The head chef at new city centre vegan eatery Natural Healthy Foods, Nick Shrimpton talks Asian flavours, the growing ‘raw-volution’ and his secret Stoke-on-Trent ‘smuggler’
Tell us about your cooking
I found South Indian cuisine was by and large intrinsically vegan so I latched on to it from an early stage and mastered all the standard preparations. I started to meet Malaysians, Indonesians and Thai people who wanted to share their culinary heritage with me and so began to reinterpret their food into vegan form. I consider everything I do to be authentic – it’s not watered down to suit anybody’s palate. If the recipe calls for 20 bird’s eye chillis then that’s what I’m going to use. Understanding why different cultures eat different foods fascinates me and it’s my lifelong ambition to learn as much as I can. I’ve been cooking vegan for more years than I can remember and the growing ‘raw-volution’ has been particularly interesting to explore as it opens up so many possibilities for innovation.
How did you become a chef?
After being made redundant in the retail management sector I decided it was time to change career paths and fulfill my passion for cooking. I’m entirely self-taught. I trained in the school of hard knocks. I got my lucky break working for Andy Varma at the now-defunct Tiffin Bites in Selfridges. From there I progressed to head chef at Sri Banana Leaf in Selly Oak. My speciality is firmly rooted in the South Indian vegetarian cuisine but has touched upon a lot of Malaysian and Indonesian cuisine as I try to present a vegan offering that draws on traditional recipes while using new foods trends to forge a unique culinary style.
What do you eat when at home?
South Indian staples like Sambar and Rasam on rice are now like beans on toast to me so I always keep a supply in the fridge.
Who’s the best chef in the world and why? And who’s the best in Brum?
Sanjay Thumma the ‘Vah Chef’ – he’s such an inspirational character and his philosophy of sharing his skill and passion for cooking to enrich people’s lives is awesome.
Is the customer always right?
No, they are not but they always come first. There’s a difference.
Share a cooking tip
Always follow the recipe; tasting as you go is a non-sensor. For example, you can’t make a curry more ‘cinnamony’ once you’ve finished cooking it as the cinnamon is the first ingredient that hits the oil – if you don’t get it right at the start it can’t be rectified later.
What was your favourite food as a kid?
I remember my mum’s curries and lentil bake as being the highlight of the week… and cauliflower cheese had to be the worst punishment I could ever have!
Food heaven and food hell?
Heaven is a bowl of sambar and sona masoori rice, hell is an insipid sweet and under-seasoned Thai Green Curry by a chef who has hopelessly misunderstood an iconic dish.
What’s the most unusual thing you’ve eaten?
Definitely Oncom! An Indonesian fermented soya bean waste product similar to Tempeh but with a red mouldy exterior. A lady who has an Indonesian grocery store in Stoke-on-Trent ‘smuggled’ some in on airfreight for me and I haven’t since recovered from its cheesy, mouldiness!
If you weren’t a chef, what would you be?
A has-been 90’s skateboard pro
What do you recommend from this evening’s menu?
Creamed red rice risotto with sage roasted butternut squash, five bean chilli with dark chocolate and balsamic vinegar and South Indian-style lemon and lime millet.
TRY NICK’S SOUTH INDIAN LEMON AND LIME MILLET
- 1 cup millet
- Coconut oil
- 1 tsp black mustard seeds
- 1 tsp each urad dhal and chana dhal
- 1 sprig curry leaves
- 4 dry chillis, broken in half
- 1-inch ginger, finely chopped
- ½ tsp turmeric powder
- Juice and zest of 1 x lemon and 1 x lime
- Salt to taste
Heat the oil in a small pan and crackle the mustard seeds followed by the dhals and fry until they turn red. Add the curry leaves, chillis and asafoetida and fry until the chillis puff up. Add the ginger and turmeric and stir briefly followed by the millet and lemon zest. Add enough water to cook the millet, cover and simmer over a low heat until all the water is absorbed and the millet is fluffy; add the lemon and lime juice and season to taste, fluff through and garnish with slices of lemon or lime.