Paul Merrett spent his formative years in London kitchens, including as an apprentice at The Ritz and working for high-profile chefs including Gary Rhodes. A regular on television cookery programmes including Saturday Kitchen, Paul is also an accomplished author and chef director of London-based Jolly Fine Pub Group. Now, he splits his time between his Brixton home and Cheshire where he is working with the skilled team at Hilltop Country House in Prestbury, to develop exquisite menus for couples planning to marry.

Tell us about your work with Hilltop Country House.

After lockdown, I reopened my two pubs, spent a year getting them back on track, then put head chefs into them so I could look at other projects. I was approached by the team at Hilltop to see if I could develop the menus and the team.

Hilltop Country House is a beautiful venue. I loved it immediately. The kitchen team were enthusiastic and keen to learn so it was an easy decision to get involved. I work with the guys on various events but also spend time with the top team helping to develop the food.

What do you like about creating special meals for couples on their wedding day?

It’s the ultimate day in two people’s lives and we work hard to make sure the food matches the occasion. We always take time to chat through the food with the couple at the beginning of the planning stage. Food is such an important part of life that it’s fitting to celebrate a happy occasion by sharing food with family and friends.

First dish you learned to cook?

Apple pie. I did a year of home economics when I was nine. I loved the lessons but, sadly when I went on to secondary school, boys could only do woodwork or metalwork classes – cooking was only for girls. Luckily, times have changed, and both my kids did cookery at school. Everyone should be able to cook.

Most vivid childhood food memory?

My granny’s roast for sure. Every other Sunday we would visit and always have a roast – beef or lamb. She was a proper English home cook. She had a small repertoire, but all her food tasted amazing. She and my grandpa had a big garden and grew all their fruits and vegetables. I realised later in life I was hugely inspired by her cooking. Pudding would have been a seasonal fruit crumble – with Bird’s Custard.

Most memorable meal out?

I’ve been lucky to eat at many fabulous restaurants including El Bulli in Spain, Vong in New York and most of this country’s acclaimed restaurants. My most favourite was Punk Royale in Stockholm. It’s a dining experience like no other, pitch-black inside, dry ice, your phone is taken and locked away and you are brought a succession of bizarre, crazy dishes.

Favourite ingredient?

I get into ingredients and overuse them for a while before moving on to the next. I’m currently reliving my love of curry leaves. I worked in Sri Lanka for a while and curry leaves were an essential ingredient. You must buy fresh not dried.

Your go-to snack?

I’m currently doing the Zoe eating plan. Tragically, my go-to snacks – KitKats, Snickers, etc – all score badly. I’m now making do with roasted cashew nuts. I’m not happy about it.

If you weren't a chef, what would you be?

If I was starting over, I’d love to work in the music industry. If it was a career change, I’d love to retrain as a nutritionist. I find food and how it affects us fascinating.

Your dream dinner guest?

I’d need a big table: Paul Weller, Angela Rayner, Nelson Mandela, Neil Young and Nina Simone.

What's your guilty food pleasure?

A cheddar cheese and strawberry jam sandwich on white bloomer. I shouldn’t... but I do.

Who are your local food and drink heroes?

The man who did more than anyone for the food scene is Paul Heathcote. When I was an upcoming head chef, he was one of the country’s elite chefs. I love his passion for local produce.

Another is our own head chef at Hilltop, Iain Winnard. Iain got married at Hilltop years ago. He was so keen to know everything about the menu that eventually they asked if he’d like to work a day or two in the kitchen. He took a week off from his day job and loved it.

When they were looking for a chef, they asked Iain. Now, here he is running one of Cheshire’s elite wedding venues.

A hospitality industry person who inspires?

The late great Gary Rhodes was my most inspiring boss – a hugely talented chef who changed the face of British cooking. He was also a massive Man United fan, as am I. One of my most treasured memories was going to Old Trafford with him and meeting the players after the game. We then sat with Alex Ferguson in his office for two hours, drinking red wine and talking football.

A place you love to eat?

I love Tapa in Bollington – a great local restaurant doing some funky food. I also like Picturedrome in Macclesfield. The only problem is I can’t get past the chicken ramen. Every time I go, I think I’ll try something different.

A career highlight?

The answer should be winning 1 Michelin Star – twice. I’m happy to have achieved that level. Honestly, I’d say writing my three cookery books has been a bigger achievement. It’s a massive commitment and a great feeling when you receive the published book.

What's next?

Iain and I have created exciting menus using local produce wherever we can – and there is so much amazing produce in this part of the world. Hilltop is looking busy, so my mission is to work closely with the team ensuring we are consistently delivering the best event food in the area.

Your wish for 2024?

To see our progress continue. It’s been rewarding seeing the team embrace a new style of cooking and I’ve enjoyed creating dishes that are a big part of so many happy occasions.

Favourite dish

‘Rather than my own favourite dish, which is probably a chicken biriyani, here is something I can’t remove from my menus,’ says Paul. ‘It’s become a huge customer favourite, and they won’t let me replace it. Its organic Scottish salmon, sashimi style, with a crispy shallot and chilli crunch, served with an avocado, lime and wasabi puree and pickled black radish.’

Great British Life: Organic Scottish salmon, sashimi style at the Hilltop Country House in PrestburyOrganic Scottish salmon, sashimi style at the Hilltop Country House in Prestbury (Image: Hilltop Country House in Prestbury)