Chef de la maison: At home with Shaun Hill

For years he lived above his own Michelin-starred restaurant. So for Shaun Hill, moving to a Georgian house was a mouth-watering prospect

Nick Duerden
Wednesday 16 April 2008 00:00

While I was at the Merchant House, I lived within the same building as the restaurant. That may sound rather unfortunate but I assure you it wasn't. It was a beautiful place, a 15th-century house, and very spacious. We had three sitting-rooms, a self-contained flat for guests, and all the space we could have wished for.

I sold the restaurant a few years back simply because I'd grown pissed off with it all. It'd had loads of accolades – a Michelin-star, and all the rest of it. I'd taken it as far as I could, I think, and I wanted to do something else. I did consultancy work for Fortnum & Mason, setting up a series of restaurants for them, I wrote a recipe column for a newspaper for a year, which really pissed me off for various reasons, and then I came across the Walnut Tree Inn, a very famous place that had recently gone into decline. I thought I spied an opportunity there, and so I bought it in December. It's certainly afforded me a fresh adventure.

I have a cottage next door to the restaurant, which is convenient if I happen to have had too much red wine one evening and can't quite face the drive home. But the place where I really live is this house, about 60 miles, or an hour's drive, from the restaurant.

It may sound like a schlep, but 60 miles out here isn't like 60 miles within the Home Counties. When I worked in the West End of London and lived in the northern suburbs, it took me a lot longer to get back and forth, perhaps because I opted to drive. But then you had to, really. Otherwise you had to take the Tube, and the Tube turns into pumpkins and white mice at around 10pm or midnight, filled only with drunk Scots and Irish men looking for a fight, with anyone.

So, if you happen to work up until midnight, which people within the catering trade invariably do, you are rather screwed. That's why I would drive – in order to be able to drive back again. This kind of commute, in comparison, is therefore entirely acceptable.

We've been here for two-and-a-half years now. It's a Georgian house, with lovely high ceilings and four bedrooms. It was perfect when we bought it, which was just as well as I am not a do-it-yourself person. I have absolutely no DIY skills, and nor do I have the slightest wish to ever take up a screwdriver in anger and mess around with things. That would be catastrophic; it would also put me in a terrible temper. It's much better, I think, that I go away and do something I'm good at in order to make enough money to pay someone who knows how to do it properly, don't you think?

Conveniently for me, the house came complete with a wonderful kitchen. It's an L-shaped job, with a good stove, a built-in espresso machine and dishwasher – the very essentials of life – and it also has enough space to sit, which is good because I do like to eat within the kitchen.

We have two sitting- rooms here, which means that my wife and I effectively have one each. So if one of us wants to watch television while the other one wants to read a book, we can each do so in perfect harmony. Plus, if we happen to have family round and the kids want to watch CBeebies in one, then the adults can always disappear into the other.

I work long days – all chefs do of course – which is why Sundays at home have become so important to me. I used to hate Sundays as a child; they were so boring. I've come to love them now. I buy all the papers and I sit in one of my living rooms and I read them over a great many cups of coffee and perhaps some brioche toast, before moving seamlessly on to a bottle of champagne – very good for you, champagne – and then I carry on with the papers until it's time to eat, which of course comes accompanied by a decent bottle of red wine, and then I retire in front of the television where I promptly fall asleep. A perfect day.

There were rumours of my retirement recently, which was amusing. It's a fabulous word, retirement. It means you don't have to work any more; it means pension funds. But I spent most of my life investing in business ventures that weren't always instantly financially rewarding, so I think it unlikely I'll ever have time for days on the golf course, I'm afraid.

We are definitely settled here, my wife and I. It's not only a lovely place, close enough to both town and country, but my daughter also lives nearby with her two kids. This means I can have my grandchildren come straight over and cheer me up whenever I'm in a bad mood.

Walnut Tree, Llanddewi Skirrid, Abergavenny (01873 852 797)

Shaun Hill won a Michelin-star at his previous restaurant, the Merchant House in Ludlow. After 11 years, he sold up in 2005 and is now winning plaudits at the Walnut Tree in Abergavenny, north Wales. Now 60, he lives with his wife in Worcester.

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