After years working in the world’s best kitchens, Lichfield chef Liam Dillon is leading the charge of his home city’s foodie revolution. Amy Norbury discovers more
Copenhagen’s Noma. New York’s Eleven Madison Park. Sydney’s Quay. Restaurants which have regularly found themselves named among the very best in the world. Restaurants which have each, at one point in their illustrious history, been lauded as the very best eatery on their respective continents.
And restaurants which have all earned a place on the rather astonishing CV of Lichfield chef Liam Dillon.
With his undeniable talent in the kitchen, coming from years of honing his culinary skills under some of the best in the business, Liam could have walked into a plum role in many of the world’s best restaurants. But the fiercely ambitious 31-year-old has set his sights on carving his own name into the foodie history books.
Returning to his home city to open up his first restaurant two years ago, Liam has been at the forefront of something of a foodie revolution in Lichfield.
His eatery, The Boat Inn, was recently named Newcomer of the Year at the prestigious Estrella Damm Top 50 Gastropubs awards. And don’t let the term ‘gastropub’ fool you; the list includes lauded venues such as Tom Kerridge’s two Michelin-starred The Hand and Flowers, The Sportman in Kent and Abergavenny’s The Hardwick, widely regarded as some of best restaurants in the country.
The accolade is just the latest in a slew of awards bestowed on Liam and the team at The Boat Inn during what has been a whirlwind first two years in business.
As well as being named Best Independent Restaurant at last year’s Taste of Staffordshire Awards, Liam himself was crowned Best Chef at the Midlands Food, Drink and Hospitality Awards, beating off competition from Brummie favourites Aktar Islam and Andy Waters, as well as two Michelin-starred Sat Bains. The previous incumbent? Brad Carter, head honcho at Michelin-starred Carter’s of Moseley.
“Newcomer of the Year was incredible really,” says the chef when we sit down for a chat at the tail end of a busy lunch service. “The acknowledgment of what myself and the team are trying to achieve here was phenomenal. The room was full of Michelin stars so just to be a part of it was flattering.
“But these accolades, for me, help to secure bookings, which is what makes this business successful.”
It should come as little surprise to anyone in the know that The Boat Inn is attracting such attention. After all, this is a restaurant which earned a visit from a Michelin inspector “to see what the fuss was about” just three-and-a-half weeks after opening.
“There were builders everywhere and it was carnage; I’d been working so hard to get the place opened and it was so stressful,” Liam recalls.
But the evidence of a work in progress didn’t deter Michelin, and The Boat Inn impressed enough to earn an immediate nod in their coveted guide.
While we chat, Liam keeps one eye on the huge open kitchen, where his team are cooking up a storm for the last of the lunchtime stragglers. His eye for detail, even from a distance, is immaculate, and the fact that the team are going above and beyond and exceeding expectations across the board is very much evident.
“We’ve come a long way from where the business was previously,” says Liam. “Every day we’re making the menu better, every day we’re making the menu stronger.
“But I don’t want to be recognised as just a special occasion restaurant as such; yes we do a tasting menu, yes we have expensive bottles of wine, yes we offer some premium products. But we also have a very good value lunch menu, a very good but accessible wine list – it’s affordable for people who want to pop in every week or every fortnight.
“It’s an affluent city, and it’s becoming more of a trendy city; there’s been a lot of change, and there’s been a surge in independents, which is great.”
There’s no air of pretension at The Boat; Liam and his team are happy to let the food do the talking. And from the bread which is freshly baked every day to the divine chef’s snacks which accompany the a la carte offerings, they certainly have a lot to say.
“From the minute I opened the restaurant, I’ve always been cooking for the people of Lichfield,” says Liam.
“It’s all about what I feel people want to come and eat. It’s not crazy, it’s just honest, and that’s what we do. It’s food I believe in.”
The tasting menu, however, is where Liam gets to showcase his culinary chops.
“I do play around with the tasting menu; that’s for me, and for the guys in the kitchen, to keep them interested and to push us all. Now, people are starting to trust us and what we’re doing, and going for the tasting menu more often, which gives us the chance to experiment more and to bring in new produce.
“Whether it’s a braised bit of meat, or roasted fish and chip, or the tasting menu, the one thing I’m trying to achieve here is that whatever you have when you come to The Boat, I want it to be something you can’t do yourself at home.”
While it’s obvious that Liam is meant to be in a kitchen, cooking wasn’t first on his list when it came to career options.
“I hated school; I was a late developer and I wasn’t very attentive, but my family always instilled the importance of staying in education and getting qualifications so I stayed on to do my A levels,” he says.
But beyond education, Liam was unsure about which career path to take. Initial thoughts were towards the RAF or marines but his parents Cathi and Mike – who have always been a huge support for their son – were less keen on the idea. So after a family meeting, Liam decided to find another avenue to pursue.
“I’ve always enjoyed cooking, and I think you’ve either got the passion for it or you haven’t,” he says. “For me, making someone else happy with what I can do is the biggest attraction. You can change someone’s emotions and make them feel a certain way, just by cooking for them.”
After attending an open day at Birmingham College of Food, he fell in love with buzz of the kitchen and the idea of being part of a team. He signed up straight away.
Determined to cut his culinary teeth at the highest level, Liam left college and headed to the capital for a baptism of fire in one of the most prestigious kitchens in the business, under acclaimed two Michelin-starred chef Marcus Wareing at his eponymous restaurant at The Berkeley.
With a formidable reputation, Wareing – now a judge on MasterChef: the Professionals, who himself was a protege of one Gordon Ramsey before a much-publicised falling-out between the two chefs – was a hard taskmaster.
“It was a tough environment, but it made me realise the level I needed to be at,” says Liam. “It was exhausting work but I thrived on it, and if I hadn’t gone there I don’t think I’d be where I am now. You’ve got to be a certain sort of person to take the pressure of that sort of kitchen and put it to the back of your mind. I was doing 18 hours a day and working myself into ground.”
After six months Liam found himself – undeservedly, he feels – on the wrong end of Wareing’s hairdryer treatment and decided enough was enough.
Determined to hone his trade among the very upper echelons of the culinary world, Liam set his sights on a new challenge.
With a passion for seafood and a love of Australia, there was one restaurant which stood out among the rest. Quay in Sydney, with great Australian chef Peter Gilmore at the helm, was 26th in the world at the time, so Liam applied for a six-month travel visa, jumped on a plane and went after his dream job.
“Learning how they looked after fish and seafood was incredible,” says Liam. “I worked around a lot of the sections so over the six months I saw a lot and did a lot. I knew I wasn’t going to be there for a long time so I crammed in as much as I could.
“I could have stayed longer but I’d have had to move restaurants because of the visa situation. They offered my a place at one of their sister restaurants, but I went to Australia for that job, and I was very lucky to get it, so I thought if I couldn’t work at Quay anymore then it was time to go home.”
Back home, Will Holland held a Michelin star at La Becasse in Ludlow, and a place in his kitchen was to be Liam’s next stepping stone.
“He was young to be in the position he was in, he was going to be in the kitchen every day and that was attractive to me,” he says.
“In a lot of restaurants which have three or two stars, it’s only the senior members of staff who touch fish and who touch meat, but at one-star level you see a lot more. Under Will I was breaking all the fish and meat down, I was making all the sauces.
“Will took me under his wing and pushed me really hard. He knew that I knew what it took, and that he could lean on me. And he was one of the first people I was working hard for, not only for myself but to make him happy. And he repaid me by looking after me.
“I left on really good grounds and we’re still friends now, which is a really nice thing especially when you take into account how hard kitchens can be.”
With an eye on working in the States, Liam headed to New York for stints in the kitchen at Eleven Madison Park – at the time eighth in the world – and Restaurant Daniel, both three stars, and two-starred Gilt. He was offered a permanent role at Eleven Madison Park, but difficulties in getting a working visa meant his hopes were dashed.
Undeterred, Liam won an internship at the world’s best restaurant, Copenhagen’s Noma, and was once again on his travels.
“It was the best restaurant in the world and I wanted to see what the fuss was about, what made it so special,” Liam says.
“It was an amazing experience; the kitchen was incredible, the way they dealt with the ingredients. And it was such a tight knit team; you walked into a kitchen which was just winning.
“The interns were just the dogsbodies, but we got to work in different areas; one week I was in the development kitchen, one week on staff dinners – which was probably more nerve-wracking than cooking for the customers.”
Two months into his three-month internship, an opportunity came up to be part of a restaurant opening in Chelsea. It was, Liam felt, too good a chance to turn down, so it was back to the UK.
While being involved in the opening proved invaluable experience, the restaurant itself lacked the kitchen buzz Liam craved from his Marcus Wareing days. So he soon found himself back in that heady environment at Tom Sellers’ newly Michelin-starred Restaurant Story.
“No two days are the same, you’re chasing your tail most of the day but when it gets to service that buzz and energy is there,” he says.
Suitably impressing during his 18 months at Restaurant Story, Liam was asked by Tom Sellers to help set up The Lickfold Inn in West Sussex. And it was from Sussex to Staffordshire, where it was time to turn the dream of running his own place into a reality.
Back in the Midlands, Liam worked in a temp role while looking for a site to set up on his own, investing every spare penny in kitchen equipment which he stored in his garage in preparation for finding his perfect restaurant venture, initially looking at sites in Birmingham before landing on a place in his home city.
“I thought that to make a business I needed more passing trade and more people,” says Liam. “But then, when I looked at other chefs who have done well, they’ve just created their own thing, they’re own little honeypot almost. So that’s the journey we’re now on, we’re creating something here in Lichfield.
“It all just made sense; growing up in Lichfield and coming back to Lichfield. This is my baby now, I’m trying to nurture the place for make it a solid, viable business first of all, and then to get the accolades to attract people to come here.
“We’re changing all the time and we’re perfecting what we do; it’s a very special place.”
And with plenty of interest from Michelin already, surely a star is next on Liam’s agenda?
“Anyone that says they’re not interested in the Michelin Guide or a star is a liar,” he laughs. “The impact it would have on a business, because of the following they have, would be enormous.
“I’ve worked at a high standard for all of my career so I’m just doing what I’ve always done here. I remember talking to Jason Atherton when I went to eat at his place years ago, and he said if we work like a three star, it doesn’t matter if we don’t have the three stars because we’re still sticking to that standard. And that’s what I’m doing here. If we work to the standard of a one star, then it doesn’t matter if we have it or not, it’s having that standard in place.
“But ultimately, it would be amazing. Getting a star here, where I grew up, would be insane.”
Insane? Quite the opposite, in fact. Will Liam be the chef to bring Michelin glory to Lichfield? Few in the know would bet against it.
For more details and to make a booking visit www.theboatinnlichfield.com