The acclaimed chef grew up in Cornwall and moved to London to work at two-Michelin starred restaurant Dinner by Heston Blumenthal at Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park, London. The Knightsbridge Edit caught up with Jon to talk culture shock, historic cooking techniques and his favourite local pubs
Meet… Jon Bowring
You grew up in Penzance and worked in Padstow at Rick Stein’s seafood restaurant. How did your upbringing in this part of the country influence your attitude to food?
Growing up in Cornwall, there were such great products including both seafood and farm produce available. Rick Stein keeps it simple with his dishes, using fresh products, a few techniques, then simply delivering them on the plate. I really learned how much to let the ingredients stand out on their own, and that if you have great produce, you don’t have to do too much to create amazing dishes. I think Cornwall is a fantastic place to be as a chef starting out in the industry.
You initially studied engineering and marine biology. What were your early ambitions and when did you realise that you wanted to cook professionally?
I started working in the kitchen as a weekend job when I was 14 and carried on working there throughout my academic life. I soon decided to leave the kitchen for a bit and study engineering and marine biology to gain an understanding of how things work. I didn’t enjoy engineering so much and focused more on marine biology – here I learned a lot about how the ocean works, the importance of balance in the ecosystem and I learned a lot about different fish species. I spent more time cooking the fish than I did actually studying them, so I quickly decided to go back to what I really liked to do, which was cooking! I soon realised I wanted to turn this into a professional career. I undertook a cooking course and then started working my way up in various kitchens, starting at Rick Stein’s then moving on to join Heston Blumenthal.
You’ve been in London for 10 years now, what do you like about the city? Was it a culture shock moving here?
I think it was a bit of a culture shock to begin with. It was the sheer volume of people and London’s busy lifestyle as opposed to the relaxed Cornish way of life. I think London can be a little bit lonely at times as there are so many people from so many different cultures and not everyone is as friendly, but as you get used to it and understand how it works, you can develop some great friends from all over the world. It has been an incredible learning experience, so it was a culture shock to begin with, but I think it has been very rewarding.
Heston Blumenthal is renowned for his avant-garde and experimental approach to cooking. What have you learned from him personally and from working in the Dinner by Heston Blumenthal kitchen?
I think one of the fundamental things I learned from Heston is to question everything, since not everything is what it seems or what people would tell you. I think it is really important to test things out yourself and come to your own conclusions.
The menu takes inspiration from historic British gastronomy. What have been some of the most interesting dishes or techniques you have learned?
Right now, until the end of April we have a special tasting menu, which has been created alongside the experts at The Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. We have taken inspiration from the food, history and legends of ancient Knossos and brought this to life with our own modern interpretation. We did a similar thing with Pompeii, which was a huge success. I find this to be a really interesting approach and I feel that only somewhere like Dinner by Heston Blumenthal can make this truly work. I really enjoy reading up and studying British historical recipes – so much of the prep work is around this. I am learning something new every day and fortunate enough that my team and I can re-introduce these ancient recipes and dishes that you just don’t find on a table today.
What are the biggest challenges of your job as head chef?
My biggest challenge is to be there for everyone, either my team or for individual guests as I want to offer everyone as much as I possibly can. It is very important to look after everyone and I like to make sure that everyone is enjoying themselves. Of course, the long hours can be a challenge but that is a given in this job and you do get used to it. It’s the end result in pleasing guests and my team that makes it all so worth it.
What do you like about working in Knightsbridge?
The location is great. There are so many nice bars, shops and restaurants around Knightsbridge. We are also blessed by being so close to Hyde Park, it is the perfect area to relax, and it is so peaceful. We are very lucky to see these two parts of London and the hotel being perfectly located between the two.
Aside from Mandarin Oriental, where are your favourite places to go in the area?
There are a couple of hidden gems, for example The Nags Head which has a great atmosphere – you really feel like a local – but I also love to visit all the independent shops in Belgravia and find all the original clothing or artwork available. When visiting London with friends and family I love to go to The Grenadier. It is a very interesting, traditional pub with a lot of history related to the Guards. It is an iconic place to show your friends and family when visiting London and they have amazing food and beer.
If you had to choose, what is your standout dish from the à la carte menu at Dinner by Heston Blumenthal?
I must say our Tipsy Cake. I think it is an amazing dish that blows people away every day including myself, no matter how many I have prepared – it never gets old. I think the flavours (although it looks very simple) are very complex. It has been on the menu since day one and it still has that level of impact to guests when tasting it for the first time. It is probably one of Heston’s most memorable dishes and people come from all over the world to try it.
What is your ultimate comfort food when you’re at home after a long day?
Although I can cook most things, I would like to learn how to cook Mexican food better. I love the concept of sharing and the family style it brings. I think Mexican food is fantastic, I love its freshness, spiciness and complexity of flavours. Mexican food includes so many dishes and they use so many different ingredients that it makes it a very interesting cuisine to cook, to learn and to share.