Charlotte Griffiths talks to the man behind one of Cambridge’s hottest restaurants, Parker’s Tavern at the University Arms Hotel
Though the latest incarnation of the University Arms hasn’t yet reached its first birthday, it – and Parker’s Tavern, the restaurant at the heart of the new hotel – has already made quite the positive impression. Cambridge-raised head chef Tristan Welch returned to the city with his young family three years ago to preside over the rebuild of the hotel’s kitchens, and after opening the doors in the summer of 2018, he now directs proceedings throughout the restaurant and bar.
Growing up just outside the city meant Cambridge was the place to go: Tristan spent his early years visiting the Botanic Garden, wandering through the museums and swimming in the Cam – all the key elements required for a Cambridge childhood. “I remember standing on Parker’s Piece, looking up at the old University Arms, and imagining it was a castle rather than a hotel,” he recalls, nestled in one of the library’s sofas for a snatched conversation on a busy midweek morning.
Tristan has fond food memories of Browns – and Sweeney Todd’s in particular: “I loved it there,” he says, “mainly because we’d go for family birthdays or celebrations. I remember having a burger with sweetcorn chilli chutney and it just blew my mind – but obviously, the biggest food memory I have is the Rupture Rapture.”
For those of us not raised in the city, Sweeney Todd’s ‘Rupture Rapture’ gargantuan ice cream sundae has become the stuff of legend, and features in many a Cantabrigian’s recollected restaurant experiences. “It used to be served on a platter with fourteen different scoops of ice cream, sparklers, sauces – and it was just breathtaking,” Tristan enthuses. “You never forget those moments at restaurants, just a little something special – and actually, it was also quite affordable.”
Nowadays, the chef is focused on creating those moments for hundreds of visitors every single day. With breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea and evening service to deliver for the hotel’s residents (plus guests from the local area), it’s understandable that his time is precious. “Every day is completely different – you never quite know what’s going to happen,” Tristan says – though there is a loose structure that keeps the restaurant ticking over nicely. “I’ll start with morning meetings, a 10am briefing with the team, then it’s tasting in the kitchen. By 12.30pm, it’s a walk around, a chat to the guests, that sort of stuff – and then if I can, I’ll get in the kitchen and do a bit of time there, which I really like – then in the afternoons it’s normally a catch-up with finance, or our suppliers,”
You still have to be nimble and agile and reactive
With a team of 90 looking to Tristan for direction, a large proportion of the chef’s day is spent managing those in the restaurant’s employ. “It’s a lot of people,” he says. “A lot of talking to, mentoring, just putting your arm round – in the morning it takes me about half an hour just to say hello to everyone – but it’s something that I’m rather keen on: saying hello or good morning to everyone. It’s very important.”
Tristan’s own CV is dotted with names that anyone would recognise. He started his career working in kitchens for Gary Rhodes, then with Michel Roux Jr at Le Gavroche – before spending time in Paris at L’Arpège, working in Scotland at Glenapp Castle, landing head chef at Pétrus with Marcus Wareing and Gordon Ramsay, then heading off in 2007 to relaunch London’s acclaimed Launceston Place with a new, modern British menu. In 2012, he took a two-year break in Sweden with his family, before heading to Mustique for a new position as executive chef at The Cotton House, the exclusive island’s only hotel – and now finds himself back in Cambridge, overseeing Parker’s Tavern. Tristan is, quite definitely, a chef with a pedigree and has worked alongside some of the most well-known names in the industry, but he is carving out his own approach when it comes to managing a kitchen.
“The industry’s changed and moved on from the days when I was a young commis chef – I can’t look to any of the experiences that I had to recreate a working environment,” he says. “Now, there are goals and tasks are set, rather than just… getting shouted and sworn at.”
Tristan adopts a more mentorship-style role with his team, hoping to instil a little of his own seemingly-boundless enthusiasm and passion for excellent food, but also pairing that with a modern approach to setting goals and having clear timelines for results. “A kitchen is a million deadlines at once, for lots of different things, whether boiling an egg or serving a guest,” he says. “When a guest orders a drink, it’s already late, no matter how quick you can get it to them: from a guest’s point of view, they’ve ordered a drink and they want it now. It’s like – spinning ten thousand plates at once.”
Despite Tristan’s responsibilities to his team, and the level of organisation required to keep an operation of this size running smoothly, there’s still a playfulness to Parker’s Tavern that keeps the mood light – which is reflected in the dishes they serve. “You still have to be nimble and agile and reactive, because, ultimately, you’re dealing with Mother Nature: one of the most beautiful, temperamental beasts you’ll ever come across,” Tristan explains. “Sometimes, the asparagus will come in and look a little different – so suddenly you have to make a decision: ‘OK – I’ll prep it this way today’. There are a million different things to get right.”
Easter 2019 saw Parker’s Tavern hiding handmade eggs in other establishments around the city and revealing clues via Instagram, while Tristan himself regularly pops up across social media with episodes of Tristan’s Tricycle, where he cycles the city on a customised three-wheeler, cooking up dishes as he goes. It’s this carefully-encouraged sense of whimsy and magic that’s crucial to the restaurant’s identity: in a building and city that’s simply steeped in history, it skilfully navigates a path between old and new, simultaneously making new traditions while also honouring those of times gone by.
“To move forward, you’ve got to understand where you came from,” Tristan says. “After all, this is the reincarnation of the University Arms, which had so many wonderful traditions and so many wonderful people working here – we’re very mindful of that. In the kitchen we’ve got a framed menu from the 1970s so everyone can remember what our restaurant was, and where we came from – maybe one day we’ll even…” he grins, leaving the promise of a seventies-inspired feast at Parker’s Tavern hanging unspoken in the air between us.
With the one year anniversary in August fast approaching, the whole team at Parker’s Tavern have their sights firmly set on the future. “First of all, we’ll try and get through the weekend,” Tristan jokes, “but we’ve actually got some very exciting things coming up: a new bar menu, plus some amazing new cocktails taken to a higher level – and our afternoon tea is starting to take off, which is rather exciting… The rest are just pipe dreams right now. The menu will keep changing seasonally, as it always does – and we’ll just have to see what Mother Nature throws at us.”
Tristan’s wife and three sons dine in Parker’s Tavern once a week, and regularly drop in to see him at work. “I have those super proud moments where the kids say they want to come in and see Daddy – and the staff encourage them to sit down, have a little something – they actually wrote the kids menu for me,” he smiles. When not dining at PT, Tristan’s sons like roaming the city for sweet treats – just like their father. “We like a cafe – with three young boys, it’s got to be a cafe,” Tristan says. “We enjoy the Cambridge Cookery School for kanelbullar, Jack’s Gelato, of course, and a cheeky Steak & Honour every now and again.”