A taste for adventure: Peter Harrison
PUBLISHED: 10:00 26 September 2016
The Aldeburgh Food and Drink Festival brings some of the most ‘of the moment’ chefs to Snape Maltings to share their ideas and wisdom. But Snape already has one of the country’s most outstanding chefs running its kitchens. Frances Hopewell-Smith talked to the talented and innovative Peter Harrison about his bold new venture
I have to confess to something of a bias. I’ve known Peter Harrison for a long time now, and am a huge admirer of his cooking. He is a chef of outstanding ability, skill and artistry who has never failed to deliver a fine plate of food, whatever the circumstances.
For those who don’t know, Peter Harrison has a fine pedigree. He has spent all his working life cooking, starting in France before making a name for himself in London. The arrival of his children motivated a move to Suffolk and the beginning of a new phase of his life and his successful restaurant, Harrison’s, at Kelsale.
A few years ago, shortly after regretfully deciding to close the restaurant, Peter agreed to do two pop-up suppers for charity. With usual aplomb he took over first my friend’s kitchen, and then, two weeks later, mine, and presented two amazing three-course dinners for our guests. We raised lots of money and the evenings were all round good fun. And he’d brought someone to do the clearing up.
Since then Peter has cemented his place in the county’s culinary pantheon. He is known for his Saturday Suppers at Brick Kiln Barn, when he caters for around 60 people a time and gives them the very best of local, seasonal food.
“Of course,” he says, “being in Suffolk there’s a lot of great ingredients to choose from, all within collecting distance.” He’s a one-man champion of all the great food in the county and believes wholeheartedly in its goodness and value.
We arrange to meet at Snape Maltings, home to Peter’s latest undertaking. Harry Young, general manager of Aldeburgh Music, now owners of the Maltings, has big ambitions and a mission “to grow and extend the strong reputation of Snape Maltings as a destination for people who love food”.
Snape already has a solid following among lovers of good food. The monthly farmers’ markets are hugely popular and, as Harry says, “we are associated with the best of Suffolk’s produce, which culminates in the annual Aldeburgh Food and Drink Festival. It’s a wonderful event and we’re so proud to host it”.
He wisely decided to recruit “Suffolk’s best chef” to work with the team to trial the Concert Hall Café until October 2016. The view is one of the most enchanting and beautiful in the county, over the reed beds and woods with the river Alde meandering among them. At night the reeds are illuminated and the sight is breathtaking. Peter’s been executive chef since April 2016 and is striving to make his mark.
“We have to offer something for everyone here,” he says. “The Granary Tea Room is always busy – a lot of cyclists and dog walkers like to stop there – but the new Concert Hall Café has a different role with much more adventurous food, lunches and breakfasts, which are a bit out of the ordinary.”
When I arrive Peter is making notes for yet another weekend of cooking for hundreds. He’s gathered a handful of reliable and capable people to help him and happily takes on several events every weekend. We deliberate over his age, (how can he not know? I know to the second) doing quick sums to work out he’s now 49, then get down to business. I ask him his pet hates in the food world and I mis-hear ‘phones’.
“No, foams,” he says patiently, “and smears, you know, those swhooshes of stuff on a plate which don’t seem to add anything to a dish.” His current favourites are easier. “Pump Street Bakery chocolate, the 75% Jamaican is my favourite and I feel privileged to be able to use it.
Chris Brennan makes it just up the road using beans he’s sourced himself. Then nearby Maple Farm’s spelt, which is wholesome and just about as organic as you can get, and a white fish from Maximus called Smoothound, which is so dense and so tasty.” Peter’s rhapsodising, but in essence his favourites are all very lovely and very local.
Peter, like all top chefs, is constantly exploring and experimenting. He went away for two weeks recently to learn to make sushi. It’s one of his new ‘things’, along with asado, the traditional Argentine art of cooking on an open fire. But his heart belongs in Suffolk. He’s happy, he says, working like this, each day bringing different challenges and chances for him to try new recipes.
“I just love it. The cooking is the fun part, and I never get tired of being full speed in the kitchen, getting recipes together and making great food.” Earlier this year he was the capable chef at the Art for Cure exhibition at Glemham Hall – canapés for 400 and more than 300 three-course lunches, all from a tiny space behind the marquee.
Then at Jason Gathorne-Hardy’s Alde Valley Festival Peter turned his hand to farm suppers, using all local ingredients to cater for 400 at the art exhibition preview, and another 500 over the month-long festival. Having experienced both, I can vouch for the uncompromising deliciousness of the food, which in the circumstances is quite miraculous.
But it is the new role at Snape that is extending his skills. The team of 20 in three locations know their stuff and whether in the 1885 Café, the Tea Room or the new Concert Hall Café Peter can rely on them to do their jobs well. He is responsible for co-ordinating the look, style and menus for all, and tasked to introduce new and exciting lunches to the visitors, while still keeping the old favourites.
“Luckily there’s a choice for people who come here so I can be more modern and unusual with my ideas at the Concert Hall Café. I’d like to see the terrace full every day with visitors enjoying something different for breakfast or lunch. It’s such a fantastic place – I just want to make it perfect.”