It has been a memorable couple of years for Kenny Atkinson. He shot to fame in 2008 after winning a Michelin star at St Martin in the Isles of Scilly, went on to become head chef at Seaham Hall and has just opened his eponymous restaurant at the brand new luxury hotel Rockliffe Hall. Kerstin Kühn talks to him about his journey to success.
The past two years have been a complete rollercoaster ride," says Kenny Atkinson, scratching his head. "Sometimes I have to pinch myself just to make sure it's all real." From shooting to fame after winning a Michelin star at St Martin in the Isles of Scilly in 2008, to becoming executive head chef at Seaham Hall in County Durham, wining a place in the finals of the BBC's Great British Menu and being named Chef of the Year at the Hotel Cateys, Atkinson's career has truly rocketed in the last 24 months. It has been full steam ahead but now the Geordie chef is ready to settle down - at least for a while.
Atkinson has just opened his eponymous restaurant at the brand new Rockliffe Hall hotel in Darlington, County Durham. The £60m development, owned by Middlesbrough Football Club chairman Steve Gibson, launched last November as one of two major new UK luxury hotels (the other one was Lime Wood in the New Forest).
AN IRRESISTIBLE OFFER
Comprising 61 bedrooms, Rockliffe Hall is a beautiful resort that is more than just another country house hotel. It includes one of Europe's longest golf courses, a grand spa with indoor swimming pool and 13 treatment rooms, extensive wedding and conference facilities and two eateries - overseen by executive chef Martin Moore - as well as its flagship fine dining restaurant Kenny Atkinson at the Orangery.
It's the first time Atkinson has had his name over a restaurant door - the precise reason why he jumped ship from nearby Seaham Hall where he was in charge of the Michelin-starred White Room for just under two years.
"When they dangled the massive carrot of having my own restaurant in front of me I really couldn't resist," he admits. "But it was also the attention to detail of the whole operation and the ambition to be one of the leading hotels outside of London at five-star level that attracted me to Rockliffe."
Located in the centre of the main hotel building at Rockliffe Hall, Kenny Atkinson at The Orangery is a 70-seat restaurant serving daily breakfast and afternoon tea as well as dinner from Tuesday to Saturday and Sunday lunch.
"We don't do lunch or room service, which allows us to really concentrate on the dinner menu and make sure we get it absolutely right," says Atkinson. His kitchen brigade will eventually comprise nine chefs but at the time Caterer went to visit Rockliffe Hall there were still a few teething problems as far as the recruitment process was concerned.
"It has been a slight struggle to recruit chefs but it always is at the beginning of the year and it can be hard to find people willing to relocate," he explains.
For Atkinson himself relocation has pretty much defined his career so far. Born in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in 1976, he left school aged 16 with "no qualifications or ambitions" but after a stint working with his uncle in the kitchens of the Ravensdene Lodge Hotel in Gateshead, he decided to pursue a career as a chef.
"I loved the atmosphere in the kitchen, the buzz, the chefs screaming, the energy," Atkinson recalls. He continued to work at the hotel for nearly two years as a YTS trainee chef while studying at Newcastle College before relocating to the sunnier climes of Greece, where he spent eight months working in Malia, Crete.
"I came back from Greece and decided that if I really wanted to be a chef I needed to be a good one," Atkinson remembers. His ambition saw him move through the kitchen ranks in a number of different hotels but it was during a stage at the Chester Grosvenor under Simon Radley that he realised the path he needed to take.
"Simon told me that if I was serious about my career I had to move to London, work at a good restaurant, take as much shit as I could and learn from it," he says. And so he did. Relocating to the capital, Atkinson took a job at the Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park Hotel under Hywel Jones and David Nicholls, a move he says changed his career.
"Hywel Jones totally changed the way I thought about cooking," he explains. "His food was phenomenal and his technique and attention to detail really rubbed off on me and put me in a whole new direction."
A MOVE TO ST MARTIN'S
After a few more junior roles at hotels across the country, Atkinson took on his first head chef position at the Greenway Hotel in Gloucestershire in 2003, where he won three AA rosettes. In 2006, he took the major step of moving to St Martin's in the Isles of Scilly, where he was appointed executive head chef of the hotel's Teän restaurant.
"It seemed like a nice opportunity to take things a bit easier and spend more time with the family," Atkinson says of the move, but ironically, his wish to slow things down really catapulted him into the limelight. During his stay at St Martin's his modern British cooking won him not only The Good Food Guide‘s Cornwall restaurant of the year title but also the island's first Michelin star, an accolade that earned him national recognition.
But six months after winning the star, Atkinson waved goodbye to the islands, taking over at the White Room at Seaham Hall, a move that took him closer to his spiritual home of Newcastle. The following year, he retained the restaurant's existing Michelin star and also appeared on Great British Menu, where his starter of salad of Aberdeen Angus beef beat stiff competition to go through to the final banquet welcoming home members of the British armed forces returning from Afghanistan. It's an achievement that means an awful lot to Atkinson - not just on a professional level.
"Doing the show really put me and the North East as a region on the map, so from a career perspective it helped me massively," he explains. "But from a personal point of viewthe story behind the series really spoke to me."
Indeed Atkinson could relate to the cause more than most as his grandfather and uncle both spent time in the forces and his younger brother, Mark, has been in the army since he was 18.
"I totally understand how much families worry about ever seeing their loved ones again. So from that point of view it was really important for me to do well in the show, cook at the banquet - which course I didn't care - and be able to give something back to those guys."
Atkinson's commitment to the forces didn't stop at the homecoming banquet. As a thank you he invited some of the soldiers he met at his army training during the filming of the programme to Seaham Hall and is hosting a charity dinner for Help the Heroes this summer.
"So many people couldn't make it to the banquet so I wanted to do more," he says.
It's his commitment and care for the cause that really epitomises Atkinson as a person. A true Geordie, he is down to earth and passionate, especially when it comes to his roots. At his new restaurant at Rockliffe Hall, he has dedicated himself to flying the flag for the North East by using the best local ingredients and putting money back into the community. For instance, he's using strictly British cheeses from the North on his menu, which he describes simply as modern British.
"I use classic combinations and put a modern twist on them but without taking it too far," he says. "I have to cook for the local customers and I want people to come and enjoy themselves and not be scared of the menu."
His cuisine typically encompasses technically astute, multi-faceted dishes, which often marry different cuts of meat and combine numerous elements on the plate.
"There's always lots going on because I want to impress people and put a lot of work into my dishes, but I also want to give value for money by offering lots of different flavours and textures," Atkinson explains.
Dishes such as braised fillet of halibut with razor clams, young leeks, chorizo and watercress; or roast Goosnargh duck breast and cannelloni of leg with beetroot, chicory, parsnips and duck gizzards (see recipe) are cases in point. Numerous elements are used on the plate to uplift rather than overpower the main ingredient.
Atkinson's desire to offer value for money is at the heart of his menu at Rockliffe Hall and he says the team worked long and hard at offering a menu with no hidden costs.
"You can't forget who you're cooking for and I'm cooking for people who are paying my wages," he says. "I don't want anyone to think of my restaurant as a place for special occasions, I want them to come here week in week out because it's the best restaurant in the area. And to achieve that I have to make it affordable."
Three courses à la carte are priced at £45 including canapés, an amuse bouche and a pre-dessert, while the eight-course tasting menu costs £60 (£100 with wine). A market menu runs mid-week at £35 for three courses.
Atkinson says that while getting a Michelin star next year is a definite ambition, he's more concerned about running a busy restaurant than winning awards.
"For the first time I'm thinking more like a restaurateur than a chef, wanting to make sure the business works," he says. If his achievements over the past two years are anything to go by, this shouldn't be a problem.
Rockliffe Hall is an 18th century estate set in 375 acres on the banks of the River Tees in County Durham, which dates back to 1774. By 1851 it came under the ownership of Alfred Backhouse, a co-founder of Barclays Bank, who renamed it Rockliffe Hall and commissioned architect Alfred Waterhouse to rebuild it in 1863.
In 1918, Lord Southampton bought the estate but it was later taken over by the Brothers of St John of God who converted it into a hospital in 1950. It was sold to its current private ownership in 1996.
Today, Rockliffe Hall comprises a hotel, spa and 18-hole golf course. It has 61 rooms including four suites as well as two bars and three restaurants: the Clubhouse, the Waterhouse Bistro and Kenny Atkinson at the Orangery. The 50,000sq ft spa and wellness centre features an indoor pool, fitness centre and 13 treatment rooms including a VIP suite for couples.
Opened 23 November 2009
General manager Nick Holmes
Hotel manager Peter Llewellyn
Executive chef Martin Moore
Head chef Kenny Atkinson
Spa director Liz Holmes
Golf director Ian Knight
Address Hurworth-on-Tees, Darlington, County Durham DL2 2DU
Telephone 01325 729999
NICK HOLMES, GENERAL MANAGER, ROCKLIFFE HALL
What differentiates Rockliffe Hall from its competitors?
It's the total deal. There are resorts out there that are fantastic but you may find a weakness in one of their elements, such as the golf or spa facilities. What Rockliffe has got is quality at every level - it has a hotel, golf club, spa and restaurant that would stand up alone against the very best in their field. And it's in a great part of the world, right on the Yorkshire border in County Durham, which is very accessible and only two-and-a-half hours from London.
How are you marketing the property?
At this end of the market you have to be product-led and make sure everything is right. We have no shortage of interest - because the investment in the property has generated quite a buzz about it - and to cultivate this we have invested first and foremost in our PR and our collateral.
Beyond that, our ambitions to market the hotel will probably see us go down the Relais & Chateaux route in the future. However, we will be selective in the sort of consortia we will use.
Tell us about the staffing process at Rockliffe Hall
It was surprisingly easy to find staff for the hotel. Something like 80% of the 200 staff working at Rockliffe are locally based or originally from the area. The high profile nature of the property has meant that we've had a lot of direct approaches from real quality staff, so it has been relatively easy to recruit talented people without using recruitment agencies too much.
We've invested heavily in our training and development side because we knew we wanted an indigenous workforce and now we're really working on staff retention. It makes life so much easier because we don't have any live-in accommodation and we're very keen to help people to integrate in the local community.
How did you attract Kenny Atkinson?
Kenny knew about us and some of his former colleagues had already come to work with us, including our executive chef Martin Moore who had worked with him at Seaham Hall. He saw what our ambitions were and his own ambitions fitted very well within that. With the Orangery we wanted to give him the best of both worlds in the sense that he could have his name over the door and the sense of his own business, but at the same time still have the security of being part of the bigger Rockliffe family.
In the 1950s Rockliffe Hall was a hospital so a few people must have died here. Are there any ghosts?
Yes, most definitely. And if there weren't we'd probably make them up! Wendy, our sales and marketing director, swears that she has seen a woman on two occasions. I believe she lives in your room.
Watch our video interviews with Kenny Atkinson and Nick Holmes on Caterersearch.com/video
ROAST GOOSNARGH DUCK BREAST AND CANNELLONI OF LEG WITH DUCK
INGREDIENTS (Serves two)
- 1 whole Goosnargh duck
For the duck breast
- Duck breasts- trimmed and scored (remove fillets and keep for mousse)
- 10ml rape seed oil
- 15g unsalted butter
- 2 thyme sprigs
In a hot pan, cook the duck breasts skin side down until golden brown and fat has rendered down (about 8-10 minutes). Pour off the excess fat. Turn the duck breasts over and add a knob of butter, clove of garlic and thyme. Baste the duck breasts and cook for a further two minutes, remove the pan from the stove and leave breasts in the pan for a further eight minutes to rest, rolling the duck in the butter every two minutes.
FOR THE DUCK LEG
- 1 orange zest
- 1 star anise
- 2 cardamom pods
- 4 white peppercorns
- 200g salt
- 50g sugar
- Duck fat, to cover
- 3 sprigs thyme
- 3 cloves garlic
- 2 duck legs plus duck fat for the confit
Blend all the seasonings to a paste and rub into the duck legs. Cure overnight. Wipe the duck legs to remove the seasoning paste.
Confit in the oven at 140°C for about five hours. When legs are cooked, leave to cool in the duck fat, then remove the legs from fat and flake meat down, removing all sinew and bones.
FOR THE DUCK MOUSSE
- 100g duck fillets and duck breast trimming - flesh only
- 80ml double cream
- Maldon salt
Blitz the chilled fillets in a robot coupe with a little Maldon salt, add the chilled cream, blitz again and pass through a fine sieve. Chill in fridge until needed.
FOR THE CONFIT DUCK GIZZARDS
- 50g duck gizzards - peel stomach lining, trim and clean
- Duck fat
- 3 sprigs thyme
- 2 garlic cloves
- 4 black peppercorns
- 1 star anise
- 1 banana shallot - peeled & left whole
Cover the duck gizzards with the duck fat and add the remaining ingredients. Tin foil and slowly confit in a low oven at 130ºC for approximately 8-12 hours. When cooked leave to cool down in the fat. When chilled slice into thin slivers.
FOR THE CANNELLONI
- 20ml oil
- 2 banana shallots - peeled & finely chopped
- 1 clove garlic - peeled & finely chopped
- 10g flat leaf parsley - finely julienned
- 5g tarragon - finely chopped
- 30ml duck sauce
- Salt & pepper
- Duck mousse to bind
- Truffle arome
- Parma ham slices
- Duck fat
Put the flaked duck leg meat in a bowl. Sweat the shallots and garlic in a little oil for approximately 3 minutes without colour and add to the leg meat. Cool. Fold in the duck mousse, add herbs and seasoning and a little truffle arome. Place the duck mix into a piping bag ready to assemble.
Roll cling film on to the bench, lay a slice of ham lengthways, with fat end at the top. Snip the end off the piping bag and neatly pipe a line of duck leg mix across the middle of the ham. Fold the bottom half of the ham over the mix and tightly roll into a sausage. Make up two rolls.
Poach the cannelloni in simmering water for 1-2 minutes, then remove the cling film and pan fry in a little duck fat until the ham is coloured.
FOR THE DUCK SAUCE
- 1kg chopped duck bones
- 50ml oil
- 1 onion, peeled & diced
- 1 bulb garlic, split
- 1 carrot, diced
- 3 sprigs of thyme
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 litre chicken stock
- 1 litre veal stock
- 400ml red wine
Roast the duck bones in oil until golden brown. In the same pan add the onions, carrots and garlic and caramelise the veg. Add the thyme and bay leaf and cook for 10 minutes. Next, add the red wine and reduce to a syrup. Add the stocks, bring to the simmer for approximately 50 minutes. Pass the sauce through a fine muslin cloth and reduce the consistency.
Serve with parsnip purée, orange braised chicory, pickled beetroot, honey roasted parsnips, mushrooms, onions and sage crisps. For the recipes, go to www.caterersearch.com/recipes