Raymond Blanc and Gary Jones protégé Kuba Winkowski speaks to Vincent Wood about his journey to winning National Chef of the Year
When Kuba Winkowski won the prestigious National Chef of the Year award, his initial response was relief. It was his second run at the competition, and victory saw him follow in the footsteps of Gordon Ramsay, David Everitt-Matthias and Mark Sargeant. On the other side of the pass, a row of industry heavyweights – Claude Bosi, Clare Smyth and Tom Kerridge to name just three – had picked apart his plates and crowned him victor. Just moments afterwards he said he was just glad that months of planning, practice and preparation had not gone to waste.
A month later, in the bar of the Feathered Nest Inn, home to Amanda and Tony Timmer’s three-AA-rosette restaurant and hotel, nestled in the idyllic Cotswolds village of Nether Westcote, and his exhaustion from the competition appears to have faded away. He is back at the pass, buzzing from plates to projects to media calls in the UK and abroad.
The win he took two years of his life to work towards is an extension to the way he has managed his career. He throws himself into vast long-term projects with a balance of patient commitment and undeniable energy. “I don’t stop,” he says. “I’m 38, so I’m still young. I believe I’m in a productive age now, and hopefully there will be a time in the future where I’ll be able to maybe slow down a little bit, but at the minute I’m still challenging myself.”
In his native Poland, Winkowski bounced from briefly studying mechanics to a course in financial management, before eventually setting his sights on Britain after a stretch of travelling. “Poland was going to join the European Union in May 2004, so I came in April. I knew the language, I knew some friends, and because of the EU it became easy, so that was all kind of an obvious choice.”
He arrived without much of a plan, looking for an opportunity, but more than willing to accept that he and his partner – now wife – might have to turn back if they couldn’t settle in the country. “Luckily,” he says “I was living in Kent, in Thanet, and my friends said there was this great college with a very good reputation. So I went and they said no problem, it was free. I was like ‘Really? It’s all free? All of this?’ I was really sort of gobsmacked, so I enrolled and I started in September 2004.”
Winkowski was older than the teenagers around him, having joined the course at 24, but his age and experience gave him an edge that would continue to help him in life. He had already shaken off the recklessness of youth, his ‘party’ days were out of the way and he could focus on chasing his ambition.
“I was really driven, really focused. I was finally doing what I really wanted to do and what the UK gave me in college – well, I found it incredible there was a place where there was £3m spent on brand new kitchens, new floors, all the equipment. I was really buzzing, because in Poland things like this didn’t exist. But because I was driven and I knew this is what I wanted to do, I did a lot on the kitchen side, pastry side – I did whatever I could. I was on five days a week, nine to whatever, looking to put my fingers in any pie I could.”
Reaching for the stars
Stages at Le Gavroche and Rhodes 24 in London followed, but Winkowski had already decided he wanted to stay out of the capital. He wrote to every two- and three-Michelin-starred restaurant he could, and eventually Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons in Great Milton, Oxfordshire, invited him for an interview. He went on to stay for two and a half years – learning along the way the often punishing nature of life on the line. “After college you come out thinking you know everything because I was the best student, I was this, I was that, but the reality was completely different.”
His time under Raymond Blanc and executive chef Gary Jones – who would later hand him his National Chef of the Year award – completed his education, both in developing his skills and his philosophy. “The garden, how to treat the ingredients, how to get the best out of them. You see Raymond Blanc and Gary Jones and they’re both really inspirational people. It’s great to be around them, especially Raymond, who is completely crazy; Gary, on the other hand, was the hard one.
“There were tough times. I have to say that the first year in particular was extremely tough. My wife used to work in the reception, so we both worked there and it was tough for both of us. There was never a time when I was going to work where I was not feeling anxiety and that feeling of my heart in my throat. I was always nervous because it was like going for a fight. You always knew that every day it was going to be busy and there were going to be lots of problems, but I think that pays off.
“I finished in 2010, so it’s eight years gone now and I actually realised in the last four years what it gave me. At school you remember your strictest teacher; you don’t remember the ones that were easy. The one that was strict gave you something.”
The two-starred Le Manoir’s commitment to skills stayed with him. At the end of his time there, he moved to the Feathered Nest, where he is now head chef and drills down on the importance of keeping his chefs involved in every step of the process. Butter is churned on-site to accompany homemade breads and pickles. Whole sturgeon are bought in and sliced down for their meat and their eggs.
Winkowski says of Le Manoir: “What I got there stays with me now and it always will. It’s an amazing place for training, because it’s a massive kitchen and you do everything. You do suckling pigs, you butcher, you gut fish, you make bread – everything.”
However, he worries that across the industry, these skills are now being lost. “Staff are expensive and it’s unfortunately easier to get it from the butcher or the fishmonger – and they often do a better job than us. But because of that, skills are disappearing. I try as much as I can, but this is the reality.”
Nevertheless, one of the most impressive features of Winkowski’s offering are the award-winning cured meats that hang in his specialist fridges – mad inventions he has gutted and rewired to create the perfect conditions for the process. He has developed the recipe for each of the meats himself, with dedicated patience, season by season, as he attempts to cut his own path in the tradition.
The result, after two years of work, is tender, rich meats with a commitment to tradition but a touch of individuality in their depth of flavour. “I’m more traditional and classical. Charcuterie excited me because it’s an old art and for many, many years it’s been disappearing. It’s been taken over by machines and taken over by factories. I think in years to come people might come to you because you’ve got something which is gone. Even nowadays, with a slice of warm crusty bread with amazing butter, you might really give people an experience like they’ve never had before.”
His approach has been to revive old techniques and interpret them in his own way, before moving on to the next one. He currently has a Josper grill in his garden (along with a vast traditional brickwork kiln behind the kitchen) and is experimenting more with smoke and burnt wood flavours, pushing back further into the history of cuisine. “Don’t get me wrong, we don’t go too crazy. There will still be a water bath around and a Thermomix and things like that, but I just think more and more people are enjoying simple, old school stuff. We’re surrounded by all this modern technology, but it’s so good to just go back to basics. That really is what excites me.”
Winkowski’s dishes draw on the clean plates of Le Manoir, but he has developed his own style. His food is packed with strong, punchy flavours and takes on themes from across Europe – his octopus carpaccio is a pure taste of Spain; a pheasant tortellini a rich call back to the cappelletti in brodo of northern Italy.
‘The kitchen of the world’
Asked where this continental influence comes from, he quotes another Polish chef: “When you go to France or Spain or Italy, you learn the kitchen of that country; when you go to Britain, you learn the kitchen of the world.”
He also has a part to play in the UK’s multicultural offering – another reason his cured meats hold pride of place on the menu. “Poland is massive on charcuterie, but back in the days of communism our produce never went out to the world. Italian, French and Spanish went, but Hungarian and Polish didn’t.
“If you go to a butcher’s or charcuterie shop in Poland, the selection is immense. It’s as big as, or bigger than, in Italy. OK, it’s a different way of production because of the climate and winters, but the range is massive. And our bread! Our bakeries are like in France – massive, with pastries and plenty of them. That’s the funny thing: you can see French influence or Italian influence, but love of a good bread and sausage and meat and smoked fish – it’s actually what we do at home. So you say ravioli, but for me it’s pierogi – what’s the difference?”
Since winning the award, he has made national headlines in Poland, while UK immigrant portals, websites and newspapers went “crazy”. “It’s not like my neighbour knows,” he says, “because you need to be in the catering sector to know, but in Poland it was big news.”
Leveraging the exposure the award has given him, Winkowski has encouraged the search for talent across the channel. “In Poland we talk a lot about Brexit, and it was important for me to spread the word in Poland not to be scared. I don’t believe Brexit is going to stop anything, and we need chefs, we need people in the industry.”
The National Chef of the Year award comes with a responsibility beyond the plates – to serve as an ambassador for the catering sector. Thankfully Winkowski’s experience of the industry, his admiration for the UK’s catering colleges, and his strong belief in retaining skills make him a perfect standard bearer for the nation. “It just opens so many opportunities, which is the reason I wanted to go and do the competition – to break the mould.”
On winning the competition
Kuba Winkowski’s victory in the National Chef of the Year came after months of planning and practice. “It’s a long process”, he said at the time “and on top of the normal everyday job, to find those hours, to practice and design and plan, it’s not easy. The last few weeks were flat out, and I think the worst sort of feeling is, ‘oh I hope it’s not going to go to waste’.”
One key advantage was his willingness to give the competition another shot after falling short on his first attempt.
He added: “Coming back for a second time really helped because this time I knew more about the venue and the whole competition experience. This meant I only needed to think about the cooking.”
Ultimately, he was able to provide what the judges were looking for – which at the time Clare Smyth told The Caterer was respect for the ingredients with a focus on “precision, cooking and flavour”. Simon Hulstone, meanwhile, said ahead of the result that the National Chef of the Year was ultimately “an ambassador for the industry”.
Winkowski’s winning dishes
• Native lobster with oyster emulsion, celery, sea herbs, buttermilk
• Yorkshire grouse, cabbage, foie gras, quince, celeriac, seeds
• Sticky toffee with lemon, clotted cream, walnuts