A training in some of Britain’s best restaurants gave chef Nick Wilkes a clear understanding of the principles of fine dining.
His career began at the five-star Imperial Hotel in Torquay and he worked in kitchens across the country before arriving in Sheffield. Here he became a familiar face on the city’s culinary circuit, as head chef at restaurants from the Cricket Inn at Totley to the Inn at Troway.
It was a high pressure career, so many were surprised to hear he was leaving to take up a post as head chef at St Luke’s Hospice.
Three years on, Nick insists that it was the right move and one that provides a whole new set of extremely rewarding challenges.
In essence, he says, the job remains the same: ensuring that his diners receive the best service possible.
And when those diners are patients with very specialised dietary requirements, the challenge for the whole hospice kitchen team is to make sure those individual needs are fully catered for.
“That’s what makes this job so special,” he says. “We always aim to do whatever we can, no matter what the request might me. Everything is possible if you give it some thought.
“One patient, because of his illness, couldn’t swallow – he found it almost impossible to eat. We did some research and discovered that pineapple could be very soothing so we created some special pineapple smoothies that meant he could enjoy eating something for the first time in weeks. That’s when you know you’ve done a good job!”
Nick heads a team of five chefs who provide a full breakfast, lunch and dinner menu for patients – as well as catering for the needs of visitors and hospice staff.
“If we have patients who want a family dinner in their room then we cater for that,” says Nick.
“Birthday celebrations, Christmas dinners, we will do them all and I don’t think we’ve ever said no – in fact, I know we haven’t!”
The hospice team works with fresh, seasonal produce, all sourced locally if possible: the same philosophy Nick had in his years of the restaurant business. Every meal that goes out is individually plated and presented to the highest dining standards, creating an enjoyable experience.
The chefs also bake fresh breads and cakes daily for sale to patients, visitors and staff – a popular fundraiser.
“I came to the hospice looking for a different work life balance but I have found much more than that,” says Nick.
“I think the point is that I’m part of an organisation that is doing good and really puts the patient at the centre of everything we do – and that’s a great feeling.”
Ox Cheek Bourguignon
Ingredients (serves 4)
4 trimmed ox cheeks
1 bottle red wine
1 pint beef stock
1 white onion, roughly chopped
2 sticks celery, roughly chopped
5 cloves garlic
3 carrots, roughly chopped
bunch of thyme vegetable oil for cooking
4 slices thick bacon or pancetta
button mushrooms, sautéed
baby onions or banana shallots, peeled and roasted seasonal green veg
2 ½lb potatoes, preferably Maris Piper or King Edwards
½pt double cream 4oz butter, 1 bulb garlic 2 spears rosemary salt, pepper & nutmeg
This is a really simple dish to create – ideal for busy chefs – and one that always creates a great impression.
Seal ox cheeks in a pan with a little vegetable oil and place in a deep roasting tray.
Place roughly chopped veg on top of ox cheeks. Cover in red wine and beef stock and place in pre-heated oven at 160ºC for approx 3 hours.
When tender, remove from stock and place aside to rest.
Pass stock through a sieve or colander into a fresh pan and boil to reduce for jus.
To make the ideal mash garnish, bring potatoes to boil and cook until tender.
In a separate pan put double cream, butter, garlic and rosemary; boil and reduce.
Mash with boiled potatoes, adding salt, white pepper and nutmeg to taste.
For a stylish extra flourish, take four rashers of thick-cut bacon or pancetta and bake in the oven until crisp shards are formed.
Serve in individual bowls, with seasonal green vegetables.
My personal recommendation is that the best accompanying wine would be a good