Sixteen years spent working in London, culminating in opening the private members' club Century after running the kitchen at L'Odéon and working with Bruno Loubet at the Four Seasons, taught 36-year-old Nick Hales as much as any chef needs to know about cooking.
But what it didn't inspire in him, he says, is passion. "I went on holiday to France and Italy and began to see how they served food," he says. "Then I read Simon Hopkinson and Rick Stein and suddenly understood why it was possible to get so excited about a bulb of fennel."
So, after a period consulting on the pre-launch menus for healthy fast-food chain Leon, Hales found what he was looking for on a trip to St Leonards, next to Hastings on the East Sussex coast. Walking on the beach, he saw the catch from day boats coming ashore directly on the shingle and knew straight away that this is where he'd like to be. "Usually with cooking, I'd look in books, dream up recipes, then go out to find the produce," he says. "With this, the fish would write the recipes themselves."
Down to the boats
A relaxed, neighbourhood restaurant was the result, and 16 months after opening Hales still goes down to the boats almost every day. He takes whatever the fishermen have: it might be Dover sole, lemon sole, bass, red mullet, mackerel, cuttlefish, pollack, squid or even lobster delivered from a local pot in Hastings. It's so fresh that fish landed that morning can be on your plate by lunchtime.
Dishes are written out on a menu but much is presented as specials, with not even enough planning to merit a blackboard. "The specials change two or three times a night," he says, "so I just wander out to show the diners what fish I've got and how I'm going to cook it."
Flavours are kept classical. Sea bass might be served with a simple Greek salad; smoked fish - from the acclaimed Weald Smokery just up the A21 - is accompanied by horseradish cream and rye bread (£6.50); whole lemon sole comes with a lemon, caper and parsley butter (£15.50); and, on the meat front, roast leg of lamb - from organic butchers Hen on the Gate - with peas, broad beans and mint salsa (£13.50).
Most fish is cooked on the bone to get the most flavour. "The glutinous oils also keep the flesh more moist," he says. He is also happy to take smaller fish from the fishermen which are below the quota size and would otherwise be thrown back overboard, dead. For a kitchen that also butchers its own meat - taking bones for stock and trimmings for pâtés and rillettes - this approach to the catch is an extension of good kitchen management: avoid waste, and work with what's available. He even uses, for a salad, the claws from the spider crabs whose bodies the fishermen have used for bait.
"The French and Spanish seem happier to fiddle around with the smaller fish," he says. "But in this country people want something that only takes five minutes to prepare - probably in case they miss their favourite cookery programme on the telly."
Not that Hales is evangelical. One starter, the only real departure from the European and British-slanted menu, is a gurnard, cuttlefish and king prawn Thai salad (£6.50). The king prawns - like his organic farmed salmon and smoked haddock - are not local but still fish he is happy to buy. "With the organic-and-local agenda you can trip yourself up," he explains. "I love smoked haddock, so I'm not going to not serve it just because it's not local."
For the salad, he chargrills prawns, gurnard and cuttlefish, which he first cooks in a court bouillon to tenderise it - as you would with octopus. These are mixed with typical Thai flavours of lemon grass, lime leaf, lime zest and juice, coriander and chilli.
Hales cook with three chefs in the kitchen, and on Friday and Saturday nights the 30-seat restaurant is filled twice over. With relatively low rents - compared with, say, Brighton - he can price the menu competitively, especially the lunchtime and evening set menus for £13 or £17 for three courses respectively. "There's a good little scene down here," he says. "There is a joke about the curse of Hastings, being ‘Once you arrive, you can never leave' - but I'm happy with that."
What's on the menu
- Fish soup with rouille and croûtons, £4.50
- Crab and artichoke salad with toasted sourdough bread, £6.50
- Smoked breast of duck with watercress and orange salad, £6.50
- Slow-roasted belly of pork, mustard mash, red wine sauce, £12.50
- Whole baked red mullet, chargrilled vegetables, salsa verde, £14.50
- Fillet of turbot, ragoût of summer vegetables, herb crème fraîche, £19.50
- Tuscan plum tart, whipped vanilla cream, £4
- Chocolate truffle cake with crème fraîche and Kent cherries, £4
- Selection of cheese and chutney, £5
Because it feeds on shrimps and baby crabs, gurnard has a distinct shellfish flavour - grill the skin to get a prawny taste.
St Clement's, 3 Mercatoria, St Leonards on Sea, East Sussex.
Tel: 01424 200355. Website: www.stclementsrestaurant.co.uk