Mark Stinchcombe was the winner of MasterChef: The Professionals 2015, but in reality the title also belongs to his co-head chef and wife, Sue, and the rest of the Eckington Manor family. Hannah Thompson reports
You could be forgiven for thinking that winning a contest such as BBC's MasterChef: The Professionals would prompt some self-aggrandisement.
The Stinchcombes have a considerable pedigree: Mark has worked at Lucknam Park near Bath (his home town), Ston Easton Park in Somerset and Driftwood in Cornwall, and completed stages at the Fat Duck, Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons, the Square and Attica in Melbourne, Australia. Sue has worked at Restaurant Gordon Ramsay in London and staged at the French Laundry with Thomas Keller in California. The two met in 2012 while working at David Everitt-Matthias's two-Michelin-starred Le Champignon Sauvage in Cheltenham, and arrived at Eckington in October 2014.
"I never really thought MasterChef would be the competition for me," says Mark. "Because I never felt I had that one person who would work day and night to ensure the operation was carrying on. But that was what was so amazing about this situation. Sue was that rock."
"I think we're cooking the best food we ever have now, because everything is done with," says Sue. "It sounds dreadful to say it, but it was a lot to get through MasterChef, and often we would look at each other and say, 'why did we think this was a good idea?!'"
Although Mark was actually on camera doing the cooking, to all intents and purposes, Sue was there, too. For example, when preparing for the show, Mark made a dessert with a set chocolate custard, biscuit crunch, strawberries and banana ice-cream. As he set it down on the table in front of Sue, feeling pleased, his wife said: "Nope, there's no chance you're going to win the competition with that". And so, at the 11th hour, it was back to the cookbooks.
She can't put her finger on why. "I just said, 'This isn't you!' It's like when people talk about writer's block. If it's not flowing, come back to it. It's the same with a plate. You've got to cook from the heart."
The couple tweaked the dessert together and came up with something that would stand up to the scrutiny of MasterChef judges Marcus Wareing, Monica Galetti et al.
"It sounds a bit soppy," says Sue, "But we love each other, and [cooking] is everything. We don't work all these hours just to say, ‘oh well, it's not bad'. It was the difference between saying 'yeah!' and 'meh'."
Away from the television screens, it's the same. Defining their creative style isn't easy, and they aren't sure how they decided to work together in the first place, other than recognising that they cheffed well together when at Le Champignon Sauvage. There was no conversation about what to do or how to do it, and when asked to describe their style, they say: "It's honest."
"It's hard to define," says Mark. "We end up just going 'um, classically-trained, British, French, classic, with twistsâ¦?'. We've picked up bits from everywhere, and it's just all about big-hitting flavours that work really well together."
There are no big trend pieces on the menu, and with an allotment, herb garden and farm on their doorstep, as much as 95% of the produce used in the kitchen - especially in the summer - comes from the Eckington Manor property. Dishes are created based on what's available, and only one dish - the beef ribeye and braised shin - never comes off the menu. A glut of vegetables will lead to the kitchen serving pickled amuse-bouches, and an excess of beef might lead to bresaola and other cured meats.
With all this creativity and local produce, it's lucky that Gardner gives the couple free rein. They have been encouraged to develop personal styles while working as seasonally as possible. It was also key to Mark's MasterChef glory. When he needed to test the suckling pig dish quickly, none of their suppliers could help in time. It was only by Gardner and Harber pulling in favours that he managed it.
"They're phenomenal bosses," says Sue. "They were helping us when Mark was coming back on the train, practising late into the night. They're friends as well, and they could tell when it was getting stressful."
Not only do the couple have support, they also have plenty of inspiration. Sue particularly cites her time at the French Laundry, while Mark regularly mentions Hywel Jones, executive head chef at Lucknam Park, as an influence. Chris Eden, Gordon Ramsay, Clare Smyth and David Everitt-Matthias's names are never far away. Unsurprisingly, even Wareing's judging in the competition helped develop Mark's style.
Mark explains: "We used MasterChef as a publicity springboard, but cooking for those chefs was still a privilege. Marcus is an incredible chef - I've admired him for years."
Another influence is Ben Shewry at Michelin-starred Attica, in Melbourne, Australia, where Mark worked after leaving Le Champignon. Shewry quickly turned Attica around to win a host of accolades. However, after this he nearly gave up cooking due to depression, and he now takes regular days off work to play a key role in his son's basketball team and local charities.
Mark says: "[Shewry] told me that he had been confused. He was cooking food that he thought he 'should' be doing. He had to ask, 'Why am I doing this?'. I've never met anyone who balances cooking amazing food with having a family quite so well."
When Sue went out to Australia to meet him, she could tell the difference. "I think Mark's cooking changed dramatically when he went to Australia," she says. "I saw him light up. Those five months could have made or broken our relationship. They made it."
Inspired, Mark proposed in Sydney's Botanic Gardens. They then travelled through New Zealand and Thailand together before returning to Pershore. And after such a whirlwind, they decided to take part in MasterChef, launch a new dining operation and get married, all in the same year. Their honeymoon then took them to the US east coast, where they visited Eleven Madison Park in New York.
"It doesn't matter how much it costs," Mark says. "It's like an addiction, serious inspiration. Eleven Madison Park is so honest, classical beautifulâ¦ we really aspire to that. There will always be room for fine-dining. It's like art."
The definition of success
Sue personally isn't happy with simply serving great food. She's a strong believer in encouraging female chefs to rise up through the ranks, and is outspoken on the need for chefs to address their working environment.
"When I worked at Restaurant Gordon Ramsay, it was a bit of a shock," she says. "We were like zombies on four hours' sleep, and I felt I had to prove myself as a woman as well as a chef; lifting heavy stock pans, acting butch, trying to be more like the men than the men. I think a lot of women fall into that trap. I realised I actually needed to focus on the cooking."
That's not to say she's not tough, however. "We still drive the pressure," she says. "No screaming or shouting, but I will say in the kitchen, 'Let's have a good service - buck up now, or we're in the shit'. We do push it."
On the other hand, Mark is slightly softer in approach, having learned from Chris Eden at Driftwood. "He was a more mellow," Mark says. "He still wanted respect, but not in a nasty way. Now, Sue and I determine the pace. We remember how hard it was being a commis, so we will say to our staff, 'Go home! Go see your family. Enjoy your time off!'"
"You get a lot of chefs who say that they've sacrificed so much for success," says Sue. "So, you've got two Michelin stars but you missed your children's first steps. Is that really success? It's difficult for us too - we've missed weddings, birthdays. It's tough."
Mark adds: "Especially for women [chefs], I think they can feel that they're sacrificing being parents. We want children, so we've had to talk about how to juggle that."
A team effort
So, what seemed to be a win by one man on TV last year has revealed itself to be a glorious team effort. Sue says: "We're riding an amazing wave at the moment. We did MasterChef to put Eckington Manor on the map, and we can't wait to get going."
Then Gardner provides a fitting summary of how the couple work together. "Mark's the star," she says, "But Sue makes him shine."
- 260 acres of working farm and country house specialising in beef
- 5.1 miles from the town of Pershore, in Eckington, Worcestershire
- 2006 The year the farm was taken over by local businesswoman Judy Gardner
- 38 covers in the fine-dining restaurant
- 17 en-suite refurbished bedrooms, including cottages available for hire
- 1 cookery school
- 1 vegetable allotment
- 1 herb garden
How to win MasterChef
Have a support network in place
Although Mark was the one on-screen, behind the scenes everyone else was making sure he was supported and that the business carried on. "When Mark called me saying, 'I've got through', I'd be looking through cookbooks, on to the next thing," says Sue. "It was great to have Judy though - she could tell when I was stressed."
Know what you're doing it for and expect increased interest
"The main purpose of MasterChef was to build up the reputation of the place," says Mark. And now? Now the hotel and restaurant receives bookings from far more varied clientele, many of whom booked just four programmes into the last TV series. "It was about saying this is who we are," says Mark. "And now we're booked until April!"
Collaborate on recipes and preparation for the dishes
Mark never prepared alone. Sue was a key part of his dish designing, and helped with everything from cookbook inspiration to testing. "Pretty much all the dishes came from our menus here," explains Mark. "We're always trying to change a dish, elevate it, keep nudging."
Don't hold back or dumb down your style early on
Eckington Manor's pride and joy is its beef, which is usually served as a rib-eye with a braised shin, and sometimes as a sirloin. Highlighting this was a key part of the couple's philosophy on the show. "We never thought about dumbing down our food for the show," says Mark. "I didn't cook tactically. It wouldn't have worked."
Judy Gardner on Sue and Mark
"I've known Sue for many years and the door was always open here for her. When Mark came along and they got together, it was a bonus.
"I give them free rein. They are two very good people. It's almost like a family unit, and that's how it works.
"Mark is a passionate person as well as being very nice, and I think that definitely came across in the programme. He was obviously out to win, but we were behind him all the way and completely prepared to back that enthusiasm.
"This is just the beginning of the couple's career. They've got shared passion for what they do. They're almost soulmates. It's a fantastic situation to be able to do the things together.
"I've always had nice chefs here, but these two have gone to a different level. And it's just that these guys are special. I'm sure they're going to go a long, long way."
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