The Lock Up Interview
We were lucky enough recently to sit down with Aidan Dunford, head chef of The Lock Up (Home of Bristol's best Sunday roast) , for a chat about British cooking and what it means to him.
When did you open the lock up, how did it come about? Did you always want to own and run your own restaurant?
We bought this building 15 years ago, the idea was always to build or buy a restaurant on Church road, the main street in the area I grew up in. The original idea was to knock the building down as it’s essentially a warehouse, or lock up. I’ve always wanted to run my own restaurant as its hard work as a head chef without feeling like there’s a big enough reward from it. Thats probably a lot of our chefs want to run their own place. You get to a point where you don’t want to come up with all these dishes just to make someone else money off the back of your work.
What are your main influences in terms of food and flavours at the lock up?
I’m classically trained, so French. It’s all French terminology when you start out. That’s where flavours originate, from old school cooking which you bring your own ideas to. We label ourselves as Modern British Cooking.
What does Modern British Cooking mean to you?
I think it comes from lots of young British chefs that have eaten a multitude of different national dishes and international cuisine which they can pull flavours out from. I think old school cooking can become mundane and boring so to bring up an old English dish you might add something Asian inspired, not necessarily a fusion but marrying the flavours. For example our duck dish is French in origin but because I like the Asian sort of style I’ve put an Asian spin on it. So to me Modern British means experimenting, we try to marry flavours from everywhere.
How would you describe menu creation at The Lock Up?
I like playing around with things that are perceived maybe as a dessert but it's actually savoury, at the moment we’ve got crab cream mousse filled profiteroles. I like that every dish I have on the menu has an element to it that’s a little unusual so that it never feels like you’re eating anywhere else.
Last year the Bristol post named The Lock Up the best Sunday roast in Bristol, was creating an amazing Sunday roast always a goal for you?
I’ve always been proud that wherever I’ve worked has done a good Sunday Roast. I think if you like a Sunday roast you will always push for the Sunday roast you make to be as good as it can be. It got to the point where we had to stop putting stuff on the plate as it was getting unmanageable. The frustrating thing about saying it’s the best roast in Bristol is a lot of people see it as a competition, but for not it’s me. It’s about what people want to eat on the plate. But when someone says another roast is a little bit better a competitive edge kicks in. I am proud of the roast we do, I don’t really care about the accolades, I only care if you enjoy it. That’s all you need.
How did you learn to cook and is it something you always wanted to do growing up?
I’ve never been as much of an academic, mainly because I just didn’t get on with school I think, that was seen as a problem, but looking back on it as a 41 year old lots of people didn’t get on with school. I was meant to be a carpenter with my dad but he passed away when I was 11. I always liked working with my hands and my uncle was going to train me as a carpenter but couldn’t because the building trade fell flat in Ireland for a few years. My mum knew the manager of a hotel in town and got me a job there at 15. There was a really good French chef there who took me under his wing, as I had a flair for it and worked hard. I’ve definitely fallen out of love of cheffing for spells but going back to the right kitchen and working with good chefs reignites the passion for it.
Which seasonings and flavours would you say are essential to good British cooking?
The roast is very traditional and has all of the quintessential herbs: rosemary, thyme, marjoram and a lot of red wine. The menu in the evening is very different: Garlic is obviously a massive one, we use a lot of lemon. Our braised beetroot has aniseed flavours through it, we use fennel seeds and coriander seeds which are quite floral. White pepper through the mash, lots of black pepper too. All of the fresh herbs like mint and chives are good for starters.
Do you have any tips or recommendations for home cooks trying to season their food better at home?
From a chefs angle you always have anything you need to cook ready prepped in front of you so you don’t get distracted prepping and end up burning something else. Always salt your water when parboiling potatoes.
Any tips for good gravy?
Don’t put herbs in too early because they’ll go bitter. If you’re making it with meat trim or bones, cook that for ages. But we don’t put any veg in the stock or if we do, put it in at the end. There’s only so much flavour you can get from a carrot! Always add wine at the start and reduce it at the start. Always add juices from the roasting tray too, even if it just looks like blood. That’s where the flavour is.
How important is it that you source good meat?
Most important thing is to be local. If everyone ate locally there’d be less of a problem turning people off meat. We try to source our meat as local as we can. Once we ordered some venison that the butcher himself had shot. I try to stay as West Country as we can. If you can’t sustain the farmers around you then you’re kind of buggered in the long run. It’s harder to consistently source locally grown vegetables though as we rely on the market and what is available.
Do you try to build in seasonality to the menu?
Yes, it’s the only way to be fully aware of what you're using. Especially with veg you need to follow what is seasonally available. A lot of the bulk veg we use is British grown and seasonal.