Since opening in 2011, Rocksalt Restaurant and Bar has become an iconic landmark and a symbol of the ongoing regeneration of Folkestone Harbour.
Now, a decade after helping put the city on the foodie map, the kitchen is embarking on a new chapter under the direction of Executive Chef Scott Dineen. Journalist Rhys Griffiths went to meet him…
Walking along the quay towards the restaurant, there is still a wintry bite in the air as clouds roll across the blue sky and seagulls fly overhead.
Once installed in the dining room, where the day’s lunch service slowly ends and the waiters get busy, the atmosphere is instantly warmer.
With the sun beating down on the harbor waters and the English Channel beyond, and floor-to-ceiling windows keeping the cold out, you can easily imagine yourself in warmer climes at a more southerly latitude.
Scott Dineen, the 33-year-old chef now at the helm of this port institution, greets me with a warm smile and a firm handshake. We sit at the back of the dining room, a coffee for him, a teapot for me.
I can’t wait to hear how this five-time Roux Fellowship finalist, who cut his teeth at the Ritz in London, sees the next chapter in Rocksalt’s history evolving following the departure of former figurehead Mark Sargeant.
“The heritage of the restaurant still remains absolutely the core…”
“We have now created an engine room which can take the business forward,” he said, explaining how the kitchen benefited from a major renovation earlier this year.
“Not just in terms of attendance, revenue, but definitely taking Rocksalt’s food evolution to a new level and bringing something different to diners.
“The restaurant’s heritage remains absolutely the core, but we’re adding a little tweak, a little more finesse, a little more intricate type of veneer.
“We want it to match the backdrop, so when it comes to summer and you’re here enjoying a delicious lobster salad, it looks aesthetically pleasing married to an amazing coastline. . It brings the two together.”
The chance to take charge of Rocksalt and fulfill “a dream of running a great restaurant” is made all the more special for him because of the family ties to the place he calls home.
Born in Surrey, he moved to the city as the child of an army family before returning to Southeast Asia, but the parents remained local and visitation was a regular feature of life in growing.
“I moved for many years, traveled the world with my parents’ profession, obviously ended up in London for my profession, then met my partner and had two boys.
“We wanted to settle in a place where it was good for the children to grow up.
“We always came here, I always remembered the Rotunda, I always remembered the Sunday market, and when we came back the thing that stood out the most was this iconic building and it was part of the growth of Folkestone with all new developments that are occurring.
“The main DNA that we keep is obviously to work with fresh and local products, obtaining daily fresh fish and shellfish just five steps away.
“I’ve always had a bit of an ambition that a menu should write itself…”
“All along the Kent coast we have great micro-producers, great local farms, so we will definitely use and showcase the local and highlight the importance of small independent businesses.”
The Dineen family moved to Folkestone around the time Rocksalt opened, wanting the quality of life that comes with living within walking distance of the sea.
For many years this meant Scott was a regular on high-speed trains to and from London as he juggled a career in the capital with life on the coast.
But the long hours – and occasional missed stops after falling asleep along the way – meant that work closer to home became inevitable and the opening of Rocksalt was too good a chance to turn down.
A glance at the menu gives an idea of what customers can expect from the new chef.
Shorthorn beef rib steak with glazed beef cheek and smoked bone marrow demonstrates a commitment to nose-to-tail dishes, while the presence in his dishes of elements such as yuzu mash, maitake mushrooms and miso reveals the influence of Asian ingredients and flavors.
And how would he describe his cooking style?
“It’s first and foremost about flavors and products. Get those two things right and that’s me in a nutshell.
“I’ve always had the ambition for a menu to write itself and when you have a natural pantry like the Jardin d’Angleterre, it’s easy.
“So the evolution of the menu, obviously it’s going to grow and grow, but we started with kind of a shortcut menu just to get everyone in, just to tease customers about what to expect.
“The customer journey and experience must be at the forefront of what we do…”
“We’re all product-driven, flavor-driven. Texture, acidity, bold flavors, but not too intimidating.”
The focus on bullying seems central to Scott’s philosophy. His food credentials are clear, but he struggles to explain that he has no desire to run a restaurant that makes anyone feel like it’s “not for him.”
It also competes in a market with myriad dining options, from Michelin-starred fare at Hide & Fox a short drive away in Saltwood to dive bar vibes at the Lucky Chip burger joint 10 minutes away. Old High Street.
So where does he like to eat when he’s not on duty? All the best places get a mention. Family outings at the Harbor Arm, drinks at the Pullman, full works like Fordwich Arms and Bridge Arms.
The latter two venues have – along with Hide & Fox – put this corner of Kent on the map by winning coveted recognition from the Michelin Guide. An ambition that drives the new chef at Rocksalt?
“I’m not a reward hunter,” he insists, with a smile. “What I’m aiming for is a full restaurant that rotates daily, with a full bar, with good reviews.
“Whatever happens after that, no problem. But the customer journey and experience must first and foremost be at the forefront of what we do.”
Although I feel his modesty belies an unwavering determination to shine among his peers, I have no doubt that he is truthful when he says all about hospitality, all about people.
And if the next chapter of Rocksalt is written in the reactions of delighted diners, I’m sure that will be the only accolade that really matters.