Chef profile - Michael Hjort of Melton's in York

On June 6, mid-lockdown, Michael and Lucy Hjort popped a bottle of champagne and quietly toasted the restaurant they have been running together for the last 30 years. I

Michael Hjort of Melton's in York.

If current events meant it had to be a small celebration, it marks a big achievement – Melton’s of York has remained at the top of its game for three decades.

Today, Michael and Lucy divide their time between their two restaurants. Lucy is sommelier and front of house at Melton’s supported by head chef Calvin Miller while Michael heads up the Chopping Block, the casual dining restaurant they opened in 2001.

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Michael is also the director, the inspiration and the driving force behind the York Food Festival, a mighty ten-day event that launched in 1997 and is considered one of the best in the country.

Michaels food is inspired by good French-style cuisine.

When did you start cooking? Cooking for friends at university, doing things like boeuf bourguignon.

Who has been your culinary inspiration? Initially Elizabeth David and then when I worked at the Roux restaurants, people like Rowley Leigh and Michel Roux Jr. Traditional, updated French food is very much my thing.

Which cookery books have been your inspiration? Probably Jane Grigson’s and Elizabeth David’s French Provincial Cooking. I might get ideas and inspiration from books but they are not generally designed for a commercial kitchen, the physics are different. A pan of stock for five behaves differently when you are making it for 50.

Where do you like to eat out? Somewhere outside the regular French/Italian mainstream, Moroccan, Lebanese, Oriental.

What do you make of current restaurant trends? The trend for obsessive presentation is something that needs to calm down a bit. Chefs who put yet another element on the plate is just tiresome.

What’s your guilty pleasure? Proper pork scratchings.

What ingredient could you not manage without? Paprika and olive oil.

What were you doing during lockdown? Our staff were furloughed so we ran the Chopping Block with minimal staff doing takeaway meals and Sunday lunch, not normal summer fare, but it went quite well and it’s given us a new income stream that we may retain. We also cooked for the Supper Collective, a lockdown scheme in which York restaurants cooked meals for the homeless, the socially isolated and the NHS.

What are your plans going forward? We reopened Melton’s with reduced capacity. It was a happy event because people were itching to get out and they were ready to splash out on the tasting menu. It’s more difficult at the Chopping Block. We’ve taken out 40 per cent of the tables, but we have huge capacity and are still nowhere near filling it.

There were plenty of people in the bar and the beer garden and Sunday lunch looked like normal. If we retain this we’ll be relatively happy. It’s not great but it’s not a disaster either. We’re going back to our roots with traditional French/Italian food.

As owner/proprietor of a casual dining restaurant, I think we provide good value, approachable, reliable fare that can be easily understood.

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Thank you

James Mitchinson