Meet The Chef: Leon Smith

177MasonOxfordshire170503Matt Austin

We chat with Leon Smith, Head Chef of newly opened Artist Residence in Oxfordshire to learn more about the chef who can’t get enough of rummaging through nature’s larder.

What inspired you to become a chef?
I have always been fascinated in food as my dad was a chef and I always spent my days with my dad in his kitchens, my grandfathers used to take me for walks up the Welsh mountains to collect blackberries and this has been a part of my life ever since.

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Tell us more about your culinary background…
I started off in Spain when I was 15 then moved back to my homeland at 17 to take it to the next level. I was senior sous at The Pony and Trap at 21 years of age and we were voted the second best pub in the country while I was there.

I also spent a year as Senior Sous Chef at The Royal Oak at Paley Street which also has a Michelin star. I spent time with Tom Aikens and Wild Honey when the Olympics was on to gain more Michelin experience. I was also Sous with Paul O’Neil at The Berwick Lodge who won the Roux Scholarship in 2015 which was a great experience also.

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What is your favourite thing to forage?
I love foraging for tiny little herbs like wood sorrel but my biggest love is sea foraging. Being alongside the coast and picking samphire, sea fennel, sea lettuce and purslane is something I love and do as much as possible.

Do you have any tips for foraging beginners?
I believe we are all beginners when it comes to foraging, there is so much to learn and we are always discovering new things we can eat! Go on lots of foraging courses and read lots of books!

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What has been the proudest moment in your career?
Retaining the Michelin star at The Pony and Trap at 21 was a huge moment and I was very nervous leading up to Michelin day. I had fully run the kitchen for a year and I knew if we didn’t retain it I would be very much responsible.

But we did, and it was amazing to get the call from Josh Eggleton to say well done and that we had succeeded in keeping the star!

If you weren’t a chef, which career would you like to pursue?
I think something to do with sports would have been amazing, I love all sports and it’s what I do when I’m not cooking.

Do you have any tips for aspiring chefs?
Work hard and work with the best while you’re young! Push yourself every day and constantly read and eat out. You don’t just learn when you are in a kitchen, you can learn so much by eating in the best restaurants and seeing how they put dishes together.

Describe your cooking style in three words.
British, local, seasonal.

What provides you with inspiration for new recipes?
Eating out in new places always gives me new ideas, also working on old recipes and constantly trying to make them better. I also get inspired with my chefs around me, they are very passionate and constantly want to improve which makes my job a lot easier!

Do you have any role models?
Josh Eggleton was an incredible chef and taught me many things I still use today. Watching Gordon Ramsey on Boiling point really inspired me when I was a young kid to want to be the best I can be. His tireless work ethic was mesmerizing to me!

What food takes you back to childhood?
Blackberries always do and I love this time of year where I can go out and pick them like I did as a kid. Also, it’s hard to beat my mum’s Cornish pasty – trust me, I’ve tried! It is without a doubt one of my favourite things to eat and reminds me of home.

What are your favourite summer ingredients?
Growing your own peas and broad beans in the summer is something I look forward to all year. I also love summer truffle.

What’s next on the cards?
As we have recently opened Mr Hanbury’s Mason Arms I have my eyes set on making this a food destination pub which concentrates on the produce first.


Love foraging too? Read about where to find the best foraging walks here.

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