Chef Ashley Palmer-Watts is a Michelin star chef based in the UK and visits the city to launch Nairobi Restaurant Week 2017 as well as continue his work with Farm Africa. We interview him to understand his growth, approach to cooking and what he plans to do while in Kenya.
In YouTube videos and in person, Chef Ashley Palmer-Watts speaks as much with his hands as with his words, waving his hands around to pepper sentences with description and feeling. We interviewed Chef Ashley over email prior to his arrival in the city for Nairobi Restaurant Week 2017. Although we were unable to see his gesticulations, what is clear, even in his writing, is a thoughtfulness in his personality which manifests not only in his approach to the kitchen, but also in the reason for his connection to Kenya.
Growing up in Dorset, England, Chef Ashley’s love for food began with his love of the countryside and his familiarity with the seasons and produce of the British Isles. His culinary career started like many others, working an after school washing up job at a local restaurant at the age of thirteen. This job ignited Chef Ashley’s passion for cooking and once he finished high school, he began to work at Le Petit Canard in Dorset. It was here that Chef Ashley learned the fundamental disciplines of the kitchen while he spent most of his free time visiting producers and suppliers.
From his beginnings at Le Petit Canard, Chef Ashley’s career sky rocketed. In 1999 he joined British celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal at Heston’s restaurant The Fat Duck in Bray. At the time when Chef Ashley joined, the restaurant had just received one of the now three Michelin stars to its name. Within two years, Chef Ashley was promoted to Sous Chef and in 2003 he became Head Chef. By 2004, the restaurant had acquired three Michelin stars, which Chef Ashley says is one of his biggest accomplishments as a chef.
In 2008, Chef Ashley took on the role of the Executive Head Chef for The Fat Duck Group: this includes The Perfectionists’ Cafe, The Crown at Bray, The Hinds Head and of course, The Fat Duck. Chef Ashley remembers developing into the role of Executive Head Chef for The Fat Duck Group as being a pivotal moment in his career. The role led to opening pubs, casual dining restaurants, food styling projects for cookbooks as well as opening Dinner by Heston Blumenthal in London and Melbourne, all the while allowing him the opportunity to gain a varied body of knowledge in different operations and projects.
Currently, Chef Ashley heads up the kitchen at Dinner by Heston Blumenthal at the Mandarin Oriental in Hyde Park and in October of 2015 he opened Dinner by Heston Blumenthal in Melbourne Australia, the first restaurant outside of the UK.
In his kitchen, Chef Ashley is meticulous not only about ingredients, but also about infusing the cultural and historical tradition of a place into a meal. This means taking an almost academic approach to the kitchen: reading voraciously and working with historians in the field of food and culture. For the Nairobi Restaurant Week launch, he has helped design canapés that bring a distinctly Kenyan element to the fine dining experience.
In 2012, Chef Ashley visited Kenya to explore the work done by Farm Africa in the western part of the country. During the trip, he had the chance to experience what it was like to live and work in a rural Kenyan community — including going fishing in one of the fish ponds and eating a meal of githeri after a morning out in the farm. He also worked with Joyce Kadenge, one of the smallholder farmers supported by Farm Africa, to build a sustainable fish farming business. When he returned this year to launch Nairobi Restaurant Week 2017, alongside Chef Dennis Mwakulua, a highlight of his return trip was visiting her farm again. There, he found that Joyce and her family now operate two fish ponds and through the second fish pond, have generated enough income to build a third one and to send her three grandchildren to school.
“My role with Farm Africa is supporting their great work and helping to spread awareness of their story whilst bringing together others in our industry to help raise funds and aid the ongoing cause” says Chef Ashley of working with Farm Africa. We asked Chef Ashley what his advice to upcoming chefs would be and he said this, “Take your time and build a solid base of both modern and classic techniques and work with those and fully understand them and learn as much as possible.”