Tristan Welch – Chef Director at the playful Parker’s Tavern at the University Arms luxury hotel in Cambridge
Tristan Welch is Chef Director at the playful Parker’s Tavern at the University Arms luxury hotel in Cambridge, UK. At this seasonal, locavorian and British-focused – nothing to do with Brexit, though, he is quick to add – restaurant he cooks classics with a whimsical twist, and is single-handedly trying to revive the historical Duke of Cambridge tart.
Tristan trained under Gary Rhodes and went on to join Le Gavroche, working under the guidance of Michel Roux Jr. He then moved to Paris to continue his culinary training at the avant-garde, three-Michelin-starred vegetarian restaurant L’Arpege. He returned to the UK to take on his first Head Chef role at the award-winning five-star Glenapp Castle in Scotland. Following this, Tristan took on the role as Head Chef at Gordon Ramsay’s prestigious Petrus at The Berkeley. In 2008, Tristan opened his first restaurant, Launceston Place, where he created a relaxed modern British menu that was received with rave reviews. Later, he moved to Mustique, a small Caribbean island, where he was Executive Chef at the island’s only resort, The Cotton House, a hotspot for royals, VIPs and celebrities.
Now, we catch up with Tristan back in his hometown of Cambridge.
So Tristan, over the years, you’ve trained with some of the world’s great chefs – who taught you the most?
I have worked with so many excellent chefs. Gary Rhodes taught me consistency – how important it is as a chef to cook with consistent quality. Michel Roux Jnr at La Gavroche taught me how to be a really good cook – the vital building blocks for the chef, or cook, I am today. Gordon Ramsay taught me unbeatable, unstoppable drive, for sure. And living and working in the Caribbean I learned how to focus on the fantastic things you have on your doorstep.
Were there any very difficult scenarios you dealt with as a chef?
There have been many over the years. As my cousin, who is also a chef, once upon a time said, keep your eyes and ears open and watch the other chefs. Learn from their mistakes and put yourself in position where you are not going to get into the same trouble as them. I have long followed that very wise advice.
There were also fun times when, for example, half a cow turn up on my doorstep at La Gavroche, and I turned to Michel Roux Jnr and said, “I don’t know how I’m going to do this!”. But there are always things that can be achieved with the right attitude.
After opening your own restaurant, Launceston Place, you took some time out to spend with your family before moving to the other side of the world – the Caribbean. That must’ve been so different from the UK. What were the challenges?
When I first moved out there, management asked me what I would like in my containers from Italy that year. I was shocked. There was no way that I was going to have a shipment from the other side of the world.
But I soon realised the island was a bit of a culinary desert. So started from the ground up. After visiting local markets and connecting with local people, I built up relationships with farmers and fisherman. We then managed to make a whole restaurant from local products. We made them a feature of the restaurant. We had sensational fish straight from the water and made amazing fresh fish carpaccio, sashimi, ceviche. It’s safe to say there’s a fair bit of coconut and fish in the Caribbean – they’re two of the main staple ingredients.
St Vincent and the Grenadines is really the garden of the Caribbean, with amazing soil. We grew fantastic vegetables, such as chard, avocado, tomatoes. Our focus on seasonal, local produce made us unique. It was a community thing: the staff’s grandmothers would be selling us chillies. It was a massive challenge in the beginning, setting up the supply chain, and quality and consistency is a challenge there.
Were there any cultural difficulties in the kitchen?
What I had learned about leading a team before – forget it. I realised you have to change your culture to get in the right frame of mind to create a hospitality experience for your guests.
The local work force was a challenge – we struggled to get chefs with formal training, even waiters with training. We had to take plumbers, farm hands, labourers, and train them ourselves. My best pizza guy, he was pizza spinner by day, and rapper by night at a local club. My grill chef was a fisherman at the weekends.
We all had a fabulous ‘make do and mend’ attitude. And it proves you can create anything with a team – you just have to lead them in the correct way. And nobody knows what the correct way is until you start.
Now you’re back in the UK, in your hometown – what’s it like being back after time in the Caribbean?
Yes, I’m back home in Cambridge. It was cold in beginning, ha ha, but it’s really nice to be back home, and cook British produce, the produce I was brought up with, and I’m trained with and comfortable with. It’s the produce that inspired me to cook in the first place. Cooking British food in my home town is exactly where I want to be.
At Parker’s Tavern you’re now focused on British – anything to do with Brexit?
Ha ha, not at all, we live in defiance over this side! The focus on British produce is because I have a slight allergy to things that travel too far, and I’m passionate about regionality. I love it when you go to France and have apples in Normandy, prunes in Argence, and beef from Limousin, and I’m passionate about our own regionality, saying this is where we come from and I’m proud of it. But definitely not in a Brexiteering kind of way.
With everything on the menu being seasonal, and sourced locally from Cambridge and East Anglia, how do you overcome a lack of fresh produce during winter?
You have to be a bit resourceful, as obviously there isn’t as much abundance of produce as in summer. But there’s fabulous winter veg, like celeriac, swede, cavalo nero, leeks and onions, and then there are things like chestnuts. You have to be more resourceful – know what’s available and utilise it – this what makes us seasonal.
Please name two or three local, small and specialised partners you source from.
Two off the top of my head are Cambridge Gin and the Calvinist brewery, who brew our beer for us. Then we use Baron Bigon cheese, which is not far away. And our salmon we get smoked at Chapel and Swan – a super local smoker. Our cauliflower, celery and leeks are all grown locally. We use one main supplier, and he sources from local farms from us.
You’re trying to bring back the Duke of Cambridge Tart – why the passion for this tart?
Ah, my passion! I’ve looked into the history of the tart, and it’s one of the oldest in the UK, predating Britain’s famous Bakewell tart, which I grew up with and love – the icing, the jam, the almonds. I found a few very old recipes for the Duke of Cambridge tart – and they are disgusting. Very dry and buttery. But the ingredients, brown sugar, butter, breadcrumbs and candied peels, these are all fantastic flavours, so I brought the recipe up to the modern day – everything has a revamp every now and then. We set ourselves the task to not reinvent the tart, but to make it delicious.
It took us 33 recipes to get right. We now have a marmalade and candied peel base, with a brown sugar and butter custard, which we bake in oven. So you get a citrusy kick from the candied peel, then rich sugariness from the tart – it encompasses all the flavours of Duke of Cambridge tart, but in a delicious manner.
That certainly sounds delicious, and we hope the Duke of Cambridge tart becomes more famous than the Bakewell, one day. Thank you, Chef Tristan.
The exact recipe for the Duke of Cambridge tart is a secret, but here Tristan shares his recipe for watercress soup with apple and walnuts.
Parker’s Tavern opened in August 2018 and is a beautiful, flamboyant destination restaurant where everything served has British origins, with ingredients provided by Cambridge and East Anglian producers. The restaurant overlooks Parker’s Piece and has been designed by Martin Brudnizki to feel as though it belongs to Cambridge with the feel of a university college. The impression is akin to eating in halls, except that there are chairs with blue velvet and burned orange linen, sofas in burgundy wool mixed with red leather Chesterfields, white marble, pewter and Cambridge blues. There iare 110 covers in the restaurant and 61 in the bar and the food menu consists of a selection of new modern classics, complimented by a seasonally changing menu, which will be “as unpredictable as mother nature”.
Are you an ambitious cook with a desire for a fulfilling career? Are you interested in working at Parker’s Tavern? Check out job vacancies at https://parkerstavern.com/parkers-tavern-careers.