Eating Out: Chef Hill hits peak of success

Cavendish Hotel
Cavendish Hotel

It’s been all change in the Peak District this summer as some of the area’s key chefs swapped kitchens.

The final piece of the jigsaw is now in place as Alan Hill – formerly at the Devonshire Arms, Beeley – makes his mark on the Cavendish Hotel, Baslow... recently vacated by Michael Thompson.

Watermelon - Cavendish Hotel

Watermelon - Cavendish Hotel

Both venues are part of the Chatsworth Estate and Alan’s experience has ensured a seamless transition for diners. But the move has given him a fresh interest in his work.

“I want to enjoy cooking again – I think I’m actually doing my best food ever,” he says. “I spent years chasing rosettes and awards, but now I just want the customers to enjoy it.”

Alan’s first move was to simplify the menu and the presentation. But his skills remain old school – too much emphasis these days is put on water baths and fancy foams, he says: “I’ve gone back to cooking in pans. I like things to be cooked fresh and you get more flavour that way.”

Alan trained at High Peak College, then worked at top hotels around the north and midlands. He was at Fischer’s, Baslow Hall, when it first achieved its Michelin star; his first head chef’s post was at the Box Tree in Ilkley.

I want to enjoy cooking again – I think I’m doing my best food ever

Head chef Alan Hill

But when he spotted the Beeley job in 2006 he saw a chance to return to his roots.

He was at the Devonshire Arms for a decade, building up the business and its reputation. The Cavendish posed a fresh challenge and he has seized it, with the support of sous chef Steve Pratt.

At first glance nothing much seems to have changed, apart from the staff’s new country tweed uniforms. The air of quiet elegance and the beauty of the surrounding scenery has a timeless quality.

Diners can choose from the Gallery Restaurant, which offers a fixed price menu (three courses for £49.50), or the more relaxed Garden Room (three courses from £24 or sandwiches from £7).

Halibut - Cavendish Hotel

Halibut - Cavendish Hotel

We’ve been offered a taste of both, with an evening at the Kitchen Table – usually £85 per person, with optional wine flight at £29.95.

We generally carry out our reviews anonymously and only introduce ourselves after paying the bill, but when you’re spending an evening at the heart of the action and you’ve known the chef for 10 years, there’s not much chance of that...

Our comfortable corner booth, next to the pass, has its own air conditioning and polished wood table, but is very much a part of the kitchen.

Each chef is getting on with his own job and it’s fascinating to watch them chopping, cooking, tasting and plating at such close quarters.

Pastry chef Danny delivers his dessert - Cavendish Hotel KT

Pastry chef Danny delivers his dessert - Cavendish Hotel KT

There’s none of the “yes chef” malarkey we’ve grown used to on TV, but every so often Alan rallies his troops: “Right guys, let’s do it!”

We start with rich, meaty potted beef and fluffy bread rolls, freshly baked to a new recipe. Alan’s busy carving a main course of Chatsworth lamb, pink and juicy, marinaded in treacle and apple juice: “Here, taste this,” he says, putting a couple of slices on our plates. Yum!

Next up is Derbyshire garden salad – a colourful plate of tasty titbits including slices of heritage tomatoes and crisp baby carrot; curls of green and yellow courgette; fresh peas, still in the pod; slivers of crunchy runner bean; zingy raspberries and microherbs adding little bursts of flavour, with just a drizzle of lemon juice and olive oil and a little French dressing if we want it.

It’s sweet, crisp and fresh: “But not as fresh as it will be when I get the kitchen garden up and running,” promises Alan.

Foie gras isn’t to everyone’s taste (“Those chips look good,” mutters my companion), but I love it: it literally melts in the mouth. This comes with charred Roscoff onions, a shard of pork rind, burnt apple ketchup, sweet salted almonds and ‘tomato chewing gum’ – a paper-thin tomato tuile.

Fish course is a winner all round: meaty pan-fried halibut, beautifully seasoned, on a crisp julienned salad of kohlrabi, apple, sesame and coriander.

Food review at the Cavendish Hotel in Baslow. Pictured is head chef Alan Hill. Picture: Chris Etchells

Food review at the Cavendish Hotel in Baslow. Pictured is head chef Alan Hill. Picture: Chris Etchells

Main course of grouse is cooked on the rare side and served with contrasting flavours: a slice of bitter damson, sweet roast fig and fragrant juniper sauce. There’s also sweetcorn, green beans and pomme dauphine: mash mixed with choux pastry and deep fried to a crisp puff.

On to pre-dessert: a revelation of watermelon with strawberries and mint. It sounds simple, but it tastes divine, the melon compressed and infused with concentrated juices, intensifying both colour and flavour. It’s chilled, then chargrilled and finished with fresh mint and lemon balm – the perfect palate cleanser.

And finally dessert: billed as ‘peaches and cream’. Things went wrong in the preparation, it seems, so Alan and pastry chef Danny invented something new.

This bruléed peach has been compressed with Archers liqueur, producing a firm flesh with a rich, boozy sweetness, complemented by peach gel, iced vanilla mousse and crumbled amaretti biscuits.

It’s delicious; and refreshing to find such a fresh, light dessert. More please!

We finish our meal with coffee and petit fours in the lounge.

Cavendish Hotel, Baslow DE45 1SP (01246) 582311 Cavendish Hotel