Ashley Palmer-Watts’s ambition

Ashley Palmer-Watts talks to BeanScene about working with his rock star idol, how Melbourne changed his coffee appreciation, and the coffee tools he never travels without.
Ashley Palmer-Watts

There are some magical coffee moments you never forget. For Dinner By Heston Blumenthal’s Chef Director Ashley Palmer-Watts, that moment was five years ago when he, two chefs, and a maître d’ climbed Africa’s highest mountain peak, Mount Kilimanjaro.

“I had some beans from Colombia which I had pre-ground, and my AeroPress, which I took up the mountain so we could have proper coffee in the morning. On the first day I brought my AeroPress out the guys thought it was incredible. It was one of those lovely surprises to wake up to,” Ashley recalls. 

Based on his coffee terminology alone, Ashley could be mistaken for any Melbourne barista. He knows his V60 pour over from a Clever Coffee Dripper, understands the importance of particle grind size and coffee’s 850 flavour molecules, and is adamant the Mahlkönig EK 43 is the most consistent grinder on the market. Ashley says his developed coffee lexicon and knowledge is attributed to two things: his time in Australia, and his relationship with Proud Mary Coffee Founder Nolan Hirte. 

“I never really drank coffee or understood why people did until I was around 22 or 23 working at The Fat Duck, which had a much higher quality of coffee than I’d grown up with,” Ashley says. 

Typical of a hectic commercial kitchen environment, Ashley would drink eight to 10 espressos each day during service. 

“It was way too many but were working like absolute trojans back then. It was a little bit lawless in some respects,” Ashley says.

His coffee appreciation changed the moment he travelled to Australia to help relocate The Fat Duck in Melbourne for six months while the original site in Bray, UK was renovated. Ashley became immersed in the city’s café culture and opened his eyes to a world he never knew existed.

“I’d always heard about Melbourne’s coffee scene, but I can’t tell you how different the coffee culture was to anything I’d experienced before,” Ashley says. “Whether it was a restaurant or a little café on the beach when I went for a bike ride, the coffee was unbelievable. For me, out of all the places I’ve travelled to, Australia has the best coffee in the world.”

Determined to bring the best of Melbourne coffee into The Fat Duck, Ashley went on a mission to uncover the city’s best brews. A friend recommended some esteemed places, including Proud Mary Coffee Roasters.

“The Proud Mary guys were so into [coffee] and their food was really good. I met Nolan and we got chatting. He took me through all these different coffees and gave me a crash course in different processing: how they do it, what they do, and how they look after the farmers, the whole thing,” Ashley says.

Proud Mary was an early front-runner. Ashley visited other options with The Fat Duck Restaurant Manager Dimitri Bellos and Head Chef Jonny Lake, but it was his relationship with Nolan that stood out. 

“Nolan is such an amazing guy who lives for coffee. It just swung that way and we’ve been using his coffee ever since,” Ashley says.

Nolan even invited one of his staff members to become The Fat Duck’s dedicated barista throughout the restaurant’s residency. The lucky person, Callum Oliver, stayed on afterwards at the now Dinner by Heston restaurant, before helping manage Nolan’s Portland venue in the United States. Ashley says Nolan and his staff were instrumental to the restaurant’s coffee journey and his team’s coffee education. 

“Our approach to coffee has changed 100 per cent. England coffee is old school where you’re tied into an equipment and coffee contract with one company. Nolan asked me what we did back in the UK and I couldn’t even tell him I was so embarrassed. I came back and said to the guys, ‘we have to change [our coffee], it’s ridiculous’,” Ashley explains. “I bought coffees back from Australia and would make V60s in the afternoon just to educate the team and get them behind it. Their view on coffee shifted like night to day.”

Ashley went in search of someone equally as passionate as Nolan in the UK and started working with Workshop Coffee in London. The Fat Duck now has one dedicated blend for milk coffees, and two each for espresso and pour over filter beans. Both have one friendly, tick-the-box coffee that’s very approachable, and one slightly more challenging.

“London is about seven out of 10 in our coffee culture in comparison to Australia, which I would say is 10 out of 10 for its diverse, interesting, engaged coffee culture,” Ashley says. “As a nation, the UK is not into the more challenging varietals and flavour profiles yet. In three years it’ll be there. You can already see how fast it’s developing. It’s all about education.”

As for Ashley’s coffee education, he’s come a long way from his childhood foray of instant and percolated coffee. His latte art skills need some work, but he’s pretty handy on the V60 pour over. Most importantly, Ashley knows what he likes. 

“The type of coffee I drink depends on what kind of day it is, how I’m feeling, and what time of day it is,” Ashley says. “In the morning I always drink espresso if I’m in the restaurant in Melbourne. Then I sit down and look at my emails and sort the day out. It’s become a ritual. A bit later on I’ll make a filter coffee. My preferred coffee is Geisha from Proud Mary. I drink way too much coffee when I’m in Melbourne.”

Ashley is hoping to take a piece of Melbourne’s coffee culture and mix it with London’s when he opens Dinner by Heston in Dubai in 2019. Featuring a giant bar, Ashley is keen to introduce different filtration methods with alcoholic and non-alcoholic combinations and get away from the espresso martini.

Years ago, coffee featured on The Fat Duck menu in a “simple” duck dish with a honeycomb, sherry vinegar, and green and pink peppercorn jus infused with green Guatemalan coffee beans. 

Now on the dinner menu in Melbourne, guests can order a green coffee sauce. It includes parsley and lovage made into a fibrous butter with a little mustard and fried garlic. That’s mixed with green chilli juice and chicory pickle, and infused with blitzes of green coffee beans. 

“It tastes like green coffee. I can’t explain it any other way,” Ashley says. 

This article appears in the October edition of BeanScene. To read the story in FULL, subscribe now.

Image: John Blackwel