The former owner of a 2-starred Michelin restaurant, Martin Blunos is the new executive chef at Cardiff's Crown Social. He tells Amy Davies just how aggressive professional kitchens can be.
For Martin Blunos, cooking was “just a job” when he first started out. In the 1990s he earned two Michelin stars for his restaurants in Bristol and Bath and he is now the executive chef at the newly opened Crown Social restaurant at the Parc Hotel in Cardiff.
A career as a chef was not always on the cards for Martin. Far from it.
Believe it or not, he always assumed that, as he wasn’t very academic, he would one day follow in his dad’s footsteps by going to work for a flooring company.
In fact, when he first started working in catering in big hotels, first in Switzerland and then in London, he hated it.
Luckily, he quickly moved on to smaller premises and it was here that the bug bit, and Martin was hooked. The only problem was not being in charge.
‘When things were right, they got the credit, but when they were wrong, they had a go at you,’ he explains. ‘I thought: I want to do that myself.’
Getting recognition with Michelin stars
Opening up his own restaurant, Lettonie (French for Latvia, a nod to Martin’s roots), in Bristol in the early 90s, Martin’s style was at first influenced by the restaurants in London where he had cut his teeth.
But he quickly realised that wasn’t what he wanted to do with his own restaurant and started ‘cooking from the heart, as opposed to copying’, and was awarded his first Michelin star.
At a time when there were only 11 2-star restaurants in the country, much to Martin’s surprise, he was awarded his second in 1994. ‘We were up there with the likes of Raymond Blanc, but we only had a 24 cover restaurant – it was just a bit of a shock really,’ he says.
What’s so good about Welsh food and Welsh cooking?
Martin is keen to bring in a bit of Welsh flavour into the new menu at the Crown. ‘Wales was made when God was at his most creative,’ he says. ‘We’ve got hills and valleys, rivers, the sea, the coast, the pasture’s good, the air’s good and the animals are strong and healthy.’
Where does your inspiration come from?
In the early days, Martin was influenced mostly by his mum’s Latvian cooking, and you can still find flavours of it in his food today.
‘Mum would get pig’s tails off the butcher, dad would singe off the hairs in the shed and we’d have a pile of them boiled in soup with chunky potatoes, black bread and gherkins,’ he recalls. ‘It was amazing, it was cheap, and it was wholesome.’
Today he’s more likely to be found cooking a variation on borsch soup made into a terrine, or a Russian salad complete with vodka. But it’s obvious that the simple, home-cooked and basic ingredients are what drive him, not molecular gastronomy, fancy foams and nouvelle cuisine.
Do you ever use cookbooks?
While Martin says he’d never replicate a recipe from a book for his restaurant, with the exception possibly of pastry which he calls a science, he does admit to having a few classics at home.
‘You know Delia, you can’t knock it, that book gets used a lot,’ he says. ‘Her Christmas cake is brilliant.
‘I like the ones with pictures, I’m a bloke after all!’
Inside the hectic kitchen
Like pretty much any successful restaurant, Martin’s kitchen is a hive of activity, but he himself has mellowed now he’s older.
‘All kitchens are hectic, that’s what they thrive on, but I’m less aggressive now with age.
‘If something goes wrong now you tend to think perhaps that was my fault because I didn’t show or explain what I wanted, whereas before, I wouldn’t have a problem with giving someone a slap around the face.
‘In no other industry, can you be so aggressive, but in ours it seems ok, which is odd. Then you end up breeding like for like.
‘I realise now it’s not big and it’s not clever.’
No matter where he’s cooking, Martin’s favourite gadget is not what you might expect. ‘It’s so easy to say: my favourite little knife - or something fancy,’ he says, ‘but in all honesty it’s my hands. You can do so much with them, test temperature, rip things apart, feel the food, it’s that touchy feely thing, using your senses – so definitely my hands.’
Martin can be found cooking at the Crown Social at the Park Hotel in Cardiff an impressive five out of six days. To prove it, look out for the live camera feed focused on both the kitchen and the pass (plating up area).
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Photo courtesy of Amy Davies
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