Nick Hodges, 38, was one of the first chefs to be involved in the Falmouth Oyster from its earliest inception in 1997. The idea was developed to celebrate both the start of the oyster-dredging season – one of the last remaining traditional oyster fisheries dredging by sail and hand punt – but also as a means to generate an off-season tourism boost to the area. The aim was to highlight the local food scene and showcase the area’s local chefs and has grown into a 4-day festival.
Each year, a cookery master-class from a celebrity chef – this year Valentine Warner, food writer and star of BBC Two’s ‘What To Eat Now’ series – followed by a book signing, opens the festival. Packed with cookery demonstrations by leading local chefs, oysters, seafood, wine and local ale, children’s shell painting, sea shanties, a town parade, and live music, an oyster shucking competition, a Falmouth Working Boat race and marquees brimming with Cornish produce; the festival has become is a must for all oyster, seafood and maritime heritage enthusiasts. Alongside the festival, an increasing number of Cornish food and drink producers promote their quality produce alongside the longstanding craft fair stalls in the festival marquee.
“The last ten years has seen an enormous change in Cornwall’s food industry,” Nick explains, “The County now has a growing reputation as a gourmet destination which puts us second only now to London. We have unsung heroes, such as Henry Ashworth at Watergate Bay, to thank for his brilliant promotion and marketing Cornwall as an all round destination for our food.” Nick goes on to say that the north Coast “became the first part of Cornwall with a lucrative chain of fine restaurants from Padstow to Watergate Bay which became know as the ‘gastro tour’. Visitors, in a bid to secure tables, would book weeks in advance of their holiday in order to make sure that they could eat in each of the different restaurants every night. The South Coast’s food reputation came a little later but has now caught up completely,” he says, “It is really in our interests, if we are to continue to promote Cornwall as an all year round food destination to have whole areas where there are clusters of fantastic places to eat in close proximity to one another.”
Nick is a homegrown talent who grew up in Falmouth. His career path has taken him out of county with an apprenticeship with Jean-Christophe Novelli and he was also chef-manager of Keith Floyd’s pub and restaurant, the Maltsters Arms in Totnes. Then back to Cornwall to enhance the reputations of hotels such as the Royal Duchy and the Carlyon Bay. At 26 years old he opened his first restaurant Powell’s Cellar in Falmouth where in the first year he gained 2 Rosettes. It was while here that he started his association with the Falmouth Oyster Festival, and continued to become one of the chefs that people would wish to see competing. More recently he ran the Beach Hut on Watergate Bay and the restaurant at Lusty Glaze. Nick’s recent move back to Falmouth in May to take up the post as the Executive Head Chef at St. Michael’s Flying Fish Restaurant has become a personal journey home for himself and family.
“The job of a chef is so different now to what we had ten years ago. The problem in attracting and keeping the best talent in Cornwall lay with sustaining restaurants in the off-season. I couldn’t have got a mortgage back then, as my salary was low and my income would have been too precarious. Now my responsibility, as the head of a team of twelve, is for their job security, training and progression in the industry as well as developing and growing the restaurant’s reputation so that it can flourish all year round.”
I found Nick to be a particularly relaxed chef who proclaimed that he would be happy to talk about cooking and food all day long. Food in Cornwall and the food scene is increasingly unique in its own right. In Cornwall, the portion sizes are generally always bigger than you will find elsewhere. The philosophy is that if you have been outside all day in the sea or surfing, you’ll be a bit hungrier. Plus, there is so much good local produce in abundance here it would be an injustice not to reflect that. His own style he describes as ‘Modern Cornish with a Mediterranean influence.’
“The emphasis here in Cornwall, is always on seasonality, the freshest ingredients and using suppliers within a 25-mile radius.” He tells me, “The relationship that chefs have with their suppliers is extremely important. We visit them, we show them what we want and find out what they can supply and when. I make sure that my team go out with me and see where the food is grown. It is important that they understand this too. The other unique part is that we really believe in encouraging our young chef’s to learn and to develop their talents,” Nick says, “ A big part of my role is training, going and working in other restaurants is encouraged. Not only do they bring back new skills that refresh our own team, it also allows them to progress through the ranks. I have a very big black book full of numbers. If I need to employ someone, I start ringing round first to find out what people are doing.”
During the festival Nick will be taken part in the ‘Hot Chefs Challenge’ with his good friend Arty Williams from the Cove restaurant at Maenporth. It takes the form of a ‘Ready Steady Cook’ type of event where winners from a Pirate FM radio competition buy £30 worth of produce from within the show. “I have everything from a whole red mullet, a pumpkin to a chocolate lollipop from which we have to prepare and cook 3 courses in a hour.”
Now that sounds like something that has to be seen.
For Further information:
Falmouth Oyster Festival, Events Square, Falmouth
14th – 17th October 2010