He’s cooked at The Ritz and for Gordon Ramsay, but still has a soft spot for a bacon sandwich with brown sauce. Sean Melville, head chef at Newmarket’s Bedford Lodge Hotel, shares his culinary history with Alice Ryan
Let’s start at the beginning: did you grow up in a foodie house? Tell us about your earliest memories of food and cooking.
I didn’t particularly grow up in a foodie house, but I always had a passion for cooking. Following my parents’ split, money was quite tight and, as I was the first home from school, I used to cook the evening meal, often using my family as guinea pigs to test out new recipes. One summer, we had some foreign language students from Saudi Arabia stay with us. This really opened my eyes to new flavours that I had never tried before, and from then on I was keen to experiment and broaden my knowledge.
What made you want to pursue a career as a chef?
I looked forward to cooking the evening meal for my family every day. I enjoyed the artistic side of being the chef; of exploring and experimenting with unusual ingredients. The food scene in London had also just started to explode, which I found really exciting.
Tell us about the first pro kitchen you cooked in. Was it the famous ‘baptism of fire’?
During college, I embarked on what was supposed to be a six-week placement, working in the kitchen at the Sheraton Skyline Hotel, near Heathrow. That six-week placement turned into two years. During this time I worked for Uwe Zander, who was a big, brash German chef and member of Club 9, a group of highly regarded chefs des cuisines, who met monthly to discuss culinary business. He worked his team extremely hard, but I learnt an incredible amount.
We know you’ve worked at some of London’s most esteemed hotels, including The Ritz and The Dorchester. Can you share some of your standout memories?
The Ritz was my first experience of being in a huge team – 60 chefs. I worked across all sections during my time there, including veg, fish and larder, and this led to me become the chef saucier for chef David Miller. We had an incredible team; it was like working with your best friends, day in and day out. In fact, most of us are still in touch now and we regularly meet up. One of my favourite memories was cooking for the Lord Mayor’s daughter’s wedding, which took over the entire hotel for the day. It was incredible.
Years later at The Dorchester, I was in a team of 135 chefs, which made the kitchen of 60 seem small! I worked my way up through the ranks to senior sous chef with chef Willi Elsener. One standout memory would have to be the Chefs’ Conference, which involved preparing and cooking a six-course dinner for 550 chefs, with each course created and overseen by a different celebrity chef, including Gordon Ramsay, Charlie Trotter, John Williams and Brian Turner. The entire day was so full-on! I will definitely never forget the pressure.
Another memory to mention would be the night of the Millennium. Reaching a new level of extravagance, guests paid £5,000 a ticket for dinner. At midnight, the chef took us all up to the roof terrace with some champagne and we watched the fireworks. We had the best view in London.
What brought you to the Bedford Lodge?
When I first arrived at the hotel it took my breath away, it has such a beautiful and peaceful ambience. I always knew that when I left London, I wanted to go somewhere that had a similar ethos to my own. The hotel has a great reputation for customer service and its commitment to using fresh, local produce aligns with my own beliefs about what works well in a kitchen. Bedford Lodge Hotel & Spa is also a 4 AA Red Star-rated Hotel, an accolade which is extremely well valued and hard to achieve, so, of course, this is going to stand out to any chef looking for somewhere new.
How would you describe the hotel’s culinary style, since you took the helm of the kitchen?
It’s focused on adding a modern twist to traditional dishes. I love creating new and innovative menus, creating intrigue for our guests. I’ve recently put together a chocolate themed menu, in celebration of World Chocolate Day. It includes dishes such as pan-seared pigeon breast, sea bream and chocolate and kirsch cherry tarts – all unique but wonderful flavours to tantalise tastebuds.
We know sourcing locally and seasonally is really important to you. Tell us about a couple of your favourite summer ingredients from Suffolk.
I think the people of Suffolk are so lucky to have such amazing produce on their doorstep. The closer to nature you can get, the better the food is – we don’t need to mess about with it. The local lamb is amazing. I personally love to take a shoulder of lamb, bone it out, rub it with herbs, garlic and a little olive oil, then lay the boneless shoulder on the barbecue and cook it like a big steak – the flavour and succulence is amazing! Otherwise, it would have to be a quick trip to the seaside to indulge in a pot of shellfish and a big glass of wine.
What’s the most memorable meal or dish you’ve eaten?
I recently took my wife to The Waterside Inn, Bray, and the entire experience from start to finish was amazing. The food was superb, the service exceptional and the attention to detail was faultless. At the end of the meal we had been speaking about how it was my wife’s birthday and the waiter overheard us. The next day at home, a signed copy of the menu was delivered with a bouquet of flowers wrapped in a napkin from The Waterside. What can you say to that? Wow.
Do you have any guilty food pleasures to confess?
There is no better way to start the day than with a bacon sandwich and brown sauce. Oh, and coffee, of course. Lots of it.
What are the key ingredients to being a successful chef, would you say?
Patience, strong communication skills and a genuine love and passion for what you do.
It’s clear you’re passionate about your work. What’s the reward of being a chef, for you?
I love seeing happy guests; I get a huge amount of pleasure seeing what food can be created and how it can bring people together and enhance occasions. I also really enjoy seeing a young team develop and grow. Seeing them succeed is incredibly rewarding – if you don’t give something back the trade will never grow.
Bedford Lodge Hotel & Spa is at Bury Road, Newmarket CB8 7BX.
See bedfordlodgehotel.co.uk and call 01638 676130.