Nathan Outlaw protégé Chris Simpson is comfortably following in the steps of an esteemed clutch of chefs, says Amanda Afiya
From the moment Paul and Kay Henderson took over Gidleigh Park in 1978, after it had been converted into a hotel in the mid-1950s, the guidebooks have taken note. Kay was awarded a Michelin star for her cooking in 1981, and the Tudor-inspired, 1920s country house hotel hasn't looked back since.
Gastronomic greatness continued to radiate from its grand dining room, thanks to successive chefs John Webber, Shaun Hill and Michael Caines, who presided over the then two-Michelin-starred kitchen for more than 20 years. More recently, Michael Wignall, who enjoyed a relatively brief but successful dalliance at the Devon property, also achieved two Michelin stars and five AA rosettes.
Today, the job of continuing that epicurean legacy falls to former Restaurant Nathan Outlaw head chef Chris Simpson, who joined the Relais & Chateaux property owned by Andrew Brownsword in January.
Delightfully self-effacing, Simpson has the foundations of an incredible CV to steady himself. Originally from Barrowford, Lancashire, he spent his formative years under the tutelage of Nigel Haworth at Northcote before travelling and working in Australia. He returned to the UK and worked at the Devonshire Arms in Bolton Abbey, North Yorkshire, and the Vineyard in Stockcross, Berkshire, where he worked under John Campbell.
Simpson first worked with Outlaw in 2003, at the Black Pig in Rock, Cornwall, where Outlaw won a Michelin star aged 25. He started as second chef and gained "invaluable experience working one on one", with only the two of them in the kitchen. Simpson eventually reached the dizzy heights of head chef at Outlaw's flagship, two-Michelin-starred eponymous restaurant, a position he held for seven years.
"My introduction to working with local and regional produce was with Nigel; I learned great pastry skills from John, along with an intelligent approach to kitchen management; and I developed incredible knowledge of fish and seafood under Nathan, who also taught me to be a calm and considered chef," says Simpson.
However, over the past year, the chef started to have a sense of "getting on" and decided now was the time to branch out on his own.
And what a spectacular place he has chosen to do that. The 24-bedroom Gidleigh Park nestles into a backdrop of 107 acres of private woodlands on the edge of Dartmoor National Park, just outside the village of Gidleigh and a short drive from Chagford.
A true convert to the South West, Simpson ensures the menus served in the 45-seat dining room are inspired by locally sourced produce, offered via à la carte, tasting (£145 for seven courses) and seasonally changing three-course set menus (£49) "to give variety to those staying for more than one night".
Thoroughly enjoying his recent return to game and meat cookery, Simpson says a stand-out dish is veal sweetbread (poached at 72°C for an hour and 10 minutes in a water bath before being pan-fried) with a sourdough crumb and shimeji mushrooms pickled in sherry vinegar, served with a mushroom mousse made from button mushrooms, lime juice and coriander. The dish is the first course on the seven-course tasting menu or a starter on the à la carte.
Meanwhile, squab pigeon served with onion, parsnip and bacon, sees the breast paired with a bacon crumb, roast onion, parsnip purée, parsnip crisps and an onion and butter dressing made from onion stock. "The gamey-ness of the pigeon combined with the acidity from the onion stock, which includes lemon juice, and the crunchiness of pickled onion, works brilliantly," says Simpson.
e dish illustrates that Simpson, who heads a brigade of 16 to 18, is not just thinking about flavour, with each dish offering an assortment of textures without cluttering the plate or puzzling the palate.
While Simpson is reluctant to pigeonhole his style of cooking, his food is classically rooted with a leaning towards modern techniques and designed to showcase the region's finest produce. He delivers his dishes with a straightforward yet refined approach, making them easy on the eye and gentle on the stomach. It's only a matter of time before the guidebooks give him the plaudits he deserves, ensuring Gidleigh's famous food legacy lives on.
From the menu
Starters • Salcombe crab and asparagus tart, Exmoor caviar
• Pork belly, soused carrots, pear
• Lemon sole, brown shrimp, wild garlic, lemon
• Cornish turbot, broad beans, leeks, celeriac sauce
• Salt chamber-aged beef fillet, potato terrine, cauliflower purée
• Dartmoor lamb, loin, shoulder, haricot beans, green sauce, hazelnut, hen of the woods
• Chocolate tart, yogurt sorbet, salted pistachio
• Panna cotta, Brachetto, strawberries, rhubarb sorbet
£125 for three courses, inclusive of coffee and petits fours
Gidleigh Park, Chagford, Devon TQ13 8HH www.gidleigh.co.uk
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