Chef Shaun Dickens's diary of a restaurant start-up

Sitting down to write this has given me a chance to stop to think about the changing seasons. As the leaves on the trees begin to change so do the customers visiting the restaurant.

Like most towns with a vibrant tourist trade Henley can boast a massive influx of visitors over the summer months but autumn brings a slower pace and a different feel to both the town and the restaurant. Although a busy summer is great for trade, what has been most pleasing is how we have maintained strong local support which we are most grateful for. On a recent Friday every single guest in the restaurant was a repeat visitor.

It is for this reason that the pressure is really on to keep the menu changing and evolving so that repeat guests have something new and exciting to try. We also try to have dishes that reflect the best of the changing seasons, and wherever possible to use local produce.

Changing the menu regularly introduces a challenge for any chef as every plate that leaves the kitchen represents the standards they have.

Dishes have to ‘work’ and be of the highest standard but they should also reflect your passion and make every mouthful an event. It’s not easy keeping up this standard but learning from the best, such as I did from Raymond Blanc, ingrains a certain ethic that I will never stray from. Speaking of pressure, this nicely leads me on to an exclusive event we had last weekend for the aforementioned Mr Blanc along with Quintessentially and the Financial Times.

I was nervous and excited in equal measure (okay, the nerves possibly outshone the excitement) as I had not cooked for him properly before but with pressure comes focus and we hope that he enjoyed his meal. Another interesting development over recent weeks has been the popularity of our taster menu and wine flight. This, to me, is the best way to enjoy what we do. Seven smaller dishes from across the menu for us to really demonstrate the breadth of what we offer. We hope that selecting the taster menu ensures that a visit becomes an experience rather than just dinner.

The sad news of the last month is that we are losing our marvellous sommelier Matteo. He is moving to Hong Kong (I hope it wasn’t something that I said) and leaves with our thanks and best wishes for the future.

The transient nature of the industry is a challenge for all restaurants and it’s hard to keep hold of good people. From my point of view, technical ability must be combined with a belief in what the restaurant is trying to accomplish. It is a hard task constantly training new staff but if you are surrounded by people who see a bigger picture then the business develops and grows so much faster.

Time and tide wait for no man so, as we say goodbye to summer the delicious (and good value) menu for Christmas has been agreed and bookings have already begun. There is never time to sit still in this industry which is one of the joys of running your own restaurant, and I wouldn’t change it for the world!

TRY IT The Boathouse, Station Road, Henley-on-Thames RG9 1AZ.

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