When David Nowell says East Yorkshire has one of the best natural larders in the country he means it.
“Frank brought these sea bass and crab in from Skipsea this morning but we won’t have any smoked trout until Justin arrives this afternoon,” says the head chef at Tickton Grange.
“That’s pork from Anna Longthorp out at Howden and Tom dropped off goats’ cheese yesterday.”
The duck is from Leven, the lobster from Bridlington, even the rape seed oil (David refuses to use olive oil) comes from Paul and Anna Jackson’s farm in Carnaby. “Why use olive oil from Italy, when we produce rapeseed oil in this county that is more versatile, better for you and comes from crops grown a few miles up the road?”
It’s this passion for local food that has recently seen David asked to take on the role of chairman of the East Riding Local Food Network, a body created to promote exactly the sort of produce that he has made a cornerstone of his dishes for more than 20 years.
David has been head chef at Tickton Grange – a Georgian country house hotel outside Beverley – since 1991, and in that time he’s taken the experience he picked up from kitchens all over the world and turned it to creating truly extraordinary dishes designed around food sourced almost exclusively from within East Yorkshire.
“Cuisine in the Riding was, unfortunately, in the doldrums for a long time,” he explains. “But now it’s as good as anywhere else in the country, and the local produce we have in the Riding is one of the reasons.”
David’s dedication to local producers has also had a direct and significant effect on the Riding’s nascent culinary reputation. Many of the local producers who are now supplying the best restaurants and gastropubs in Yorkshire and beyond got their first break when he discovered them and put their produce on his menu at Tickton.
“For me, the really enjoyable part of being a chef is creativity; taking two or three great local ingredients and making them work together, to complement each other and to look and taste great on the plate. I try to do that every time I design a new menu and I encourage all of my team to come up with new ideas all the time. I liaise with the local producers and then bring their products into the kitchen for the team here to come up with something.”
It’s an approach that has brought him many admirers. While all decent chefs use local ingredients these days there are very few that use them with such flair and sense of theatre. The dishes at Tickton Grange are designed to draw gasps as they enter the restaurant.
It’s a style of cooking that David says he learnt during his 20s while working under culinary legend Anton Mosimann when he ruled London at the Dorchester during the 1980s. His attempts to break into catering, though, started at school.
“I used to make fudge and sell it to my classmates. I would buy the ingredients from my mum and I made 100 per cent profit. By the end of the first year I’d saved over £100 and bought myself a bike.”
Spurred on, he decided to go to college to study catering, something which initially disappointed his parents. “Mum and dad were intellectuals who worked at Hull University. Mum was Philip Larkin’s secretary and dad was a reader in psychoneuroendocrinology – a very clever man. They expected me to do something equally cerebral.”
David, however, was heavily influenced by his mother, who used to buy fresh ingredients every day from the shops in their home village of Cottingham and turn them into simple but delicious meals for the family. If you take this upbringing, add a tough boot camp experience cooking at Turnberry in Scotland and a fine dining education from Mosimann you end up with the fundaments of David’s culinary ethos – local ingredients, hard work and flair.
David returned to East Yorkshire in the mid 80s to help his mother nurse his father, who was dying from cancer, fully intending to continue with his life in London.
“The plan was to have one last Christmas at home with dad and then head back to the Dorchester,” he explains. “But fortunately he rallied and, while he sadly passed some months later, I decided to stick around to help out and ended up taking some local chef work, which finally lead me to the head chef job here at Tickton in 1991.”
Marriage and children (he has four sons, all in their twenties) ultimately determined that he stay in the Riding and he’s now been at the Grange for 22 years. His reputation means that the local suppliers and producers usually seek David out.
People like Frank Powell, who is one of only three people granted a license to fish off the Yorkshire coast using hand nets. This means that he lays nets from the beach at Skipsea and then marches out to sea twice a day to see what he’s caught. He does all of this by hand, without boats or rods, and then sells what he catches to local restaurants. As an operation, it’s almost prehistoric in it’s simplicity.
His latest discovery is Justin Staal of Staal’s Smokehouse, who has only been operating for just over a year but has been supplying smoked fish and duck to Tickton virtually from day one.
Many chefs would closely guard a supplier they have discovered and help nurture and, indeed, some would even drop a producer if they became too ubiquitous. Not so with David who believes that if the local food producers prosper, the whole industry in the region prospers, too.