Donal Hughes is one of Brighton’s leading chefs, having worked at the likes of local faves Pike & Pine, 64 Degrees and Cin Cin. He was made Lead Chef of the latter’s Vine Street branch in March and has been maintaining its position as, arguably, the best place in town for unfussy Italian food delivered with the panache of a native.
We caught up with Donal to discuss his history with food, and how to keep a group of strangers fed and happy at a dinner party.
What first inspired you to cook?
Growing up I was a very picky eater yet loved watching cooking shows on TV. Jamie Oliver, Rick Stein and Gary Rhodes permanently featured in the living room after the evening news. I didn't come from a family where the ritual of gathering round the table was a regular occurrence, so it was probably the later discovery of these joys that drew me to cook professionally for others. I also want to start a new legacy in our family as there has never been a professional cook in our history.
What would be your death row meal?
Honestly, it would probably be something really humble and comforting. A really good bacon sandwich. Thick cut, smoked back bacon. Grilled on one side only so the fat goes crispy and it gathers that little pool of salty brine in the cavity created from the bacon curling under the heat. Cheap white bread, lots of Dijon mustard, a leaf or two of iceberg lettuce and a glass of fresh squeezed orange juice. Good way to go.
What would you say is your style of cooking?
I think I'm still a long way from describing my style of cooking. It's a transient thing which grows and changes as I do. I love vegetables; they are far more exciting that meat. Dad has always been a keen gardener so I know the difference eating organic veg straight out of the ground makes to its flavour. It's incomparable to what you get in even high end shops and greengrocers. I would say 80% of my diet is plant-based. Fish to me is the biggest luxury in the planet, and not just the turbot or the scallops. Mackerel eaten on the day of its capture is the most delicious thing to me, and plaice that's eaten a day after its landing can rival any of its far more pricey flat fish relatives.
What’s your worst cheffing memory, where it’s all gone wrong?
There was one time I gave a sauce containing nuts to someone with a nut allergy. Thankfully the person did not have a severe allergy but I still cried in disappointment with myself. I hate making mistakes but in the end it was nobody’s mistake really. It was all due to a miscommunication between me and the person whose section I was taking over.
Do you have any stand-out memories in the kitchen?
There's a couple. Most recently, a Michelin inspector came into CIN CIN in my second month there. It was my second menu that I had put on. There were some dishes that were really personal to me and completely my own recipes. He had three of those exact dishes, and at the end of the meal he pulled me aside and made me aware of his presence. He was incredibly happy and loved his meal. To know that that was my food, cooked with my hands was so humbling and encouraging. You need those little boosts in this industry.
Also my first pop-up in Polygon over a year ago. The support and help I got from so many industry leaders in Brighton was amazing. The proudest moment was when I was walking past the venue two weeks before the event and saw the running order of events for the summer. There was my little name scratched up beside some of my Brighton chef heroes like Michael Bremner and Duncan Ray. That was cool.
If you were to host a dinner party, what would be on the menu?
Dinner parties are all about fun and making sure you have enough time to enjoy your friends company. Firstly: have lots of salty snacks out to get people drinking. Very important.
To start I would do something big flavoured and a little bit challenging. Something slightly messy you need to eat with your hands, or something raw and spicy. This breaks down barriers straight off the bat and wakes people up, while also engaging the pallet. What better way to break the ice than with burning lips and sauce to be licked off your fingers.
Main course has to have a bit more spectacle and be a sharing dish, while also requiring little to no attention. Think a braise with a couple sides, or a whole roasted fish or a curry. Something that makes you say “wow” when it goes down on the table but also requires your guests to serve each other. Dessert has to be light: something lemony or boozy, and pre-made.
Where are your top spots to eat and drink out in Brighton?
You’ve been based at 64 Degrees, Pike & Pine and Cin Cin since you’ve been in Brighton, what would you say you learnt from your time there?
I think the most valuable lessons I've learned from others are the "mistakes" which I will get to avoid and the things I DON'T want to do. Nobody is going to remember my food or my restaurants after I'm gone. They will only remember me as a person, so my sole aim is to bring joy to the lives of others in whatever way I can and leave the best legacy I can for my kids. Everything after that is superfluous.