We meet the chef of Porthminster Beach Café

The terrace at Porthminster Beach Cafe

The terrace at Porthminster Beach Cafe - Credit: Archant

Diners flock to St Ives for beachside dining at its best – meet the man behind the mains at Porthminster Beach Café

Michael Smith of the Porthminster Beach Cafe

Michael Smith of the Porthminster Beach Cafe - Credit: Archant

Australian-born Michael Smith arrived in St Ives 15 years ago after stints in top kitchens in Melbourne and London. His talent was soon recognised by the owners of Porthminster Beach Café, an art-deco style building right on the golden sands of the eponymous beach – and he has been at the helm ever since.

Under Michael’s guiding hand, the restaurant has been the subject of a TV series (Beach Café, 2006), published a well-loved cook book, established a coastal kitchen garden, and helped develop the unique beach-side St Ives Food & Drink Festival. This forward-thinking chef was one of the first in Cornwall to introduce foraged produce into his menus, adding a layer of local flavour to his Asian-inspired seafood dishes. Michael is also the executive chef of Porthminster Kitchen, which offers a playful take on modern Cornish cuisine overlooking St Ives Harbour, and Porthgwidden Beach Café, a bustling family dining destination above a picturesque cove. porthminstercafe.co.uk

Porthminster Beach Cafe

Porthminster Beach Cafe - Credit: Archant

How would you describe your food style?

My style equates to modern seafood. It’s all about ingredients and sourcing; it’s this search which really brings out the best in my cooking. The fantastic seafood in Cornwall creates all sorts of possibilities but I do think it lends itself particularly well to some Asian-style dishes. The zingy flavours compliment the freshness of the fish. However, I don’t follow one regional cooking style – a lot of my early training was in Italian and French cooking so the menu always features traditional European recipes too.

Who has been your greatest food influence?

My first head chef in Melbourne was Robert Castellani. He had a fierce reputation in Australia for demanding the absolute highest standards of consistency and pride in the food that was served. He also taught me about Italian food and classic French sauces.

How important is seasonality in your menu?

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We rely on fresh, sustainable local seafood so availability dictates the menu. In the winter or when the sea is rough and the boats don’t go out, we use more locally reared meats and celebrate those rich, comforting flavours. We forage daily along the coastal path and grow as much as we can in our restaurant garden, so all year round our dishes are given lively touches with fresh herbs, leaves, fruit and edible flowers.

Porthminster Beach

Porthminster Beach - Credit: Archant

What is your favourite flavour of Cornwall?

From the ocean it has to be pepper dulse – a wild-growing native seaweed. It has this incredible punchy flavour and is like nothing else I’ve ever tried. It’s definitely worth the label of ‘truffle of the sea’. Try it simply on a grilled Cornish Scallop lathered with butter or olive oil.

What ingredient couldn’t you do without?

The humble onion. Without an onion in our kitchen we would be completely lost.

What was your most memorable meal?

The most memorable meal that I have ever had would have to be the meal I shared with my wife, our family and friends at the Eden project on my wedding day – it was completely magical.

Favourite seafood?

Freshly caught mackerel is unbeatable – there are so many different ways to prepare and cook this fish. Someone should dedicate a cook book to it!

What makes a great meal?

Great company, food, service and wine all in no particular order, as all of these components are equally important in different ways.

Why did you become a chef?

It seemed the best choice for me when I was 16. At the time I didn’t like my teachers and I was drawn to the slightly off-kilter lifestyle, working at nights and surfing during the day! Now I love it because it’s a constant challenge. I think the industry is changing a lot; there is a general acknowledgement that working 70-hour weeks discourages talented people from staying in the kitchen, and there are more women coming into the industry and changing it for the better. We still need to encourage more youngsters into kitchens and not scare them off by bullying and bravado. It can be a great career for anyone in Cornwall, where seasonality doesn’t have such a huge impact anymore.

What is your food heaven?

A huge plate of native oysters and a glass of Cornish bubbles – you can’t beat the combination!

What is your idea of food hell?

A kitchen with no onions, garlic, butter or lemons – the basis of all good cooking!

What’s going to be big in 2018?

It’s already big but getting bigger! I guess you’d call it ‘Chef Theatre’. People are intrigued by how we deliver the food and they want to see the real process. Open kitchens – where you sit watching the chefs as they work – are a better insight into the processes that go into putting food onto a plate.

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