meet the chef: Abbi Saunt

Abbi Saunt is Head Chef at Creake Abbey Café and Food Hall in north Norfolk. With her team around her, Sous Chef Shane Carter and Pal L Wrzava, Abbi uses the amazing countryside and changing seasons as her inspiration – with delectable results!

My first experience in a professional kitchen was at the age of 14 as pot wash in a small restaurant in Norwich. It was a fully male team, and my sister was a waitress. I did four hours on a Saturday, and I was terrified. The noise, the heat and the language were completely overwhelming… I just put my head down and started washing up. At the end of my first shift, I remember the head chef shouting to the rest of the team to get involved and help me in pot wash. This small act of kindness made me realise what it feels like to be part of a team. From that day on, I wanted to do anything related to food and cheffing, be it pot wash, waitress, restaurant manager, private chef, or head chef. I wanted to be around food and part of a team. 

I was inspired by a great friend to start cooking. He was a chef and first taught me how to make a white sauce then a beef bourguignon – I was transported by the smells and rich colours of that dish. My parents had a pub and as soon as I was old enough, at 17, I was allowed to start working in the kitchen, which was not in use. The small pie and mash menu I created was a huge hit with the customers and led my mum to officially open the kitchen. I got feedback from our guests, and my mum and I created a full menu together – with me actually teaching my mum to cook. She will admit that now! It was such an adventure and a great bonding experience for us.

Essentially for me, food is the language of love. It could be a birthday cake that lights up someone’s eyes, or a romantic dinner that brings on the butterflies, even comfort food after a long day at
work. Food is the best way to lift someone’s mood or make them feel special and happy.

big break 
I am very lucky to have a wonderful family support system. So, when I said I was moving to Barcelona to work as a private chef for a family, I knew my mum would have my back even if things got tough. Knowing this, I packed up and jumped on a plane. This was a huge turning point for me – a different country, different seasonal foods and a different language. I was completely out of my comfort zone as I travelled with this family to their private residences across Europe. During these two years, I found a new trust in my cooking skills and ability to listen to what people wanted on their plates. I learned a huge amount from my boss, who was so kind and such an inspiring manager. She really encouraged me to only buy from local producers to create simple but delicious food for her and her family – no mean feat when you don’t speak Spanish! Travel has remained an important part of who I am. Every few years I like to go on a camping adventure around Europe, discovering delicious fresh ingredients in local markets and seeing what I can create on a camping stove.

Creake Abbey  
I joined Creake Abbey in July 2021. I remember my interview: it was a beautiful day, and I was welcomed by Diana Brocklebank Scott, owner, and Alex Wrzava, then General Manager, and we sat in the sunshine. I immediately felt calm and excited about the idea of creating food with Creake Abbey’s amazing landscape in mind. Every morning, arriving at work brings new skies and colours and smells. Being able to project how I feel about the time of year into my food is very important to me. Creake Abbey is a non-stop source of beauty and inspiration. Together we are bringing a new, colourful and seasonal dining experience to all who visit the Creake Abbey Café.

For me, seasonality means colour! 

I spend a lot of time walking with my partner and watching the seasons change in the colour on the leaves and in the sky. It really makes my brain start to buzz with ideas of colours on plates. I tend to visualise a plate before knowing how I will create the flavour. On a recent walk, I spotted the green grass shoots coming through, and felt an urge to create a green salad, with the whites of the snowdrops and yellows of the aconites. I rushed off to buy the ingredients and created a ‘Green Goddess’ salad with oven-roasted chicken and runny boiled egg for the white and yellow on a bed of green beans and watercress. It has been a huge hit on our spring menu in the Café.

The early morning skies where I live are often a deep purple with shades of pink streaked through them as the sun rises. I have used these colours to create a new dish – miso roasted aubergine – with the dark purple flesh of the aubergine contrasting with the warm pink of the ginger and pale pink of the pickled onion. 

When someone sees a plate I serve in the winter, I want them to feel indulged and comforted. In the spring I want them to feel excited about the fresh new starts and life that spring brings. Working on my allotment and seeing the fruits or vegetables grow and change in colour is also a really wonderful thing for new menu ideas, even if the rabbits do get to my crops before I get a chance to cook them!

keep it local 
I love using Fresh Approach, who provide all my fruit, vegetables, salad leaf, edible flowers, and even Padron Peppers for our recent Spanish Night, part of the Café’s new World Tour of Food where diners are welcomed to enjoy a culinary journey around the globe. We have just started working with The Fruit Pig Company, offering their fresh black pudding with our full English breakfast. We work with local butcher, HV Graves, for Norfolk sausages and bacon, and with various East Anglian fish merchants for the freshest fish. The farm at Creake Abbey has a small family shoot and we use the pheasant to make warming pies for our Café customers. Every week, the specials boards carry new dishes created for the moment using whatever local ingredients come my way – once local vegetable patches and orchards get going, we often take surplus crop to use in our dishes; apple crumbles are a great example of this.

Creake Abbey is a beautiful and ancient place. It is low lying with water meadows that surround the ancient ruins, shops, Café and Food Hall. Wildlife abounds, and the owners expect the kitchen to work with the environment. Heating in the Café is provided by an air source heat pump, waste water is removed from the site, and LED lights are used wherever possible. All takeaway meals are served in compostable or recyclable containers. The water meadows are home to grazing cattle or sheep in the spring and summer, and customers are encouraged to learn about the wildlife all around them when they visit by reading information panels. Look out for barn owls, little owls, red kites, boxing hares, muntjac,
and more.

My favourite thing to cook is a huge family Sunday roast. I think my friends and family would agree it’s one of the main reasons they come to visit me at home. I am very protective of my roast pork and all the trimmings! Sunday is my favourite day of the week and I like to create a roast for the customers at the Creake Abbey Café in the same way I do for my family at home. We have now built quite a reputation for our Sunday roast and tables book up fast. I also love simple salads from my allotment – normally freshly picked yellow courgettes on the BBQ with sea salt, olive oil and feta cheese. It’s delicious and easy.

It is difficult to say exactly where I want to be as there’s a lot I want to achieve with the team at Creake Abbey. I do know that I will only be happy if I work somewhere where I feel I am creating an experience that’s accessible for everyone, and where I can produce beautiful food from local, fresh ingredients as well as a warm and happy space for others – be it family, friends, or customers. One day, I have a vision of myself on a farm with lots of space to grow and produce my own food, a large kitchen with an open fire to welcome family and friends for feasts – that would really make me happy! 

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