Diners can choose their own adventure through chef Kuba Winkowski’s menu, picking dishes that feature impeccable ingredients cooked with a Polish slant. Vincent Wood reports
The Feathered Nest Country Inn and its chef both had quite the year in 2018. Kuba Winkowski, an alumni of Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons in Great Milton, Oxfordshire, won the title of the Craft Guild’s National Chef of the Year on his second attempt. Meanwhile, the 50-cover site in the Oxfordshire village of Nether Westcote entered Harden’s Best 100 UK Restaurant 2019 list in December at position 33, with a perfect five out of five for the quality of its food. Of course, the rise of both man and menu is not without merit.
The Feathered Nest has been owned by Tony and Amanda Timmer since 2009. Winkowski joined in 2010 and immediately made his mark, with the opening line of the menu stating: “All our produce is baked, fermented, churned, cured, dry-aged and smoked in-house by chef Kuba.”
Winkowski works with traditional techniques in his kitchen, producing authentic flavours that can be tasted in his bread, which is served with butter, lardo, oil and his homemade, distinctive charcuterie. The chef has taken years to perfect the process of making it, curing a variety of meats to reveal vibrant flavours. His mindset is to cut out automation and allow his team of six chefs to create a luxurious product from a traditional process.
“We’ve entered the stage where staple, basic things like bread and butter, which back in the day were made from scratch in villages, are now a rare treat,” he says, adding: “There will still always be a waterbath and a thermomix, but I think people are enjoying simple, old-school stuff because we’re surrounded by all this modern technology. With food especially, it’s so good to go back to basics – this is really what excites me.”
The design of the menu allows diners to ramble through the offering as freely as if through the Cotswold countryside outside the window. Fifteen courses have no division between starters, mains and desserts, and prices are offered for four-, five-, and six-dish runs through the menu, although deviations are welcome. It was inspired by Hélène Darroze at the Connaught in London, where customers select their dishes from the menu by choosing a number of marbles labelled with the main ingredient of each plate. “We saw it and thought it was amazing that you could have whatever you want,” he says.
The format offers customers maximum control, escaping the dichotomy of à la carte versus tasting menu, as well as allowing Winkowski to design the dishes in his preferred style. Traditional tasting menus in particular are a sticking point for the chef.
“I didn’t want eight or 10 courses where you’re told what you have to eat,” he says. He also has issues with the size of the dishes in tasting menus (“you move your spoon twice and it’s gone”) and the time it takes to serve them (“they’re small, but it doesn’t mean that the break in between is smaller”).
However, having a pure à la carte, which was once the norm for the Feathered Nest, meant dilution. “I had my lovely fish, I had a lovely sauce, I had the veg or some garnish, and then I would think ‘OK, what can I add to it to make sure people have a meal and don’t complain that it’s not big enough?’ So you come up with some carbs or more veg and it’s kind of destroyed.”
The result is a perfect balance – dishes that are substantial, but flavour-led. A key example is Winkowski’s sturgeon. His commitment to provenance comes in a meaty cut of the fish, served with its own caviar, while the accompanying wedge of fennel and subtle finger lime purée makes it substantial but refined.
As well as the mix of skills and substance demonstrated in the sturgeon plate, and others such Sika deer with celeriac, elderberry and chocolate, Winkowski’s dishes are utterly with flavour. The chef uses an abundance of herbs, spices and aromatic elements. “I think that comes from my Polish roots, because when you look at cuisine in Poland, it’s heavily based on spices and I think that has stayed with me.”
The origins of Winkowski’s cooking are not focused on one location – it is littered with inspiration from various cuisines. For instance, his octopus dish – a carpaccio with saffron aïoli and homemade chorizo, is distinctly Spanish. A wood pigeon dish, meanwhile, is deeply Italian: stuffed pasta in a dark but delicate broth reminiscent of cappelletti in brodo.
The chef plans to push further back through time with his cuisine, and to focus on flame-based cooking after setting up a josper grill in the garden. But for now, the result of his pursuit of tradition is a menu that is diverse in approach but unified in style, flavour and a sense of history.
From the menu
• Salmon, beetroot, black garlic, dill
• Octopus, chorizo, saffron aïoli
• Hare, lovage, salsify, coffee
• Sturgeon, caviar, fennel, finger lime
• Sika deer, celeriac, elderberry, chocolate
• Partridge, penny bun, spinach
• Sticky toffee, clotted cream, lemon, pecans
• Valrhona chocolate, peanuts, Horlicks, vanilla
Four dishes, £70; five dishes, £80; six dishes, £90
The Feathered Nest Country Inn, Nether Westcote, Oxfordshire OX7 6SD