“Now lockdown is over I’m excited about everything,” says British chef Paul Ainsworth eagerly, speaking over the phone from the kitchen at one of his numerous Cornish restaurants. “We’re getting the most amazing produce – beautiful sea bass, corn and scallops at No. 6, amazing eggs to make the best fresh pasta with at Caffe Rejano, incredible chops to serve at our pub The Mariners.” Ainsworth’s enthusiasm is infectious and it’s clear that this is a chef who has sorely missed his time in the professional kitchen over the last four months.
Which is not surprising given he’s rarely been out of one for more than two decades. Having started his career at Gary Rhodes’ London restaurant, Rhodes on the Square, straight out of catering college, Ainsworth honed his craft under big names chefs including Gordon Ramsey and Marcus Wareing before decamping to Cornwall to begin building his own food empire.
And quite the empire it’s become, alongside his Michelin-starred Paul Ainsworth at No. 6, Ainsworth and his wife Emma also run casual European eatery Caffe Rojano and The Mariners pub as well as the Padstow Townhouse B&B and Mahé cookery school and chef’s table – all located in Padstow. “I can’t create another No. 6. It’s my life’s work and the culmination of all the training I did under those great chefs,” says Ainsworth of his debut restaurant. “My other restaurants share the same DNA but are more accessible. If you love food you love it in all its guises. Pizza, shepherd’s pie, fish and chips – these are some of the world’s greatest culinary creations and I want my restaurants to recognise and celebrate that.”
Ainsworth doesn’t shy away from the fact that the last few months have taken their toll though. “It’s been amazing to have time to spend with my family but I’ve really missed that feeling of striving to be the best you can be. The hunger, the desire,” he says. “I’ve always said that when people come to Cornwall I want my restaurants to be a highlight of their time here. I love getting to work in the morning, being with the team and always striving to be better than we were yesterday.”
"I can’t just rustle something up - before long I’ve got all the spices out and I’m using every pan in the kitchen."
Describing himself as a realistic optimist, Ainsworth is cautiously hopeful for the future. His piece of the Cornish gastronomic landscape has so far survived coronavirus intact and, unlike some of his fine dining colleagues, Ainsworth hasn’t had to make any redundancies. “We are far from out of the woods so all we can do is take it one step at a time,” he says. “We made it to July 4 but we have had to take on a significant amount of debt. Cornwall is busy now but winter is just around the corner. We make all our money between April and October so we’ve missed out on so much this year. And, of course, we’re still in the pandemic, we could go back into lockdown at any moment.”
Like many chefs, however, there is one thing Ainsworth implores his customers to do to help support the industry now and in the future. “The no shows have to stop,” he says bluntly on a subject that chefs including Tom Kerridge and James Martin have spoken about in recent weeks. “We don’t take deposits – yet – because people come here on holiday and I want my restaurants to be as accessible as possible. Eating at our restaurants is a treat and customers might not have the money for a deposit when they book a table three months in advance because they’re saving up. That said there needs to be awareness that not showing up isn’t okay. Booking and cancelling in advance is fine as we can resell the table but just not showing up is really damaging.”
With the hospitality industry starting to reopen, Ainsworth’s thoughts are once again turning to the next generation of chefs. Since 2018 he has partnered with Truro and Penwith College to offer training and apprenticeships to aspiring chefs and front of house staff through the Paul Ainsworth Academy. With young people, understandably, hesitant to enter the hospitality industry in the current climate, what advice would he give to those who do have a passion for cooking and the restaurant business?
“Go and experience it. Hospitality is hard work but it’s also incredibly rewarding,” he says. “Be the best you can be and don’t think about tomorrow. If you’re working hard and achieving, tomorrow will take care of itself. Social media shows the new generation everything that’s possible instantly which makes it so hard to concentrate on the present moment. When I was working under Gordon Ramsey I wasn’t thinking about opening my own place or anything like that, I was just focusing on how incredible that experience was and trying to learn as much as I could. The rest happened naturally because I was becoming an expert in my craft. If you love what you do and can see yourself in it for the long term then forget about everything else.”
Sage advice from an industry veteran – but surely, deep down, there is a part of Ainsworth that has enjoyed the change of pace and the opportunity to get creative in his own kitchen? “To be honest my wife Emma does almost all the cooking at home because, even though I don’t have all the kit of a professional kitchen, I always end up trying to cook like I’m in one,” he laughs. “I can’t just rustle something up. I’ll say I’m just going to make some chicken and potatoes but before long I’ve got all the spices out and I’m using every pan in the kitchen. Now Emma tells me not to bother because she doesn’t want to wash up for two hours.”
The exception, he says, is the very buttermilk chicken recipe he has shared with Gentleman’s Journal. One of the best-selling dishes at The Mariners pub, it is, says Ainsworth, the ‘ultimate’ version of the KFC and chicken-in-a-basket dinners he loved growing up in the 90s, with filo pastry and crushed cornflakes thrown into the batter to create an ‘amazing crunch and texture’. Try it for yourself below…
36 Chicken thighs
For the chicken bread crumb:
1kg plain flour
40g onion powder
40g garam marsala
40g garlic powder
200g cornflakes (lightly crushed)
20 sheets of feuille de brick (cut into dices)
For the chicken marinade:
20g garam masala
10g smoked paprika
For the chicken seasoning
300g garam masala
- Place chicken thighs in the buttermilk mix and leave for 24 hours.
- Mix the flour, trisol, paprika, onion powder, garlic powder, cornflakes and feuille de brick.
- Pane the chicken thighs in the flour mix.
- Deep fry at 180oC for 4-5 minutes.
- Leave to cool to room temperature.
- Then deep fry again at 180oC for another 5 minutes.
- Season with the chicken seasoning mix and finish with lemon and lime zest on top.
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