Dean Crews was appointed Group Executive Head Chef in 2017, having been involved in the hospitality sector for over 19 years. He is passionate about food and enjoys bringing together creativity and innovation to deliver great customer experience. Find out more about his start in the industry, insights on current food trends, and his views on the future of food hospitality.
How did you get started cooking and what were your early experiences with food?
My entry into cooking was not so exactly how most do it but at the same time it felt very natural for me. I began cooking at such a young age that I think it was always going to be my future…I just never realised it. At that time, it was not seen as a serious profession by anyone I knew, it seemed a lot more niche and unobtainable. I grew up cooking after school with my mum and eventually I wanted to be left to it and cook for the family. I am not sure how much of this was a success but it taught me a lot about flavours, cooking, experimenting and burning things. I was lucky enough to grow up in an area where farms were everywhere so we would always be fruit picking in the summer and Autumn. My mum comes from South Africa, from a farming community, so it was very normal for her, and therefore for us all to be making things regularly from a young age.
Eventually whilst studying marketing, I worked in a Café. I excelled and after 3 years became head chef. During that experience, I learned two key things from my mentors: “learn from the best you can” and “work hard, enjoy it always, read, and be humble”.
What changes have you seen in the hospitality/food industry since over the course of your career?
Over the course of my career to date I have seen food change so much. The entire dining experience has changed. When I started it was all silver, brass, crystal decanters, starched everything, and so on. The food was so technique and process heavy, steeped in tradition with no wavering. There were of course mavericks who are now household names but generally eating out was an experience not that many had. Now it’s the opposite, you can eat out multiple times a week without fear of it being unhealthy or gluttonous indulgence. Food trends have become more fast paced from one month to the next. We have access to so many ingredients now anyone can try anything, 25 years ago I didn’t know many chefs who had ever seen lemongrass, now you can get it anywhere.
“I learned two key things from my mentors. Learn from the best you can, and work hard, enjoy it always, read, and be humble.”
The way kitchens are run is also very different. The amount of people is a lot less, but the general mood is very different. When I started you would not speak to the chef unless he asked you something, now that seems crazy. Discipline was everything and whilst I am a believer in having a backbone of that in any kitchen, I really also believe in letting chefs breathe, let them imagine and try things. Listen to their ideas and explain why they could or couldn’t work. I think the industry needs that, they are the future of it. The customer these days has an open mind and so should we. Dining Is so much more relaxed and as a result is accessible for all. The modern-day approach for me is perfectly right. People now know about ingredients, styles, modern cooking methods and what kitchens are like. I think the industry is definitely better for it.
Tell us a bit about some of the current food trends you are witnessing in the industry.
Currently food trends are exploding monthly and some hang about and others merge back into mainstream. Currently older style cooking such as cooking over fire, and using intense heats is very much the thing. Steak concept restaurants have seen a huge resurgence with a new approach and way of thinking. I think the healthy eating philosophy will just continue to gather pace. While things keep moving in different directions of raw food, Asian style, grain food diets, “Caveman cooking” and foraging I think the basic undertone is that people want to eat healthier on a regular basis.
They also like indulgence but want to have the choice. Have a raw late summer courgette salad with organic goat’s curd, land cress and rapeseed oil, but in the same meal you can also have an 80% cacao chocolate mousse, malted soya ice-cream and toasted buckwheat. It’s all a lot more considered now. Food now does not conform really, if you want a fried egg with bacon at dinner time, you will probably get one. Similarly, if you want a small steak, smashed avocado and poached egg for breakfast you will also find somewhere. We are in a great time of knowledge, engagement and appreciation of food. This thought process for me is the future of the hospitality experience.
What are you particularly passionate about in your role as Group Executive Head Chef and what do you see as the future of hospitality from a food perspective?
In my role at Kew Green I see the innovation side of things just pure excitement. Every chef has an idea, a concept, an innovation a crazy dish they think of. Most never see the light of day for many reasons but I see my experience, knowledge and thinking being part of this process. As a team of chefs, we will be meeting more to innovate and discuss what’s next, what’s now, how do we do that. All this is vital for them, and for us as a leader in the industry. I think you naturally motivate with this approach as you tap into people’s desire for the job. I want people to be excited about new menus changes and innovations we have. We will start to use more customer data at granular and mass level to make changes to our menus, to ensure we give them what they want and also to allow them to steer us and us them.
“We are in a great time of knowledge, engagement and appreciation of food. This thought process for me is the future of the hospitality experience.”
In the future, we need to ensure making the food and delivery of it is a guest centric experience. Make it relevant, listening to what the market wants but also offering something new that people can try for the first time. I think the industry will continue to see growth from the “normal” high end places but also the middle market will just get wider and wider in terms of offers, styles, concepts. This eventually cascades all the way to supermarket shelves. Clients attending weddings and functions want a more customisable experience that they feel they are part of the conception. Business clients will demand and expect the same level of food from a conference as they do at a dinner as they would in a restaurant. The healthy eating movement and rise of flexitarianism, the idea of dipping in and out of vegan, vegetarian, paleo, low carb diets will become the norm. As an industry, we will need to acknowledge and provide for that.