The chef-patron of the Michelin-starred Whitebrook in Monmouthshire talks to Katey Pigden about his long journey to opening his own restaurant, local produce and Raymond Blanc
I decided I wanted to be a chef from the age of seven. I used to cook dinner parties at home for my parents and friends and I just loved the buzz of making them happy. Then a certain Frenchman with loads of passion bounced on the TV screen and that was it – everything Raymond Blanc was saying about food, bringing people together, freshness, flavour – it made sense to me. That was what I wanted to achieve and I was determined to have my own restaurant and be the best I could be.
I remember family holidays when we would drive around France – we would just get in the car and explore. Then, at the end of the day, we would find these auberges or restaurants with rooms that offered a fixed menu or sometimes a tasting menu. That really stayed with me as something I would like to have when I opened my own restaurant.
The hardest period of my career was leaving Colette’s to open my own restaurant. A couple of possible restaurants fell through, then the recession happened and banks didn’t want to know. After lots of knocking on doors I got a small group of investors together to back me and then couldn’t find a suitable restaurant.
Having spent several years putting my career on hold to achieve my dream, I decided I would try and find a head chef position in a fine-dining restaurant, only to be told I had been out of the game too long. So it was very nice that, when I achieved my ambition of opening the Whitebrook, we were awarded a Michelin star in the first 11 months. You simply have to stay determined and never lose sight of what you want to achieve.
Develop your skills and, more importantly, your palate. It’s important to find a good kitchen to work in which gives you a good grounding and the building blocks of a career. Learn about the quality of ingredients and flavours. I always had a goal and that was my focus, so when you have a bad day or you are struggling to master a new technique, you remember why you are doing it.
You need a vision and a great team that will share your dream. To run the restaurant it’s important we all work towards the same goal, which is being consistent and making sure our guests are happy. You have to have a lot of commitment, passion and constantly be looking to move forward to see how you can improve what you are offering. You also have to accept that there will be sacrifices. For me, the success comes at the expense of not having enough time with my wife and children. I am so lucky that they support me and that the Whitebrook has become a family-run restaurant.
We exist almost entirely on local produce and it defines my approach to food. We are nestled in the Wye Valley and our location is stunning. Our guests have to want to come to us, so I knew from day one that we had to offer something different, unique to our situation and not something you could find on any menu up and down the country. That is when we looked at what was on our doorstep and we set about making sure our menu reflected our surroundings. It gives an immediacy and vibrancy to the food and a sense that the Whitebrook could exist nowhere else.
There is now a view that you can get to the top very quickly without putting the hours in, but that doesn’t happen in any profession. The industry is now so diverse, with so many different options open to budding chefs – whether its informal cafés and deli restaurants, pubs, cookery schools or food development. The long hours and pressure of fine-dining restaurants is not for everyone, but you can work in the industry and have a life balance. However, if you want to get to the top and be the very best, you have to put the work in and master your skills.
I always want to be able to do better, to be the very best, and I have always had that determination from day one. I look at what Raymond Blanc has achieved at Le Manoir and the air of confidence the place has; it allows him to create something very special.
- 2013-present Chef-patron, the Whitebrook, Monmouthshire
- 2012-present Chef consultant, Rhug Estate Organic Farm, Denbighshire, North Wales
- 2010-2011 Chef consultant, Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire
- 2007-2010 Head chef, Danesfield House Hotel and Spa, Marlow, Buckinghamshire
- 2003-2007 Head chef, Colette’s restaurant, the Grove hotel, Chandler’s Cross
- 2001-2003 Senior sous chef, L’Ortolan restaurant, Reading
- 1996-2001 Chef de partie, Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons, Oxfordshire
- 1996-1996 Demi chef de partie, the Lanesborough, London
- 1993-1996 Commis chef to second chef, Grafton Manor hotel, Worcestershire