Bray is home to some of the finest in experimental cooking, but says The Hind’s Head James Gray, expect some old favourites as their doors open once again
Never have I been so excited about a Scotch egg. It’s my first wedding anniversary, the year is 2013, and to mark the occasion my wife and I wanted to experience the experimental work of Heston Blumenthal. I had heard so much about his soft-boiled Scotch egg, so The Hind’s Head in Bray was the location to finally get my chops around it. It most certainly didn’t disappoint.
Just a few months later, Peter Gray joined the team at The Hind’s Head, and it sounds as if it was something similar that drew him to the area. “Obviously working as part of Heston’s team is a great honour,” he says, “he’s a pioneer in our industry and one of a kind, so being able to be around that and be a big part of the business’s future was a big draw.”
Back then, in February 2014, Gray joined as a sous chef and within three years he had taken over as head chef at the iconic venue, which dates back to the 15th century. Just as Blumenthal has become known for his amazing concoctions, Gray’s career to date has seen him mix it up, working everywhere from Yorkshire and Lancashire, to the French alps. “I’ve been lucky enough to travel [around] the world, but Bray is very much my home now,” he smiles. “It has a character all of its own, which The Hind’s Head plays a very big part of, so I am proud to be able to cook here. The Hind’s Head has played a pioneering role in the resurgence of British pub food, so when I got offered the chance to be head chef I leapt at it.”
The proud owner of a Michelin star, The Hind’s Head is seen as the more relaxed sibling to Blumenthal’s other Bray behemoth. “It’s a different offering here at The Hind’s Head as opposed to the Fat Duck,” Gray explains. “Here we are a lot more informal in the menu, but still use Heston’s innovative techniques and principals, all backed up with great produce. Heston has always wanted for The Hind’s Head to be a place where anyone, including him, can come and relax and this is reflected in both the food from the kitchen, but also our great Front of House team. That said, Heston is always around and pushing us to try new things.”
It may be a more relaxed offering, but the menu still excites. “We are inspired by a lot of things,” Gray says about the process of creating a new dish. “Historical research has been a key part of our journey and we often look to the past to inspire our food. This shown in things like our steamed oxtail pudding and chocolate wine slush, but we’re always sensitive to the seasons and our location, so we have many dishes which take their start from these elements too. Coming up with ideas is part of the job and the challenge is turning them into dishes and drinks, which are firstly delicious, but then also sit well on the menu. So that’s the difficult part, but it’s hugely satisfying to see things go from an idea on paper to something people enjoy in the dining room or in the cocktail lounge upstairs.”
Unfortunately given the circumstances, there has been time over the past 15 months to work on new things. “This last year has been one of the toughest I have ever known,” Gray says unsurprisingly. “Over the various lockdowns we provided a ‘Hind’s Head at Home’ menu, which was a new and exciting challenge for us and we learnt a lot. Food-wise, we know we have a great product here, but we’ve had some time to look at the whole menu and bring in one or two changes. We have added some lovely spring time dishes, such as a pickled lemon and goat’s curd salad with toasted hazelnuts, roasted cauliflower with celeriac tea and a beautiful chilled soup made with English strawberries served with fromage blanc infused with tonka bean and coriander seeds.”
And, as if pre-empting the question, Gray adds: “We’ve got some popular favourites here and those are most definitely coming back: our triple cooked chips, the pea and ham soup, the quaking pudding and… the soft-boiled Scotch egg.”