Somehow, it’s December. And December revolves so much around festive food. That’s why, this month, we are bringing you an interview with none other than Tristan Welch, Head Chef at Parker’s Tavern in Cambridge. Tristan is a passionate chef from Cambridge, who has trained with Gary Rhodes, Michel Roux Jr and Gordon Ramsay to name but a few. Before joining Parker’s Tavern, he lived and worked in the Caribbean for three years (which, in his words, was as bonkers as it sounds).
On a November afternoon I sat down with Tristan in the University Arms, the 19th century luxury hotel in which Parker’s Tavern is based, to chat over the most delicious dark chocolate sea salt truffles (thank you Tristan!) about his amazing career, his life in Cambridge, and, of course, all things foody. Over to Tristan…
The Cambridge Satchel Co.
So Tristan, could you tell me an interesting fact about Parker’s Tavern?
I have loads of interesting facts about Parker’s Tavern, but here’s a fun one: when I was young, I used to do athletics on Parker's Piece (a park next to the hotel). I’d look over here and I’d think it was a castle.
'Castle' views at The University Arms!
And now you’re working in a castle! Could you tell me about your initiative, Rubbish Cooks?
Rubbish Cooks started about four or five years ago when I was interviewing butchers and suppliers to supply Parker’s Tavern. And one of the bonkers things that came out of it - from the butchers particularly - was that I could have chicken legs for free. And it just blew my mind! Why are chicken legs free? Because they’re surplus to requirements. And I thought wow - that's incredible. How come the best bit is surplus to requirements and going for free? I thought, what a privileged society we live in, that leaves a massive amount of waste behind it.
So one night I met up in a bar with Alex Rushmer from Vanderlyle, another great restaurant in Cambridge, and we were chatting about this. And we came up with the idea for Rubbish Cooks. So it was a pop up that Alex and I did about four years ago. And ever since then, on a Monday night, once a month, we do our Rubbish Cooks event.
We ask our suppliers and local shops to donate anything that they haven't been able to sell over the weekend - that they were going to throw away. And we'll create a meal with that. The food arrives at midday, we create a menu with it and cook like crazy ready for the guests to sit down at six o'clock. We don't charge for the food whatsoever, because we've been given it. We do charge for the cost of the waiter, the cost of the table, etc., but all the proceeds go to Jimmy's Night Shelter, an organisation that supports the homeless here in Cambridge.
So we're making something from nothing, we're highlighting food waste and what can be done with the elements and how more open minded we should be about it. Because after all, a third of all food produced in the world goes to waste. And that is just the food that hits our suppliers and our supermarkets. I can only imagine how much is wasted at the level of the field and the farm.
That sounds brilliant. Let’s move on to Cambridge at large. What is your favourite spot in Cambridge? Apart from the University Arms, of course.
Grantchester Meadows is a place which is very dear to my heart. It’s a paradise which is just between Newnham and Lammas Land, which is a little park where you can go and sit by the river and it's beautiful.
The University Arms Bar.
Was there a ‘pinch me’ moment in your career?
There have been loads of ‘pinch me’ moments in my career. My dad used to tell me off for saying I was lucky to have them. He reminded me of when he and my mother used to pick me up at the end of my week at Le Gavroche, feed me up, build me up and send me back in fighting, because it was such an intense environment. If I hadn’t had that support, I would never be where I am. So my dad tells me those ‘pinch me’ moments have been earned. But I still feel very humble. Those moments happen all the time, because I’m so enthusiastic about what I do. You know, sometimes a ‘pinch me’ moment can be based around a perfect apple Tarte Tatin, where I'm like, ‘Oh my goodness - this is so good’.
But there are of course other bonkers moments, like creating a dish with Bryan Adams in Mustique, to winning the Gordon Ramsay scholarship, to getting the second Michelin star at Petrus. Getting to come back and cook in my hometown is a massive ‘pinch me’ moment because you never consider that you’ll get to come back home, working in this industry.
There are loads of ‘pinch me’ moments, and what I've learnt recently is to make the most of them. I never used to, because I always felt really awkward about these things. I used to enjoy the journey to them a lot more than these lovely special moments themselves. However, I'm learning to love them all now.
Which leads us nicely onto my next question. Why do you do what you do?
I know it's cliche, but I absolutely love it. People that know me know that I'm always cooking. When I go home, I cook. When I'm here, I cook. Food is my life, my heart, my soul. I live and breathe it.
Over the past five years, I've really reconnected with the reason why I fell in love with food. And that was because it makes people happy, and enjoyment is so important. So if I can throw in some seasonal local produce, with a touch of creativity, a decent glass of wine and a wonderful atmosphere, then I'm really happy. And people love that.
What is your favourite food or meal of all time?
*Enormous gasp* Ohhhh, I've got so many. From rustic trattorias in Italy to to Pepper Pot shacks in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, right the way through to an absolutely mind blowing mail at the French Laundry in California.
For me, the situation adds a lot to it. For instance, I was at the French Laundry for three months doing work experience. I would work from five o'clock in the morning till close at night, I would just soak it all up, because it was the only opportunity I had to soak it up and it was magical. I learnt so much from it. But I was worn out at the end of the three months. Thomas Keller said to me on my last day, ‘Are you here tonight?’ To which I replied, ‘Of course Chef! Absolutely!’ And he said, ‘Well, just as a thank you for all your work. I'm going to cook dinner for you’. I thought I'd sit in the restaurant, but Thomas Keller has this glass office that overlooks the whole kitchen and he sat me in there. He cooked a single plate of everything that was on the menu with a little taster of the wine that went with it. And it was abs-ol-ute-ly breathtaking.
However, being a young lad that was worn out, the wine went straight to my head, and I just remember falling out of his office. Having so much respect for the chefs and Thomas Keller himself, I told them all to go home and that I’d clean the kitchen for them. I didn't know what I was saying at that point. Anyway, luckily they didn't, because I was in no fit state to clean the kitchen by myself. But I was cracking on, in a right state, in that kitchen cleaning with them. I was the butt of all their jokes for weeks and months to come, but what an amazing experience.
To the ballroom! At The University Arms.
What a story! Finally, could you tell me about your Cambridge Satchel?
I've got a Satchel in Cambridge Blue. I love it to bits, it goes with me everywhere and it fits my laptop perfectly. Dear friends of mine always say ‘I saw you cycling through the park, I saw the flash of the satchel!’.
And there ends part one of our interview. Next month, Tristan will be back to answer our quick-fire questions - covering everything from food puns to Pot Noodles - and he will also share the secret to making one of his favourite desserts… stay tuned!
You can follow Tristan on Instagram here and Parker’s Tavern here. For enquiries and bookings, please visit https://universityarms.com/ or https://parkerstavern.com/.