Award-winning Hibicus is Northampton's best kept surprise
By the time Hibiscus head chef Sam Squires was 24 he had already made his mark at the Ritz and had travelled the Caribbean cooking under a three Michelin star chef.
Now, at just 28, Watford-born Sam is making bold culinary strides in Northampton, and Hibiscus Fine Dining is fast becoming the town's best-kept surprise.
I met Sam at John Franklin's at 9.30am. A bit too early for Sam, he might argue, after his regular 12-hour stints commanding his kitchen nestled in the Northampton Royal & Derngate.
But thanks to his hard graft, this month Hibiscus Fine Dining was awarded an AA Rosette - and almost a second - by a panel of judges for it's 'accomplished cooking'.
Sam said: "It's an achievement, we've only been here for 18 months.
"We were just shy off two rosettes. Definitely next year we will push for two or three."
Sam's attention to detail was watched closely and judged by an unannounced mystery guest.
Although this is a big accomplishment for a chef, Sam joked that a Michelin Star would be a lot nicer.
"I think that will come in time as well," he said. "But for a chef, it's basically saying you're good at what you're doing.
"Just being recognised by the AA as a chef is a really good thing."
When Sam left school he lacked a plan for life and found himself, at 15, working as a jack-of-all-trades at his local pub, the Grove Hotel
He even did the house-keeping at the Watford venue for a while, which he isn't keen on revisiting.
"I sort of fell in love with the kitchen, I did a bit of pot wash here and there but I enjoyed watching people," he said.
"I didn't fall into fine dining until a few years after."
Sam took the plunge and moved to the Ritz in London where he became a commis chef at 17 years old. After five years building his way up the ranks he left as a chef de partie.
A two-year stint working on a cruise ship under a three-star Michelin Chef followed before he turned his attention to becoming a sous chef in Cambridge.
He joined the Hibiscus team in Northampton 16 months ago.
Sam has come a long way from fish finger family dinners when he was a school pupil.
"My family is not foodie," he said. "They were shocked when I wanted to become a chef.
"Growing up with us we would eat fish fingers, or stuff like that, it was our standard home meal.
"Where I work now everything is fresh - you wouldn't see a fish finger in sight at all really."
His seasonal menus are a labour of love laboriously put together four times a year but are subtly tweaked when ingredients are ripe.
There is a stigma attached to fine-dining which Sam wants to shake off. "I think it's the feeling that you have to know a great deal about food and drink to dine at places and that's not the case.
"I think when people eat here they are basically at my kitchen table. I want to cook amazing food with ingredients that don't have to be expensive - just done with passion and love."
Hibiscus, which is situated in a private dining room adjacent to the Royal auditorium, opened on September 2 in 2017.
Making use of the very best locally sourced food, it caters for pre-show theatre audiences at the Royal & Derngate and also for the general public.
The new a la carte and taster menu is set to launch on June 4.