It's hotting up! Meet the chefs putting Lichfield and Ludlow on the culinary map
You don’t need to have a long memory to recall the time when Ludlow was Food Central.
TV crews from around the world descended on the picturesque south Shropshire market town to dine at its three Michelin-starred restaurants. It chefs earned a place among the global elite and the multi-award-winning restaurants helped to boost the town’s economy as food tourists flocked like bees to a heather honey pot.
The golden era lasted for the best part of 10 years, starting just before the millennium before petering out as chefs moved away, retired or decided to do different things.
That’s not to say Ludlow no longer packs a punch. It does. It has three stand-out restaurants and three high quality chefs. But Ludlow isn’t the only bucolic market town that’s starting to attract the attention of discerning gourmands. Another small but perfectly formed destination beginning with the letter L is now equally deserving of acclaim. Lichfield is the cathedral city where things are getting hot in the kitchen as two local chefs lead the charge.
Liam Dillon’s The Boat Inn was recently named Britain’s Best Gastro Pub. The well-travelled chef is punching above his weight as he puts himself in the mix at awards ceremonies with such totemic British chefs as the TV star, best-selling author and two Michelin-starred cook Tom Kerridge. A few miles up the road, in the city itself, chef-patron Ryan Shilton is also making waves with starry food at Larder, in Bore Street. And lest we forget, just outside Lichfield is the venerable Swinfen Hall Hotel, a well-run venue that has retained three AA rosettes for longer than its owners might care to remember. It’s provided a springboard for a number of high quality chefs, including Shilton, and continues to excel.
Lichfield is on Michelin’s radar and inspectors have visited the area in recent times. If Dillon, Shilton and others continue to progress at their present rate, it might not be long before Lichfield finds itself enjoying the sort of acclaim that Ludlow once did.
Dillon is a fascinating character. Born and bred in Lichfield, he has been in the best restaurants of three separate continents and worked with some of the biggest name chefs in the world. He could be cooking at any number of restaurants around the world but decided to return home to start his own business.
“I grew up in Lichfield but I’d never cooked in Lichfield until I opened The Boat. This city is really important to me and I want to do something memorable. I want to do something positive and give people a reason to be proud of us.”
Dillon studied at the College of Food in Birmingham. His passion started as a child when his grandparents encouraged him into the kitchen while looking after him for his hard-working parents. “Mom and dad might be away working or working late so I’d be with my nan while she was getting the dinner ready.”
Dillon didn’t plan or intend to end up in a kitchen. After completing his A levels, he planned to sign up for the Marines or RAF. His father was a hobby pilot and he hoped to fly for the air force. But food was his biggest passion and so after a family meeting, he attended an open day at the Birmingham College of Food and signed up. For him, it wasn’t necessarily about the flavours, it was about being part of a team.
“I dropped right down and did an NVQ. I didn’t want to miss out on anything, so I did a foundation degree.”
An intellectually capable man, Dillon passed with flying colours and dived right in at the deep end. His first posting was the two Michelin star Berkley, in London, where Markus Wareing was the head chef. “I was at the bottom of the bottom. I was picking herbs and foraged ingredients. I was just a general dogsbody.”
Dillon witnessed first hand the chaotic scenes that can occur in kitchens when Wareing and his then-boss Gordon Ramsay had an altercation in the kitchen one day. “The restaurant was changing and one day Gordon and Markus were going at it. They were nose-to-nose. I was thinking ‘This could get tasty’.”
Dillon didn’t flinch. He was born to be in a kitchen. After seven months, he found himself on the wrong side of Wareing’s ‘hairdryer’ and feeling he’d been unjustly treated, decided to leave. “He took me in his office and went nuts at me. I stuck up for myself because the things he was saying were totally irrelevant to my work. I was doing 18 hours a day and I didn’t see the need to be treated that way. So I told my head chef I’d do one more weekend then be gone. It was a shame.”
And yet it was just a starting point. Dillon applied for a travel visa and jumped on an aeroplane to Australia, to work in that country’s best restaurant, Quay, overlooking Sydney Harbour Bridge and Sydney Opera House. They offered him a low-down position but he said no. “I told them I wasn’t going there as a Pom. I wanted to be in the mix, to do good work, to climb the ladder.”
He worked under the great Australian chef, Peter Gilmore, and learned a huge amount. “Peter was a very creative man and was a bit of an artist. Everything was pretty on the plate. You’d come in and there’d be a bag full of stuff from a farmer spread out across the table. His mind was going nuts with how he wanted things to look. Quay had their own farm. It was amazing. Everything you could ever wish for was there.” Dillon spent six months there, finishing when his visa expired.
Then he returned home and took up a post in Ludlow. The Michelin-starred Will Holland needed a new cook at La Becasse and Dillon took the job. “It was funny. I had a consultant who gave me four options and I went for Ludlow because it was close to Lichfield. It was a really good decision because Will taught me a lot and gave me responsibility, quickly promoting me.”
America was his next port of call. He earned a place at 11 Madison Park, in New York, which was then the eighth best restaurant in the world, though went onto become the best .”It was incredible. It was awesome. And they really tested me. They’d be telling me to cook a dish while the other guys were in the middle of service. I’d be going round the kitchen asking for ingredients and the guys would be telling me where to go because they were busy. It was tough but the standards were incredible.”
He went to another world-beating restaurant next, Noma, in Denmark, which has frequently been named the world’s best. “I was supposed to be there for three months but I left after two. It’s funny to say it, because it’s been named the world’s best so many times, but I didn’t feel I was getting anywhere there. I loved what they were doing but it wasn’t what I wanted to do.
“Then I got a call asking me to come back to the UK to do a restaurant opening in Chelsea.” The well-travelled chef once more found himself back on an aeroplane.
“Chelsea was a learning curve because it was part of a restaurant opening. My dream had always been to have my own place and I wanted to see how someone else had done it.”
The peripatetic chef found another kitchen to work in; the acclaimed, Michelin-starred Tom’s Storey, run by London tyro Tom Sellers. “It was awesome. It was back into the ‘getting you’re a- kicked’ environment and I enjoyed it. Everyone was running around. You’d only get the chance to sit down and eat if you’re lucky.”
Finally, he opened a pub in West Sussex for Sellers and then it was time to come home. He looked at sites in Birmingham and worked absurd hours so that he could buy stuff for his own place. “I was doing a stupid amount of work, but then when The Boat came up I was ready for it.”
Supported by his family, Dillon ploughed his life savings into the venture and put his own stamp on a place that had formerly been a spit and sawdust pub. “It was hard because the old clientele were still coming in asking for cheesy mushrooms on toast and I wasn’t doing that. We were creating an accessible restaurant that worked for people who wanted to come in for a light lunch right up to those coming in for a taster menu.
“I’d like to do more but I can’t go too complex because I don’t want to alienate guests and I need to do dishes that the kitchen can manage with. I don’t have an accolade yet that drives big chefs in yet. I’m trying to build a team and nurture the team. I’m not in London or Birmingham. It’s all about building it from scratch.”
And that’s precisely what Dillon is doing. His efforts have already been rewarded. Earlier this year he won the prestigious Estrella Damm Best New Gastropub 2019, beating a number of big-hitters to the award. And with Michelin hovering, few would bet against him bringing Lichfield’s first star to the city.
While Lichfield finds itself in the limelight, however, Ludlow continues to impress. Karl Martin, at Old Downton Lodge, has become one of just 48 restaurants in the UK to win four AA rosettes. The award puts him alongside such big hitters as the Roux’s Waterside Inn, Simon Radley at The Chester Grosvenor, Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester, Dinner by Heston Blumenthal and the much-loved Le Gavroche.
“I can’t believe it,” he says. “I’m totally overwhelmed by it. We’ve worked hard here at Old Downton Lodge for a number of years and it’s incredible that we’re starting to really do well. When you look at the other names who are on the four AA rosette list it’s very humbling. I honestly didn’t know what to say when I took the phone call, it’s just astonishing.”
He’s not the only chef in Ludlow who’s evoking memories of a bygone era. While Fishmore Hall continues to dazzle, another exceptional cook is Wayne Smith, at Mortimers, a go-it-alone chef-patron who has cooked for Michael Jackson, Will Smith and more Premiership footballers than he can remember. He’s knocked around, got drunk and fallen over with some of the most famous chefs that France and England have ever produced.
And if you ask him whether he’s done a lot in his time, or got a good CV, he’ll be sufficiently modest to say: “Nah, mate, I’m just a cook.”
Wayne creates superlative food at Mortimers, in Ludlow.
He’s recreating the sort of gastronomic memories that his great friend and former chef-in-arms Claude Bosi did, when the latter ran Hibiscus.
It’s not bad for a kid who started out as a potato peeler in Rotherham.
“I was a pot wash when I was 15 at a hotel in Rotherham. I went to college and the lecturer was a head chef. I ended up working for him,” recalls Wayne.
The early years of his career were brutal.
He’d be charged with peeling five bins full of potatoes – leaving his arms blue.
“It were up north – the punters like their chips there. The head chef had Exocet clogs. He’d throw them round corners and get you.”
He knew there had to be a better way. He did a three-month stage at La Tante Claire, Pierre Koffmann’s legendary London restaurant, before travelling to Australia then returning to the UK to cook for multiple Michelin star winner David Cavalier.
“David was the best guy I worked with. He won seven stars at seven places. He was incredible in terms of his skills. He had Chapter One, L’Escargot. He was a phenomenon, the best I’ve seen. He trained under Mossiman. He was really classic.”
From there, Wayne moved to central London and spent 18 months with the two Michelin star tyro Tom Aitkens. “I still speak to him now. I learned a lot.”
And then came Ludlow, where he replaced Claude Bosi at Overton Grange.
“We were very similar at the time, in terms of techniques. It was very classical cooking.”
He briefly moved away, working for the Queen of Brunei at Stapleford Park. “I cooked for Michael Jackson, Will Smith… you name it. They were flown in with Brunei money. We did a party once for 180 A-list celebrities. I cooked for them for four days.
“The person I was star struck by was Don Johnson because I loved Miami Vice. I talked to him about the alligator. He was the coolest man in the world. We did footballers weddings for people like Gareth Barry and Michael Carrick. I barbecued for the Mars family, the people who own Mars Bars.”
He opened Bentleys in Dublin, for Richard Corrigan. Then in Ludlow, he opened Mortimers – at the same address that Claude Bosi formerly ran Hibiscus.
“I never worked here until now. I used to come in on Saturday to drink with the boys. And I came in for a drink when Will Holland was here, too.
“It’s great to be creating beautiful dishes in such a gorgeous restaurant. Since we’ve opened, things have really progressed. We’re here for the long-term and we’re thrilled that people love our food.”
Smith has the starriest pedigree of any chef in Shropshire. He’s a class act.
There was a time when Ludlow ruled the roost.
But as we head towards the 2020s, Lichfield and Ludlow are both names on every discerning diners’ lips.