Daniel Topa, head chef at Nailcote Hall Hotel, explains why he has his auntie in Poland to thank for his career in the kitchen – and why he’d have mash with everything if he could!
Tell us about your cooking
Our typical customer at Nailcote wants very traditional British and French cuisine so this naturally influences my current style. The classics always go down well but I try to incorporate a modern twist. I am absolutely committed to using the finest ingredients – it creates a bit of a headache as we have so many different suppliers. I’m always inspired on my way to work as you drive through the countryside and see what’s in season and the great local produce available.
Describe your perfect meal
Mashed potato would definitely be on the menu – I could eat it all day every day. Also roasted chicken with loads of fresh vegetables. I love tomato and cucumber with creme fraiche. And, of course, if it’s my perfect meal then my wife would be with me too.
How did you become a chef?
To be honest, it was never my dream to be a chef. When I was a boy in Poland my auntie told me that if I trained to be a cook then I would always be able to get a job which sounded good to me. I spent five years at food college and was then lucky enough to find work at one of the best restaurants in Poland called Celebra. I had a two-week holiday in England, fell in love with the country and decided to stay and have worked my from a breakfast chef through to head chef.
What do you eat when at home?
Simple, tasty food – lots of mashed potato, of course, fresh vegetables and rice. My wife tends to do most of the cooking at home – she’s a really good cook and thinks I make too much mess!
Who’s the best chef in the world and why? And who’s the best in Brum?
In the world it’s Marco Pierre White. He completely inspires me and I call him the Daddy. I love his energy and passion – his recipes are the standard that I often refer too. In Birmingham I think the best chef is Adam Stokes. I worked with him for a short while and was so impressed with his style of cooking and the way he takes so many different ingredients and creates perfect balance.
Is the customer always right?
I couldn’t wait to be asked this question! I read a quote from leading chef Sat Baines which I believe answers this for me: “You know the old adage that the customer’s always right? Well I kind of think that the opposite is true. The customer is rarely right. And that is why you must seize control of the circumstance and dominate every last detail: to guarantee that they’re going to have a far better time than they ever would have had if they tried to control it themselves”.
What’s the best thing about being a chef?
I am a perfectionist and want to know what people didn’t like so that I can improve. However, it’s a wonderful feeling when your efforts are really appreciated. We cater for a lot of weddings at the hotel and helping make a perfect day is also very special.
What’s the worst thing about being a chef?
Not being able to control the volume and flow of guests. It’s almost impossible to put out plates of food 100 per cent to your satisfaction when you’re serving 20 covers at the same time.
If you weren’t a chef what would you be?
As a boy I always wanted to be a policeman but the application form was 46 pages long! I’d still like to be in the special forces though and I’m about to join the Territorial Army which will allow me to give something back to this great country.
What do you recommend from this evening’s menu?
The hand-dived scallops are pretty amazing. We serve them with a roast cauliflower puree, Clonakilty black pudding and crispy pancetta. Delicious.
Daniel’s special recipe for: LOIN OF LAMB, SPINACH, POTATO GNOCCHI & PEA PUREE
Ingredients For the lamb:
- Lamb loin
- 1 tbsp of olive oil
- 10g of butter
- 2 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped
- 1 sprig of rosemary, leaves stripped
- Chopped spinach
- 10g of butter
For the pea puree:
- 100g of fresh peas
- 70g of butter
- Black pepper and salt
For the gnocchi:
- 500g of large potatoes
- 1 egg
- 200g of plain flour
- 1 pinch of salt
- 2 knobs of butter
In an ovenproof frying pan, cook lamb loins on high heat in one tablespoon of oil, colouring evenly all over. Add knob of butter and continue until caramelised after around three minutes. Season. Cook in the oven at 180 degrees C for five minutes. Add garlic and rosemary, coat the lamb. Sweat spinach in the butter. Drain well. Cook peas in boiling salted water until tender. Drain, blend with butter in a food processor. Season with salt and black pepper Start the gnocchi by baking potatoes at 180 degrees C for one hour until soft. Remove and scoop out the centres. Pass through a ricer, then fine sieve. In a bowl, work the sieved potatoes, flour and whole egg into a dough. Cut into four pieces. Boil water in a pan. Roll each piece of dough between cling film into a long sausage, blanch for six minutes. Refresh in ice cold water. Once cool, remove cling film, slice each tube into gnocchi parcels. Add a lemon butter sauce by combining white wine, vinegar, thyme, bay and garlic in a pan over a medium to high heat and reduce to 200ml Add cream and boil. Dice butter, whisk in until melted. Sieve contents, season and add lemon juice