Mark Veale draws the veil on what it’s really like working and cooking in a haunted castle

After recently dining on a sumptuous three-course meal, fit for royalty, I was keen to get to know the chef behind such dishes as battered eel and venison haunch carpaccio with juniper baked celeriac.  We pinned down the man responsible: Mark Veale, head chef at Thornbury Castle to find out the key to his success and what really gets him going in the kitchen. 

The restaurant is aiming for three AA rosettes in 2015 and deservedly so; not only is it set in England’s only Tudor castle but Mark’s ingredients consist of produce grown within the castle grounds and wine from the castle’s vineyard. Mark trained with some culinary greats, so not only does he have great credentials, but he’s also a jolly nice chap – certainly an inspiring man to catch at a cookery demonstration this year.

You’ve worked with some pretty big names in the food world, who has inspired you most and why?

My experience working alongside Stuart Gillies when I was at Boxwood Café was incredible. Stuart’s passion for fresh seasonal food was inspiring. I also had the pleasure of working with Nathan Johnson (now of Felix in Australia), which was a great honour. Nathan knew just how to get the best out of the team.

You mentioned that you try to educate and train your staff by taking them to the fish market and improving their knowledge of both wine and the food that they prepare. Do you think every chef has an obligation to educate others about good food, nutrition and fine wines?

I’m not sure it’s an obligation – for me it feels natural to guide the younger chefs in the right direction within the industry. If a chef isn’t fully committed, this industry will soon reveal that fact, and they won’t be a chef for long. However, when a young chef wants to learn and find out more and more about the catering world it’s a fantastic feeling. A large part of my own of achievement is to witness the brilliant things that members of my team have gone on to achieve for themselves; it’s so rewarding. 

What’s your favourite dining destination?

I have the most amazing memory of eating at the three-star Per Se Restaurant in New York – it was incredible. More recently I dined at Menu Gordon Jones in Bath and that was equally fantastic. Gordon is an amazing chef and his use of flavours and implementation of ideas is very clever.

We’ve read that if you weren’t a chef you would have wanted to be a rock star – so if it came down to it would you choose a food festival or music festival to attend, and why?

Definitely a food festival! My idea of heaven is going up to Taste of London every year for the weekend to catch up with old friends and more importantly taste some amazing food and wine. Music festivals have their place absolutely – but a food festival is such brilliant fun.

You have extremely high standards and pay great attention to detail in your cooking, do you find that this makes you a difficult customer when dining elsewhere?

Actually I think if anything it works the other way with me. When I dine out I totally know and understand the pressures that that restaurant and kitchen team are under and so I’m probably more forgiving if things go slightly wrong. I can completely appreciate every level of dining and fully realise that there is a time and place for every level of food and drink. It’s not just about Michelin restaurants and fine dining. There’s so much variety nowadays.

What do you cook for yourself at home?

Sunday is a big day for me as it’s my only real day to catch up with my wife and our two children Henry and Rosalie. So, each week I always do a big roast dinner with all the trimmings. That’s lush. Other than that my weekly diet consists of homely favourites lovingly prepared by either me or my wife: shepherd’s pie, lasagne, chilli, curry, anything really.

You are passionate about your food and wine-matching – how would you react to a fellow diner ordering a bottle of Chardonnay with a ‘well-done’ steak.

When I was working in London one of the most important things I learnt was that the customer is king. And if a customer wanted their steak burnt, whilst drinking rough cider and sat in the car park-that’s fine! It’s not what I personally recommend, however it’s their choice. They have spent their money; they can dine however they want.

We saw at Ludlow Festival last year an emerging trend for both rhubarb and beetroot, and we noticed both on your menu. You obviously on-trend with your dishes. Is this something you keep an eye on? What do you predict will be next?

I find it interesting to see what people are using, but for me the best advice for what foods to go with comes through recommendations from my fantastic suppliers. They are the people who bring the items to market and who know what is at its best. Forced Yorkshire rhubarb is probably one of my favourite ingredients to use and it always has been and probably always will be on my menu. Regards future trends? I think we will see even more of the “lesser” cuts being used well, meat tendons and hearts, vegetable roots and wild herbs being foraged more. It’s a very exciting time.

We’ve heard that Thornbury Castle is haunted. Ever seen any ghosts?

Well there are lots of reports. Over the years I’ve probably stayed in every room in the castle and the one that I wouldn’t want to stay in again is a beautiful big room called the Bedford Suite. There’s definitely some kind of presence in there. Many people have reported having the same dream as their partner the night they sleep in there. It’s a dream whereby you imagine a crowd of people stood around the bed watching you sleep. This report has been made on numerous occasions by various people.

You cooked us up some scallops during our meal, accompanied by black pudding which has to be one of the best things we’ve ever tasted – what’s your secret?

Thank you. It’s a great dish. The key points are (as with all shellfish) always buy the very best you can. We only buy diver-caught scallops from Scottish waters. They are the best I’ve ever seen. The trick with the black pudding is to add a really good calvados into the black pudding mix. We make pané black pudding using a pork crackling crumb, which adds a lovely meaty crunch to the dish.

Are you attending any Food Festivals this year, if so which ones? Do you have any earmarked to visit in a non-professional capacity?

Definitely – Taste of London again. We are in the process of organising a few events closer to home on the castle grounds which would be exciting. I am also hoping to attend the Exeter Festival in April and Grillstock in Bristol.

If you appeared on Come Dine With Me, what would you cook for your guests?

White truffle risotto followed by roast rib of beef, followed by warm chocolate fondant with tonka bean ice cream.

Who would be your chosen four guests?

My wife Hatty, Stephen Fry, Thomas Keller and Steve Lansdown (Bristol City owner) – I’m a big Bristol City fan!

What has been your most memorable kitchen moment? (this could be a kitchen disaster, or triumph)

Wow... what a question! That’s tough to answer with one just thing. There have been some amazing times, as well as some shockers! Finding out we have won awards is always great; as is witnessing the younger guys develop into great chefs before your eyes. Likewise, I can remember a stressful day when the gas cut out just before service; and some really tough services where things just don’t click; as well as some nasty injuries. But one story springs to mind. I was working at Cadbury House Hotel as head chef and it was around 6.30pm. We were getting ready for a manic service in the restaurant and struggling to get everything done in time. I was feeling the pressure. Things weren’t right, equipment was breaking down, mise en place wasn’t ready and I was getting a “little hot under the collar”. Suddenly my wife appeared at the kitchen door demanding to speak to me. Already short of time I stomped off with her, only for her to sit me down and tell me she had fallen pregnant with our first child! It was a fantastic moment. We’d only just started trying for a baby.  I went back into the kitchen floating on Cloud Nine. I had never been happier. We did get ready for service that night and we had a brilliant service – absolutely smashed it. It was a really amazing night. 

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