Having worked for-and-with some of the biggest names in food, chef Shaun Hurrell has been bringing the real Mexico to the north-east through his award-winning Barrio Comida restaurant. We caught up with Shaun to discuss his path to success and his latest restaurant, La Mesa.

When did you start cooking and when did you first think about it being a career?

I cooked a little bit growing up at home and my Grandma was a proper gourmand, who loved eating out at great restaurants to which she would often take me along. She also had loads of old cookbooks, which I would peruse and take home.

What were the key steps in your development and career?

My first kitchen roles were in a small bistro in the wine country of North California and then a seafood restaurant, but I knew I wanted to go down the fine dining route. You can’t work in the high-level US kitchens until you’re 18 and most prospective chefs go to culinary school but because I had dropped out of school at a young age and due to the costs involved in college, that wasn’t an option for me. As I was born in York and retained my British passport, I decided instead to head to England and planned to spend a year or two there and in Europe learning classical French cooking.

Did you have any mentors?

I would say Terry Laybourne more than anyone else. He’s certainly the person I would call if I ever had an issue and couldn’t work out what to do. He is a great teacher and person.

Who do you look up to in the industry?

JKS in London are incredible, Danny Meyer in New York and in Mexico, Enrique Olvera is the king.

What makes a great restaurateur?

I think it is all about finding balance and doing everything well. The food, the service, man management, costs, promotion – you have to be good and in control of everything. This is when you can create that magic that you can’t quite put your finger on where everything works in harmony.

What brought you to the North-east of England?

My partner and I were expecting our first child, so the plan was always to head back to where she was from. As I was brought up on great Mexican food in California and the choice and quality in the UK was lacking to say the least, I decided on that route. I took out a credit card for £3K, bought some basic equipment, tortilla press, trestle tables griddle etc, and started cooking at street food markets, festivals, and private events. It was starting to pay off and we were getting great feedback. The more I cooked, researched, and tested recipes, the more I got hooked on the depth, choice and variety of Mexican food. It was almost like when I first discovered classical French cooking.

How did Barrio Comida come about?

Barrio isn’t about my style of cooking, it’s about taking inspiration from Mexico and its food heritage, while utilising the very best produce around us in England. There is no massive spin – it’s just about great execution and respecting
the culture.

And you recently launched La Mesa – how is that different?

La Mesa is where we get to be more creative and refined. There are just 20 covers, and everyone eats around one big table so it’s a different experience all round. We will take a Mexican ingredient, technique or dish and see how we can adapt it to the best seasonal produce available throughout the year. This summer, we created a traditional Tres Leche Cake with British cherries and buffalo ricotta ice cream.

Can the industry do anything better? How would you change it?

Things can always improve but there is no better time to be a chef. When I was a young chef, I worked 90-hour weeks, for half of the minimum wage, in often hostile environments. My team work around 45 hours over 4 days, they’re paid well, they have breaks, free food and are spoken to nicely. It is far better than it was.

Any tips to deal with the challenge of rising costs?

I think chefs and managers have to get good control over labour costs. We look closely at rotas and break down all the jobs throughout each day. We know where people should be, what they should be doing and how long each task should take. It makes it easy to monitor labour better. With regard to food costs, we price check all our suppliers every single week to ensure we’re getting the best produce and prices. You have to be extra vigilant, or you won’t survive.

Three tips vital for success in a professional kitchen

  1. Attention to detail
  2. Quality work ethic
  3. Grit, determination, and the will to succeed.

Outside of work, what are your passions?

The one sport I follow is basketball and my team is the Denver Nuggets who won this year but everything I do revolves around food and restaurants. I love the industry, and I love eating in and being in restaurants.