Beyond its teal-blue bays, dramatic castles and rolling hills, Cornwall has long been known for its vibrant foodie scene. Maybe it’s something to do with the micro-climate – meaning this this corner of England is perhaps the most ripe territory for farmers and growers. Barns-turned-farm shops, laden with rainbow-hued vegetables, are dotted everywhere; local dairies churn out clotted cream, ice creams and delicious cheeses; and ‘kitchen-industries’ are thriving, from pasty-makers to local gin companies. It goes without saying, of course, that the seafood – straight from the ocean – is exceptional.
Then again, maybe it’s something to do with the coastal-chic, laid-back vibe that Cornwall has, and which is attracting a line-up of chefs fresh from their urban successes. What’s not to love about decamping to this picturesque destination, particularly when it means cooking up a storm in quaint kitchens and historic seaside townhouses?
Leading the charge was, of course, the godfather of the scene – Rick Stein – who opened his first Padstow restaurant in 1975. Since then, heavyweights – Paul Ainsworth and Nathan Outlaw – have been calling in gastronomes from far and wide, due to their refined reinventions of local produce.
The current, ‘third wave’ of West Country culinary wizards, meanwhile, have more of a bare-foot, down-to-earth appeal. The remote Coombeshead Farm, for instance, is a five-bedroom Georgian guesthouse, set in six acres of idyllic countryside, close to Dartmoor. Overseen by two top-of-their-game chefs, April Bloomfield and Tom Adams, it has been proclaimed the UK’s best farm-to-fork restaurant.
While Tolcarne Inn, in the fishing port of Newlyn, is chef Ben Tunnicliffe’s reimagination of a historic maritime pub, focusing on freshly-caught fish and ingredients from small, local growers.
Meanwhile, in St Mawes – recently voted the best seaside town in the UK in 2020 – The Idle Rocks boutique hotel is also making its own waves (pun intended) on the coastal scene. A beachy design ethos – think jaunty stripes and pops of colour, by co-owner Karen Richards – is set against its spectacular location, perched on the pretty harbourside. The 19 bedrooms with their relaxed ambiance give a home-from-home feel, with the highlight being its award-winning restaurant. Headed up by executive chef Dorian Janmaat, who previously worked at Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons for eight years before returning to his home county of Cornwall, he has a focus on immaculate, Italian-style small plates, handmade pasta, using the finest local seafood, as well as freshly-baked, artisan pizzas.
Here, for Forbes, he discusses the continuing Cornish foodie phenomenon.
What does ‘Cornish cuisine’ mean to you?
For me, and many other chefs in the county, Cornish cuisine means fresh, local and seasonal. We are so lucky to have some of the best producers and suppliers on our doorstep. From day-boat-caught seafood to fantastic dairy farmers, not to forget the Cornish vineyards creating outstanding wines – we truly have some of the best produce in the UK, if not the world, to offer our guests.
What stands this region apart from others in the UK?
I believe it is down to our location, climate and terrain. Not only is the entire county stunning, with so much to see and do (even on a wet and windy day), but we have so many great independent restaurants serving amazing food.
There seems to have been an increasing ‘foodie’ movement in Cornwall over the past few years. Have you noticed the difference in new restaurants and chefs in the region?
Most definitely! From when I was studying at Cornwall College to now, there is a huge difference. People have come to realise the Cornwall food scene is more than just pasties or scones (with jam then cream, please!).
Talented chefs, such as Paul Ainsworth and Nathan Outlaw, gaining Michelin stars with their delicious, local food, have well and truly put Cornwall on the map. I also hope that after this summer, where we’ve seen an increase in ‘staycations’, people may change their habits and not necessarily jump straight on a plane to go on holiday, but instead they will come and visit the south-west. Our village of St Mawes on a hot summer’s day is pretty much like being in the South of France!
What’s most exciting about working in Cornwall?
Being by the sea, and having so much choice when it comes to an abundance of produce to develop dishes, never gets boring. Also, the work-life balance is great – paddle-boarding, sailing, catching up with old friends – it makes my days off even better.
Working with Raymond Blanc must have also been inspiring. What main things did you take away from that experience?
Le Manoir is an institution – one of the finest training grounds for chefs in the world. I wouldn’t be the chef I am today if it were not for Raymond and Gary Jones, executive head chef. As a young chef, understanding Raymond’s passion, the importance of seasonality, simplicity of dishes and the use of quality, local ingredients is something that will stay with me forever. It has also defined me now as an executive head chef in my own right.
Raymond is big on mentoring young chefs – is this something you are also passionate about?
Mentoring is the most important experience I took away from my eight years with him. Starting at Le Manoir as a commis chef and working my way through the ranks, meant that eventually, as head chef, I was able to pass on all of my knowledge and guide the new young chefs through their time. Now, developing and guiding my team at The Idle Rocks is something I am so passionate about. I want to help them all to become the best chefs they possibly can.
What is the USP of The Idle Rocks?
Once you walk through the front door it speaks for itself. The interior instantly helps you to relax and feels at home. All of our team are friendly and knowledgeable. Our location is unlike anywhere else, sitting out on the terrace, with a cocktail, looking across the harbour – there’s nothing better. Oh, and the food is pretty good, too!
As executive head chef, what is your style in running a busy kitchen?
Calm. When guests come into my kitchen during service, they’re surprised at how quiet it is. My team are amazing, they know what needs to be done and if something doesn’t quite go to plan, then screaming and shouting would be totally pointless.
What is your signature dish at The Idle Rocks?
I wouldn’t say I have one signature dish. But my favourite plates are usually focused on seafood – of course! Having fresh fish and shellfish delivered in the morning, prepping and serving it to guests that same evening, is amazing. Some guests may say our ‘reef-knot’ pretzel bread is a signature. We shape the pretzel dough into a reef-knot and serve it with a miso butter and sesame seeds. It’s always a crowd pleaser and a great start to the meal.
What gets you out of bed in the morning?
Everyday is so different and that’s what I like. Being in the kitchen, encouraging the team and giving our guests a great experience is what keeps me challenging myself.
What do you cook for yourself on your day off?
I love to BBQ! It’s relaxing just to take the time to make some nice marinades and salads, and to cook with a beer in your hand, looking out over the sea. It also saves having to wash up loads of pots and pans!
Do you have a secret foodie address in Cornwall you can share?
It’s not so secret, as it’s become one of the go-to spots in south Cornwall, but the Hidden Hut, in the nearby village of Portscatho, is a must. Simon Stallard is an incredible talent, and you will have one of the best chowders with local crab and smoked haddock. Or if you’re lucky you’ll get a seat at one of the ‘feast nights’ held on the beach during the summer.
Is travel something you are passionate about?
Most definitely! As a child, my family moved to Spain, which is where I went to primary school, before returning home to Cornwall to study at college. As a teenager, I jumped at the first opportunity get on a plane and I went travelling around Australia, Vietnam and Thailand for six months. I must have tried ever delicacy around! Now, my parents both live abroad, and every time I visit, the first thing we do is head to the market, check-out all of the incredible produce and plan our meals for the week. Even when I’m on holiday, I still love to cook!
What other world-cuisine interests you?
I love experimenting with new flavours and textures. At the moment I’m using some Asian influences in my dishes – for example, dashi and yuzu in our blowtorched mackerel dish. The acidity of the yuzu cuts through the mackerel perfectly, and the dashi glaze add sweetness to give the dish a real umami taste.
Is there anywhere you want to visit because of the food?
I’d love to go back to Asia again. The spices and flavours of Asian cuisine are something I love, and I do draw influence from.
What is next for you?
After all the events of this year – who knows! I’ve decided not to plan too far ahead! But I can say that myself, and all of the incredible team at The Idle Rocks, will continue to give our guests the very best and most memorable experiences we can. Oh, and I had better mention I am planning my wedding, too, for later next year, otherwise my fiancée won’t be too impressed!