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Chef Callum: ‘The high quality of Herefordshire produce helped Verzon team win 2 AA Rosettes’

Chef Callum: ‘The high quality of Herefordshire produce helped Verzon team win 2 AA Rosettes’

CALLUM MCDONALD, head chef at Verzon House near Ledbury, has led the restaurant team to win two AA Rosettes for Culinary Excellence. With his background in Michelin Star restaurants, an ethos to use local produce and a ‘work hard’ mentality, you get the feeling there is more to come from Callum, which is good news for diners because he nearly didn’t become a chef! Taste The Marches caught up with the chef who believes quality Herefordshire produce has much to do with the Verzon’s success.

AS HEREFORDSHIRE strengthens its reputation as the UK’s next big food destination, a new breed of fine dining chefs from London are heading this way and are bringing their refined culinary skills acquired in Michelin Star restaurants with them.

With an abundance of seasonal produce, heritage beef, quality venison and game on their doorsteps, and an opportunity to build their own kitchen teams and menus at country house restaurants, Herefordshire is fast-becoming an attractive proposition for ambitious culinary talents.

Chef Callum McDonald worked under Michelin star chefs Michel Roux Jnr and Billy Reid

Chef Callum McDonald worked with Michelin star chefs Michel Roux Jnr and Billy Reid in London but these days he’s more at home working with local Herefordshire produce

For some London chefs with young families, this beautiful food-rich county offers a tranquil life away from the hustle and bustle of the capital – and a few less working hours. It also offers the chance to be as close to the source of their ingredients as they can.

It was Herefordshire’s quieter lifestyle and passion for food provenance that inspired 30-year-old London chef Callum McDonald to move here. Done with his 18-hour days, and with a desire to change his hectic city life, Callum is now head chef at Verzon House near Ledbury. In Herefordshire, Callum has found the perfect life for his family and at the Verzon he has found a creative environment in which to cook inspiring and delicious dishes, and to make his own mark on British cooking.

Cod with braised chickpeas and a delicious wedge of succulent pork belly

Cod with braised chickpeas and a delicious wedge of succulent pork belly

Callum’s style of cuisine is classic dining with a modern twist made with produce from the heart of Herefordshire. The food at the Verzon is exciting, full of flavour and beautifully presented. You definitely get the feeling there are more inspirational dishes to come from Callum, which is a relief for diners because he nearly took an entirely different career path.

“I was 16 at school in Cambridge when I wanted to join the Army but my mum begged me not to join as there was so much going on in Afghanistan at the time,” explains Callum. “I didn’t join but I knew I still wanted a career that offered discipline, so I took up a catering apprenticeship at the Pink Geranium restaurant under Stephen Saunders.”

Settle in for the afternoon in the bar - after you've had the tonka bean rice pudding creme brûlée

Settle in for a Chase spirit in the Verzon bar – after you’ve had your tonka bean rice pudding creme brûlée

After his apprenticeship with celeb chef Saunders, Callum headed to London where he competed with 10 other young chefs on a week’s trial at Le Gavroche, owned by Michel Roux Jnr. Callum was the chef chosen and he spent the next year learning about cooking and dining in a three-Michelin-star restaurant. “We saw Michel Roux every day,” says Callum. “All the service was in French so I learned a lot and I had to get to know all the keywords as the checks were in French.”

Callum started his day at Le Gavroche on larder duties before having to start his own food prep tasks, and often working till 1am. “I would take in the deliveries at 7am and then deliver the fresh produce to 20 chefs in their different kitchen departments,” he says. It was early days in Callum’s career at Le Gavroche but he learned how important it was to be on top of his game if he wanted to succeed. He also saw many famous faces and personally made chicken wings for Hollywood star Woody Allen!

Meet the honorary Verzon stag, also called Verzon, in the stylish British restaurant

Meet the honorary stag, also called Verzon, in this stylish British restaurant

While working for Michel Roux, Callum says he learned about man-management, managing himself and being efficient and organised – key skills that stood him in good stead for his next move to the Belvedere in Holland Park. The Belvedere’s head chef Billy Reid was another great influence. Billy was trained by the Roux brothers and had worked for the legendary Marco Pierre White. Reid had also held a Michelin star at L’Escargot in Soho and at the Vineyard at Stockcross.

At the Belvedere, Callum progressed from junior sous chef to senior chef de partie before making his next move to the Northcote owned by Michelin star chef Nigel Haworth. The Northcote has a number of associated gastropubs, so Callum gained experience in planning and cooking for around 300 covers across the business on a daily basis.

After his full-on Michelin star experience Callum moved to Herefordshire where he works closely with local food suppliers, looking for consistent quality of seasonal produce and the best cuts of meat and game. With his boss Kate Chase, owner-manager of Verzon House, sharing his passion to use only the best of Herefordshire produce, Callum is well placed to elevate the Verzon to a first class place to dine.

Charred Broccoli and Shropshire Blue soup with walnut and blue cheese sable biscuits

Charred Broccoli and Shropshire Blue soup with handmade walnut and blue cheese sable biscuits

This month, Callum led the catering team to their second AA Rosette for Culinary Excellence. Plans are now afoot for the Verzon’s own kitchen garden, a smoking facility and a food research trip to Australia’s culinary capital of Melbourne. We can only begin to guess what the Verzon has in its sights. Callum modestly says he’s just keeping his head down to progress towards a third AA Rosette. But with cooking as good as this, before too long it could be Michelin that visits to assess the Verzon for his first star.

Whatever happens in the coming months, local diners can always expect a treat at the Verzon. The menu offers three choices per course, which means only delicious seasonal ingredients and quality cooking goes into each plate of food. Dishes are elegant and effortlessly presented, and come with an additional element of surprise.

Medallion of Herefordshire Beef

Medallion of Hereford Beef with roast garlic mash & wild mushroom jus – looked fab, tasted awesome

Our lunch starter of Charred Broccoli and Shropshire Blue soup came with delicate, handmade walnut and blue cheese sable biscuits. Main courses included a beautifully cooked salt Cornish cod on a bed of smoky braised chickpeas, squid, pancetta and an unexpected wedge of succulent pork belly. We also tried the medallion of Hereford beef with roast garlic mash and wild mushroom jus – classic flavours and a visually stunning plate of food.

I’ve only seen tonka beans used on TV’s Great British Menu so it was only going to be one pudding for me and it was the amazing tonka bean rice-pudding crème brulée with poached pear and pear sorbet. We also tried the dark chocolate and marmalade tart with an incredible mascarpone ice cream, which balanced the sweet orange flavours. Portions are very generous and it’s a proper pudding you get, not a few deconstructed bits and pieces on a fancy dish. Prices range from £23 for a two-course lunch or £27 for three with menus changing regularly.

Will two become three? Now with 2 AA Rosettes, the Verzon aims for Culinary Excellence as it progresses towards number 3

With 2 AA Rosettes, the Verzon aims for more culinary excellence

Verzon House itself is large and airy with a quintessentially British feel throughout – check out the huge Union Jack Chesterfield sofa sitting pride of place in the hunting-lodge style bar. The interior design of the restaurant and bar is chic, glamorous and quirky with statement furniture pieces, humorous pictures and eclectic objects dotted around.

Take the giant stag’s head, which you can’t miss in the restaurant and whom the staff have affectionately named Verzon. He hangs majestically above the fireplace, putting this very British restaurant into context in its gorgeous rural setting. The delicious seasonal menu hints that you’re in agricultural Herefordshire while stunning country views, and the tractors you’ve tailed while driving to the Verzon, tell you that the local ingredients that went into your dish haven’t come from far away.

Chef Callum McDonald says he's keeping his head down at the Verzon and progressing for a third AA Rosette - but one day could be claiming his first Michelin Star - we wish him luck

One to watch: Chef Callum McDonald says he’s keeping his head down at the Verzon and wants to progress towards a third AA Rosette. But we think that one day he could be in line for a Michelin star

The restaurant’s eclectic mix of luxurious seating, glamorous ceiling-to floor Britannia-style drapes, intimate chandelier lighting and a roaring fire makes you want to settle in for lunch, the rest of the afternoon and well into the evening. A perfect place to sup in winter.

After your meal you pay in the bar where you can order the iconic vodka and gin products of Williams Chase, or try French wines from the Chases’ vineyard in Provence. A new tasting-demo room and shop at the Verzon has also been completed to host future food and drink events. This light and airy room has gorgeous views of the Malvern Hills and includes cooking facilities to demonstrate what can be done with the best of Herefordshire produce.

The Verzon is a special place to dine and is run by a creative and highly ambitious team with only one aim, ‘to be the best’. Head chef Callum’s ethos is to lead a team that works hard but says: “I’ll never ask them to do anything I wouldn’t do myself.” He adds: “Having the right attitude is 90% of what cooking is about. You have to want to learn and you have to work hard – you can’t come into the industry and think it’s going to be easy!” Having hand-picked his own team you get the feeling they are there to cook to Callum’s London standards.

Callum has certainly lived up to the tough career discipline he set for himself at the age of 16 and now he’s aiming for just as high standards in food provenance, explaining: “You can’t work in a wonderful place like Herefordshire and not use as much local produce as you can.”

Mr Pheasant's bird-ict: What a great example of a chef turning local produce into something spectacular but a note to chef Callum: Woody Allen chicken wings I'll have but don't ever put pheasant wings on the Verzon menu. That wouldn't be good at all, young man.

Mr Pheasant’s bird-ict: A fabulous example of a chef from The Marches turning our local produce into something spectacular but a note to chef Callum, if I may. Young man, while Woody Allen’s chicken wings sound divine please don’t ever put pheasant wings on the Verzon menu. That wouldn’t be good at all. That’s all.

So now we know about Callum McDonald we also have an insight of what this young chef has gone through to bring the most accomplished and inspiring plates of food to the Verzon. Gruelling work in Michelin star restaurants, 18-hour days in London kitchens and a passion to find the best of Herefordshire produce. But most importantly he’s cooked Michelin-star chicken wings for Woody Allen – at Le Gavroche – and you surely can’t get better than that!

Contact details to book a tasty meal
Verzon House website
Call 01531 670 381
Address: Verzon House, Hereford Road, Trumpet HR8 2PZ

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