plate.
What’s your favourite restaurant (other than your own)?
I’m trying to think of which is my absolute favourite to go to… it has probably got to be Arbutus in Soho. The chef there does very classical French cookery and it is really superb. He uses lots of offal, which I quite like. I try to go as often as possible, which isn’t easy these days! I used to go there a lot more when I was living in London.
Who is the chef you most admire?
Grandma - she taught me some things when I started cooking. I try to make her famous sherry trifle every Christmas for my family. I have her recipe book in a very safe place as it’s not allowed to go anywhere near the kitchen or it will get ruined. It’s all really interesting; it was all about cooking for the troops in the Second World War, so she was cooking for huge amounts of people with very bad ingredients.
Do you have a signature dish?
Definitely not! Probably my favourite thing to cook is shellfish; I love the freshness and the flavour of it. I also think it requires more skill to cook fish and shellfish really, really well. That’s the thing I enjoy cooking the most.
Was the pressure on “MasterChef” greater than the pressure you feel running your own kitchen?
Definitely. I think when I was young and doing my apprenticeship I used to find the pressure a lot, but now I’m older I really don’t feel the pressure as much. I think with time you just get better at your job. The main pressure on “MasterChef” was that you didn’t have a clue what you were doing, you didn’t know where anything was, you didn’t know how your ovens worked and they just sort of thrust you out into this room. It is exactly as you see it on TV. They just say “get on with it” and it is a hell of a lot of pressure. There’s the time aspect as well so you see me charging around a lot and you’ve got cameras in your face everywhere.
I suppose you don’t have cameras in your kitchen most of the time?
Yeah, except when Travelzoo are here!
Do you have any plans to appear on any other shows, possibly present your own?
I think you have to be invited in order to go on TV shows! I did quite enjoy it - and obviously now I’ve just bought my first restaurant any opportunity to promote that would be incredibly beneficial - but I certainly don’t have any time to do lots of TV work. However, I think anybody who said it didn’t appeal to them would be lying; it’s a hell of a lot easier than spending 18 hours in the kitchen! So I suppose the answer would be yes, I'd love to do some television work!
Could you see yourself as a “MasterChef” judge?
No, I’m too nice. I would definitely have to work on my death stare.