Norfolk man takes head chef role at Heston's world-famous Fat Duck
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It’s been a stellar journey for Norfolk’s superstar chef Oli Williamson, from baked potatoes in a Sheringham café to snail porridge at Heston Blumenthal’s three-Michelin star Fat Duck.
The 31-year-old has not only been given the head chef role at the world-famous restaurant in Bray, within the last few months he’s also won the Roux Scholarship, having cooked for Alain and Michel Roux in memory of their fathers.
It has, he admits, been somewhat of a whirlwind.
“When I was 18, a friend and I saved up so that we could go and eat some really spectacular food,” Oli said, “we had lunch at Gordon Ramsay’s and the next day, we went to the Fat Duck in Bray.
“My dad was annoyed because I’d spent so much money and it was money I didn’t really have, but I came out of the Fat Duck and my mind was completely blown. It was so magical, so different, so incredible.
“If you’d told me that 12 years later I’d be head chef there, I simply wouldn’t have believed you. Of course if you’d asked me if I’d LIKED to have been head chef, though…”
Oli grew up in Swanton Novers, between Thursford and Melton Constable, and loved to watch cookery programmes with his father, who was a keen home cook.
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“People always ask if I learned to cook with my mum, but although she’s great at lots of things, cooking isn’t one of them!” laughs Oli, “we had an Aga and she’d put shop-bought pizzas in it and they’d emerge like black frisbees…”
(I swear, Mrs Williamson, I double-checked with your son that I could use this anecdote!)
Enthused by Gordon Ramsay’s The F-Word and Jamie Oliver’s Naked Chef, the Fakenham High School pupil’s first holiday job was at a Sheringham café.
In true chef style, he began on pot wash, graduated to the Mr Whippy machine and then rose to the heights of plating filled jacket potatoes – another job at a local pub saw him cooking gammon, egg and chips.
“I must have liked it,” Oli tells me, “because I chose to take food tech as a GCSE at school.”
At 16, Oli was working at weekends at Byfords in Holt while he studied catering at Norwich City College during the week and then, at 18, he reached for his first star.
“I’ve been really lucky with head chefs,” he said, “in our industry there’s a very generous tradition of knowing when your chefs are ready to move on to something different that will help their career.
“My head chef at Byfords, Rene Llupar told me it was time for me to go on to a restaurant where I would be stretched and where I would learn more, because he said he saw potential.
“It’s an attitude I have taken with me wherever I go: it is our responsibility to help the chefs that work with us or spend time with us. It’s how we help create the great chefs of the future and it’s very important to me.”
Oli went to one-star Michelin restaurant The Neptune in Old Hunstanton to work alongside chef-owner Kevin Mangeolles in the kitchen, where he learned a huge range of skills before – like his head chef before him – he was encouraged to continue his journey.
After a year’s working holiday in Australia, where he developed his love for Chinese and Thai food, Oli returned to Norfolk and a more senior role at Roger Hickman’s restaurant in Norwich from 2012 to 2014.
“I take something from every place I work, whether it’s attention to detail or customer service, attitude or technique. Every job teaches you something new,” he said.
“When you work with people at the top of their game, you learn from them and it’s invaluable help: you learn what makes you want to work for someone and what makes other people want to work for you.
“I always tell people that being a chef isn’t a race. You need to take the time to learn and to improve and it’s not a something you can do quickly.”
Oli’s CV is so star-studded, it’s out of this world.
From Norwich he moved to Cambridge and Daniel Clifford’s two-Michelin star Midsummer House and from there to his first three-star kitchen, Benu in California.
While he waited for his US Visa, he joined former Roux scholar Ian Scaramuzza for his WastED pop-up residency in Selfridge’s, which sought to raise awareness about food waste and aimed to create restaurant quality dishes from food that would usually have ended up scrapped.
“It really made me think about food and how much we waste and also about the use of single-use plastic. I’ve taken that with me everywhere I’ve worked since,” said Oli.
A year at Benu led to the role of head chef at two-star The Clove Club, based in Shoreditch Town Hall, in 2018 – but feeling he needed to hone his pastry skills, he took a sideways move a year later to work with Alex Dilling at The Greenhouse.
In December 2020, Oli joined the Fat Duck, the restaurant he’d been so enchanted by as an 18-year-old at the beginning of his career as a chef.
He travels daily from Sutherland Avenue to the Berkshire village of Bray to work at Heston Blumenthal’s legendary restaurant, which celebrates its 25th birthday this year.
Pioneer of molecular gastronomy, Blumenthal bought the 450-year-old pub in 1995 and it won its first Michelin star five years later.
In 2002 it won a second star and in 2003, a third.
This is no ordinary restaurant: eating at the Fat Duck is a journey through a series of superbly-executed and deeply delicious dishes, an experience filled with curiosity, discovery and adventure.
To celebrate its silver jubilee, the Fat Duck will be presenting ‘anthology menus’ throughout 2022, four different menus which present some of Heston’s unique dishes and the thinking behind them.
Each reads like a food fairytale, like tumbling after the White Rabbit and Alice as they fall into Wonderland: Nitro-poached green tea and Lime Mousse (2001), Aerated Beetroot (2011), Red Cabbage Gazpacho with Pommery Mustard Ice Cream (2001), Orange and Beetroot Jellies (2002), Jelly of Quail, Langoustine Cream, Parfait of Chicken Liver, Truffle and Oak Toast, Scented Moss (1999), Snail Porridge (2003, Crab Ice Cream (2007), The Coronation Feast of James II and Queen Mary (1685), Counting Sheep (2015) and Like a Kid in a Sweetshop. This is volume one, which costs between £275 and £350 per person.
I can almost read the comments when this piece is posted on Facebook now.
“For many of our diners, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience, something they’ve always wanted to do,” said Oli, “it’s not for everyone, people might think it costs too much or the food might be too unusual for them, but eating here was the most memorable food experience of my life, and that’s what we are creating.”
In October 2021, Oli won the highly-coveted Roux Scholarship, the first time the award has been handed out since the passing of its founders, Michel Roux OBE and Albert Roux OBE KFO. In memory of their fathers, Alain Roux and Michel Roux Jr asked those competing to make two recipes that were dear to the Roux family.
Oli and fellow contestants had to make Eggs Albert, in honour of Albert Roux, and Little Flans with Snails in Green Coats for Michel Roux.
The former is an artichoke heart filled with smoked salmon, trout and truffle, topped with a poached egg and topped with a slice of smoked salmon, the second is a snail and herb soufflé baked in a tartlet with beurre blanc sauce.
Honorary president of judges, Björn Frantzén said: “It’s very difficult to do something so classic. In my book, it was an easy choice to pick the winner. There was one outstanding chef.”
Oli won £6,000 plus the chance to cook and train under the supervision of a leading chef at a prestigious three-star Michelin restaurant anywhere in the world for up to three months.
“It was my first and last time in the competition as you have to be 30 to enter, so I was overjoyed to win – it’s such a prestigious award and it puts you in such good company,” he said.
The plan, he added, was to spend his three months at Restaurant Zen – the Singapore outpost of three-Michelin starred modern Nordic restaurant by chef owner (and Roux Scholarship judge) Björn Frantzén - when time and international travel allow.
Shortly after the scholarship came a promotion and earlier this year, Oli became head chef, second to executive chef Edward Cooke.
“These two huge things happened in a matter of weeks and it was just incredible. I am so thrilled and so grateful to have been given this opportunity,” he said.
“It’s inspiring to have a boss like Heston whose whole ethos is ‘question everything’ because without questioning what you do, you don’t learn and you don’t grow.
“This job means I will be learning far more about the management of a restaurant and finding out how the whole operation works. I’m excited about that.”
Oli comes home to Norfolk every few weeks and when he’s home loves to eat at Benedicts, Meadowsweet and The Gunton Arms, while his favourite dish to cook at home is, reassuringly, chilli cheese beans on toast rather than snail porridge.
One day, he dreams of opening his own restaurant and serving food which has been grilled over wood and charcoal, the kind of flavoursome food he loves.
“That’s a long way in the future,” he tells me, “I’ve still got so much I want to learn.”