Since February Kenny Atkinson has been running his restaurant at Rockliffe Hall in Co Durham, where he offers inventive, modern British food using locally sourced ingredients. Kerstin Kühn reports
After making the move back to his native North-east two years ago, Kenny Atkinson's career has rocketed. From retaining a Michelin star at Seaham Hall to winning a place in the final of Great British Menu twice and being named Chef of the Year at the Hotel Cateys, the Geordie chef has gone from being largely unknown to becoming one of the industry's brightest stars outside of London.
And things got even better this year, when Atkinson opened his first eponymous restaurant at luxury resort Rockliffe Hall near Darlington in Co Durham in February. Located in the centre of the main hotel building at the 61-bedroom property, Kenny Atkinson at The Orangery serves daily breakfast and afternoon tea as well as dinner from Monday to Saturday.
"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, who oversees a kitchen brigade of seven chefs.
A desire to offer value for money and a menu with no hidden costs is at the heart of Atkinson's restaurant.
"You can't forget who you're cooking for. My restaurant isn't in the middle of London so I can't charge those sorts of prices," he says. Three courses à la carte are served during the week at £45 plus canapés, amuse bouche and pre-dessert, while at weekends two tasting menus are available comprising a six-course menu prestige at £65 (£105 with wine) and a nine-course gourmand menu at £75 (£130 with wine).
Those who remember Atkinson from his successful appearances on the last two series of Great British Menu will be aware of his commitment to local, seasonal ingredients. At Rockliffe Hall, he is again flying the flag for the North-east's produce, with local pork, beef and lamb joining other produce such as Yorkshire quails and mackerel on his menu.
He's also using strictly British cheeses from the North and has banned all imported olive oil from his kitchen, instead using rapeseed oil from a Northumberland producer Oleifera instead.
"Why buy oil from Greece or Italy when you have a fantastic product like this right on your doorstep?" he says.
Atkinson describes his culinary style as modern British. "I use classic combinations and put a modern twist on them but without pushing the boat out too much," he says. His cuisine typically encompasses technically astute, multi-faceted dishes, which often marry different cuts of meat and combine numerous elements on the plate.
Take, for example, his starter of Whitby crab with avocado, tomato and samphire, which currently features on both tasting menus. The dish is a modern take on a classic cocktail comprising crab served in the shell alongside a crab tempura, a salad of tomato and samphire, and an avocado sorbet. "It's a really light, summery dish that's very refreshing," says Atkinson.
Another typical dish is his main course of Grand Reserve lamb with peas, leeks and mint, which involves loin cooked in a water bath, confit of the shoulder, rolled and wrapped in Yorkshire ham, and served with sweetbreads and local girolle mushrooms.
"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.
Predictably, desserts follow the same route. His dark Valrhona chocolate dish, for instance, offers various textures including a strawberry parfait, chocolate mousse and Champagne jelly.
The 70-seat restaurant turns over 50-60 covers most weekends and the annual interest in Great British Menu has inevitably led to a rise in numbers, too. Atkinson's four dishes from the show - including the mackerel with pickled gooseberries, gooseberry wine jelly and gooseberry purée, which won him a place at the National Trust banquet - will be served along with a cheese course at £55 (£90 with wine) until the end of September. Indeed, so great has been the interest in the mackerel dish that it has crept into the other tasting menus, too.
"It just had to - the demand was so great and you've got to give your customers what they want," Atkinson concludes.
Kenny Atkinson at the Orangery, Rockliffe Hall, Hurworth-on-Tees, Darlington, Co Durham DL2 2DU
Tel: 01325 729999www.rockliffehall.com
What's on the menu
• Whitby crab, avocado, tomato and samphire
• Yorkshire quail, celeriac, bacon and truffle
• North-east line-caught mackerel, gooseberries, lemon and mustard
• Goosnargh duck, peach, golden raisins and girolles
• North Sea scallops, pork belly, pineapple and ginger
• Grand reserve lamb, peas, leeks and mint
• Dark Valrhona chocolate, strawberries, Champagne and honeycomb
• Cappuccino and doughnut
• Blueberry and elderflower jelly trifle