A riot of tasty dishes with a sense of place
Christopher Archambault, exec chef, Headland Hotel.
There was a ‘riot’ when they tried to build a hotel on Towan Head in Newquay more than 100 years ago. Fishermen from the town demolished the footings saying the land had been used to dry their nets for generations.
Today the hotel that was built on this uncompromising headland is an iconic landmark, one of Newquay’s defining features, an award winner famous for quality and good food.
So taking over the post of executive chef at the Headland Hotel is a big responsibility for Christopher Archambault. Two restaurants, 300 covers, a complex series of inter-related menus to plan. He had been in post for just a few weeks when we met in the hotel’s kitchen. Christopher is originally from Canada, trained in Dublin and London before returning to Canada to take formal exams and prior to moving to Cornwall he worked at the Goodwood Estate in West Sussex.
His formative years were spent in a small rural community in Canada where the culinary influences were mainly Portuguese and Russian. His grandmother exposed him to French Canadian cooking and this could have been the catalyst for his interest in food which started before he can remember: “I’ve always been cooking, my grandmother taught me some French Canadian dishes, simple food but with a lot of finesse put into them. She would make pie but take the jelly off cooking the meat and set the jelly in a pie crust, it would taste fantastic.”
Christopher’s wife is from Cornwall so the arrival of the couple’s first child led to the question, where do we want our child to grow up? The answer was a couple of miles down the road from Newquay in the village of St Newlyn East. “We’ve lived there for just two weeks, but nothing has felt so right,” he explains, “I’ve always come down here, I love the Cornish coastline.”
The Headland Hotel is all about its location, with Fistral Beach on one side and Newquay Bay on the other and views all the way to the Quies at Trevose Head, it’s the landscape and seascape that set the tone. Christopher took a walk around the headland on one of his first mornings in post and returned with arms full of sea spinach (sea beet) and rock samphire. “I’m not Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall but from where I’ve come in London foraging is huge.
“The whole headland is covered in sea beet. It’s a little bit hardier than spinach so it cooks up nicer, spinach wilts to nothing but this stands up better, it’s healthier than spinach. And there’s rock samphire, people often know the marsh samphire but rock samphire has a unique flavour. You can just cut it up and use it in salads or fry it up or this here is pickled.” Pickled, it has a mild taste, less salty than when it’s fresh, a slight oregano flavour.
The Headland is a big hotel and Christopher explains that the menus interlock meaning if he changes one dish he must make other alterations as well. With up to 300 covers, menus have to be simple, but he says this has its benefits: “There’s nowhere to hide, each element of each dish has to be done exactly right.” He plans to introduce 90 new dishes which is going to present a huge challenge to his team: “Right now all those dishes are in my head, not in anyone else’s so I will have to work two weeks straight to get that to bed in.”
Creating the magic of small restaurant quality on this scale is no easy task, Christopher says the secret is letting members of his team have room to try out ideas if they show the necessary talent: “I think there should be room for chefs to think, I don’t just want robots in the kitchen.
“The biggest issue in the industry is staff retention. There are so many factors, but you get a young chef, he loves being a chef, but if he has to do the same thing every day, doesn’t get to think for himself and be part of the process, he gets bored. So, for example, we have a young girl from Austria, she’s 21-years-old, barely speaks English, but she is a rock star. She knows a lot of tricks that our main pastry chef doesn’t know. I’ve said to our pastry chef don’t be intimidated by it, steal everything she knows. Let’s let her put a couple of dishes on the menu. You have to nurture the ones that have got a good future.”
For the Fish Festival, Christopher plans to demonstrate a dish of local plaice fillet, saffron broth, chorizo and Headland sea vegetables. He admits he has no set recipe for this and so offers the following tips.
Start with the cherry tomatoes which have been torched briefly to blister the skin which is then removed to leave flesh which has become lovely and soft. They are then added briefly to a hot pan with chorizo and fried quickly to pick up the flavour of the chorizo oil.
Plaice was chosen because it is widely available. “It’s one of the less expensive flat fish. A lot of the demos cook turbot and John Dory, but your average person doesn’t have access to that so I’m doing something everyone can do, especially round here.
“I’ll pan fry that with some saffron broth and some clam stock that came from steaming the clams with a little fish stock. I’ll finish that with some gremolata which is my little black dress ingredient, one you can make and always pull out when you need it.”
Gremolata consists of finely chopped parsley, grated lemon zest and finely minced garlic. “Italians use that on everything, it’s great on pasta.” The dish also has sea spinach and rock samphire.
The plaice is seasoned with Cornish sea salt and cooked in a hot frying pan. The clams are steamed with a little white wine and a pinch of saffron. Once that has cooked for a minute some gremolata is added.
While the plaice sizzles away, and once the skin side down has had time to crisp up, Christopher adds a good dollop of butter to the pan which he then spoons over the fish to cook the top. The pan is very hot at this point and the butter quickly bastes the fish a gorgeous golden yellow. He explains: “I want to get the colour on it and to get a texture contrast, a crusty top that yields into the flesh underneath so I get it really going in the unsalted butter. You don’t want to burn the butter.”
The sea spinach is wilted by adding it for a few seconds to a hot dry pan. Christopher explains: “The way I cook the broth is the same as the spinach. A really hot pan, I just throw it in, a quick little wilt and take it off in a completely dry pan. I will use a little bit of butter at the end but not too much.” The cherry tomatoes go in with the broth but late on in the process so they don’t lose their shape.
To see how these ingredients combine on the plate take a look at the pictures. The dish is super healthy. You could add potatoes or patatas bravas to continue the Spanish theme, potatoes fried off with chilli, garlic and tomatoes. But Christopher’s view is try it without! n
To learn more make sure you catch his demonstration at this year’s Fish Festival at 2pm on Friday.