Liam Finnegan
Published 20 February 2018

We talk to the head chef of The Castle Hotel in Taunton

Your menu showcases seasonality, what is your favourite time of year for food, and why?
I love all times of the year and enjoy watching the changes in food across the seasons. I like spring for the freshness, summer for light dishes and intense flavours, autumn for its abundance and winter for its comforting, heartier food.

What is the most unusual cooking/preparation technique you use?
Most of our techniques – cooking and preparation – are based on classic cooking, but we apply a modern approach. The world went mad on water baths and kitchen fads years ago when molecular gastronomy was a trend. We have two water baths, but don’t use them during service. Don’t get me wrong, I totally understand the consistency aspect of water baths, but for me, pan-fried, roasting, grilling, butter-basting and traditional resting is far superior. These methods are essential to develop a young chef’s skillset.

What is the strangest request you have ever had from a diner?
Nothing out of the ordinary. There are so many dietary requirements nowadays that chefs have come to expect the unexpected. My wife is a vegetarian, so at home we think a little out of the box. We’re currently working on our vegan offering, which I have always struggled with when menu planning. There’s a local producer at our farmers’ market, and she makes great vegan alternatives so watch this space.

What food trends are you spotting at the moment?
I think street food (Thai, Indian, Japanese) served in cool settings is going to be big. People like less fuss and easygoing, healthy dishes. Portuguese food is also going to be there. We have a Portuguese chef, Sal, and his staff meals are legendary. We had Jude Kereama of Kota in our kitchen for our recent food festival, Feast. His approach is fantastic. He’s from New Zealand, but uses a lot of Japanese influence – we took a lot from his visit.

What do you think is a common mistake that lets chefs down?
Overcomplicating dishes and adding too many flavours.

What is your favourite cookbook?
This Is Mine by Mark Dodson.

Who are your greatest influences?
My family, friends and team inspire me daily, and have done all through my career. We don’t follow food trends or watch what’s going on, we just like to cook food that we love to eat.

If you could cook for anyone (past or present), who would it be, and what would you cook for them?
Ronnie Drew from the Dubliners. I love my Irish folk music. I wanted to see him play live for many years and never got the opportunity, which I regret. It would be too predictable to cook him stew with ‘potatoes’ so I’d try to win him over with our roast Brixham turbot with oyster, leek and cucumber. It’s a modern twist on classical flavour combinations. In return he could sing for me.

Do you have a guilty junk-food pleasure?
Stinky cheese and crusty bread.

What has been your favourite new restaurant opening of the last year?
I don’t get to eat out as much as I used to because I have three children. I’m really keen to get over to Bristol. I keep hearing about some amazing restaurants there, including Casamia, Adelina Yard, Wilks and Box-E. It’s a cool, buzzing city with fantastic eating options, from burger bars to fine dining.

Who do you think are the chefs to watch over the next few months?
Niall Keating at Whatley Manor – he’s young and very mature. I worked with Niall many moons ago and he’s been to some fantastic places. He is doing some amazing things at Whatley. Also keep an eye out for Allister Barsby at The Grove, Narberth, and James Mason at Kentisbury Grange, near Barnstaple.

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