Kevin Tickle will bring his foraging skills to new restaurant with rooms Heft, where he will scavenge the land for both wild and cultivated ingredients to create a menu celebrating the flavours of Cumbria. Ben McCormack meets him.
"Don't talk to me about challenges," Kevin Tickle says with exasperation. It's one of the few times in our interview that the softly spoken Cumbrian hints at the frustration behind the prolonged birth of his new venture, Heft. "We've had every single challenge you could possibly imagine thrown at us. That's why we're not open yet."
It's a sunny Lake District morning in late May and Tickle is showing me around what will one day be Heft, but currently looks like a building site, albeit with a good bone structure of wood beams and stone floors still intact. The ‘inn with rooms' was first announced last August, following Tickle's departure from the Forest Side hotel in Grasmere 12 months earlier.
Seven months and two lockdowns later, the kitchen is at last ready to be fitted, with an opening date of the end of June for the bar and early August for the restaurant. Bookings won't be made available until just before the bar opens, but a collaboration with Lisa Goodwin-Allen on 5 July means an immoveable feast of a deadline is looming.
Rebuilding the site
Tickle and his wife Nicola, a former assistant manager at the Hipping Hall hotel in the Yorkshire Dales, bought the old Crown pub in High Newton with the intention of transforming it into Heft. The village is closer to Cartmel, where Kevin was head chef at Rogan & Co, than to Grasmere, where he won a Michelin star as head chef of Forest Side. "We thought all the pub needed was a bit of polish," Nicola says. "We've done more than a bit of polish."
The biggest transformation is the 1,000 sq ft kitchen, which has been created by knocking together four small storerooms and moving the staircase to the front of the building, where it dramatically bisects the 34-cover dining room and means that overnight guests have their own entrance (and the Tickles don't need to hire a night porter).
New loos have been added, including one with disabled access – no mean feat in a building which dates back to the 17th century. "The toilets were revolting," Nicola says. "They had pebble-dashed walls and a really old urinal. It took seven months to get rid of the lingering smell."
Original features such as the stone fireplaces have been retained where possible, while a walk-in wine cellar has replaced the corner where an ice machine had caused years of water damage.
Although the dining room can accommodate the same number of customers as Forest Side, there are another 30 covers in the more casual, no-bookings bar. Instead of Forest Side's 20 bedrooms, Heft will have five. "Which is perfect for us, because we never wanted to do a massive hotel," Kevin says. "Rooms are a bonus. They make sense as a source of income, but we'd have been fine with just a restaurant."
The Tickles found their way to High Newton because of what Nicola calls "good old Cumbrian gossip" when her aunt heard that the sale of the Crown had fallen through. They began their search by viewing potential restaurant premises as and when they came on the market, but found they were being outbid by breweries, or that properties were already tied to a brewery with wine and beer that wouldn't match Kevin's food.
The pair funded Heft from their own savings and a loan through Enterprise Answers, a not-for-profit organisation based in Penrith that invests in businesses in Cumbria, north Lancashire and the Yorkshire Dales.
Both Kevin and Nicola are Cumbrian born and bred, and they met at school in Ulverston. Nicola grew up in the Rusland Valley between Windermere and Coniston, while Kevin is from Kirkby-in-Furness on the Irish Sea coast. It was this local knowledge that led them to a village bypassed by the A590 that runs from the M6 to Barrow. Where outsiders might have sped past on the dual carriageway to Cartmel, the Tickles instead saw a hidden gem.
"You definitely get more for your money here," Nicola says. "We looked at tiny bistros in Ambleside that were three times the price of the Crown. My parents are 10 minutes away and we live 20 minutes away. We know that as well as being a beautiful location, High Newton is a good location. It feels as if everything has fallen into place."
Foraging and farming
But while Kevin says that he won't miss the commute to Grasmere on roads clogged with tourists, he has been sorry to say goodbye to Forest Side's kitchen garden and 45 acres of woodland. Nicola's grandfather, a retired farmer, has come to the rescue with a polytunnel for herbs and small vegetables and the loan of his garden.
"We don't have enough room here to do 100 raised beds in a lovely garden like at Forest Side," Kevin says. "But we've got the poly- tunnel and enough space to grow the important things that you can't get from suppliers. In the future we'll branch out and have an off-site growing area."
What's more, Kevin says the lack of a kitchen garden will improve his cooking. "It frees me up because I'm not tied to something that I agreed to grow eight months ago. We can change the menu more actively instead of focusing on having a turnip dish for the next six weeks because we've got 1,000 turnips to get rid of. Having that freedom is more beneficial towards the size of the operation than having a garden."
Of course, foraging rather than growing is what Kevin is famous for – and where his local knowledge is at its most valuable. Will he still be foraging at Heft? "Maybe not for the first year – I don't think I'll get a single day off. But yes, absolutely. One of the reasons we picked the location is that it's on the border of the Lyth Valley, which is stone-fruit territory. And obviously Cartmel used to be my old roaming ground. There aren't many places round here that I don't know."
At the end of May Kevin was yet to write a menu – "I'm too busy painting skirting boards" – but he plans to offer three courses at lunch for £35 and six and 10 courses for dinner for £65 or £90. Does he think that, post-Covid, diners have lost their appetite for tasting menus that extend over 20 courses?
"I wouldn't say the tasting menu is dying," he says. "I just want diners to go away with 10 really good dishes done to the best of our ability. I want them to be able to remember all 10 courses, not forget half of a 24-course menu filled with dishes that are not as good as I'd like them to be because we're trying to stretch our ingredient list for that particular season."
I just want diners to go away with 10 really good dishes done to the best of our ability
One dish that will be on the menu is a version of Kevin's signature plate of cheese and onions, involving dashi onions, Ragstone purée, black garlic mayonnaise and pickled onion rings. He also expects to be serving another Forest Side favourite, Cartmel Valley venison pastrami with juniper, yogurt, cucumber relish, pickled swede, Cáis Na Tíre cheese and ransom capers.
There will also be ingredients that Kevin has been preserving and fermenting in his garage for the past year – "jars and jars of things like preserved berries and kimchis that need a minimum of six months to activate the ferments."
The menu will be seasonal to the week, depending on which ingredients are at their best, and will change as and when it needs to. "We'll take it one dish at a time, and even then perhaps not change the whole dish," Kevin says. "When one element is no longer at its best or loses its shine, we'll change it."
In contrast, Nicola says, the bar menu of small plates will change every couple of days, with most dishes under the £10 mark and nothing over £15. "We have to keep rolling with the changes down there. The main restaurant is probably not going to be somewhere to come to eat twice a week, maybe not even twice a month. But with the bar, we'd like locals to say, ‘we had a great meal there last week, let's go again this Saturday.' We want diners to see something different each time they come in."
We'd like locals to say, ‘we had a great meal there last week, let's go again this Saturday.' We want diners to see something different each time they come in
And what if one of those diners is a Michelin inspector? "We'll just take things as they come." Kevin says. "We want to do good food and good drinks and have fun while we do it. If a star comes along, that's great because it will help our business, but we won't be disappointed if it doesn't."
If a star comes along, that's great because it will help our business, but we won't be disappointed if it doesn't
While Kevin will be in the kitchen, Nicola will be at home on a laptop – two parents of two small children both working nights is not a recipe for a happy family life. Eliott White has been recruited from Moor Hall as restaurant manager, "so that he can be here instead of me," Nicola says. Kevin's deputy in the kitchen will be Tom Dicken, who was sous chef at Forest Side.
Nicola says that there are noticeably fewer kitchen and front of house staff available than a year ago. "But the beauty of us being new is we can restrict our number of customers and just do what we can cope with," Kevin says. "We'll start off slow and steady, with six to eight of us in the kitchen and a similar number out front."
There are worse places in Cumbrian hospitality to work than Heft, which will be closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. "We're not just thinking of our own family life," Kevin says. "We want our staff to have a set pattern as well. The best thing we ever did at Forest Side was to stop opening on Mondays and Tuesdays so the team could do something on their days off together. And it means you always have your strongest team on five days a week."
If Michelin stars aren't the long-term ambition for Heft, what is? The Tickles' two children, Elsie, five and Rory, 18 months, are some way off being able to work in the restaurant, but Kevin and Nicola are already thinking about their legacy.
"Elsie's desperate to work here," Nicola says. "When we took over the pub, there was a pile of empty pizza boxes left in the kitchen, and she set herself up with a little stand in the corner, drawing pizzas inside the boxes and selling them to the builders. She can't decide whether to be a chef or work front of house."
‘Heft', by the way, is a farming term that refers to the Lakeland fells that are returned to by successive generations of sheep. Here in the shadow of Cartmel Fell, Kevin and Nicola Tickle have found their own patch of land for their young family – and they look set to be part of the landscape for a very long time to come.
From mentee to mentor
Kevin Tickle is not the first great chef to come out of the kitchen of L'Enclume: Mark Birchall of Moor Hall and Adam Reid of the French are famously continuing Rogan's legacy of championing creative treatments of ingredients from the north west. Can Tickle see himself adopting the role of chef mentor?
"I'm not old enough to have that massive stream of chefs going through my kitchen, but there are a few who have gone on to do great things and I couldn't be prouder of them," he says.
Cal Byerley opened Pine in an old cow barn in Northumberland in March with another Forest Side alumnus, Ian Waller, as his head chef. Maltese-born Andrew Borg, meanwhile, worked as Kevin's chef de partie and is now executive chef of Iniala Harbour House in Valletta, Malta.
Then there's Jack Stuart, who worked as Kevin's junior sous and is now head chef at Gauge in Brisbane. "Jack said to me, I'm just going to take your whole menu to Australia because no one will know it's yours," Kevin laughs."He's doing some really interesting things out there."
Birchall, meanwhile, has signed up to do a guest chef evening at Heft. "He can cook in our small kitchen and see how it compares to his massive palace," Nicola jokes.
A taste of the land
Kevin Tickle is known as much for being a forager as a chef, but the label doesn't bother him. "I forage because I love it," he says. "It opens up your larder to a lot more ingredients."
As Simon Rogan's head forager, Tickle was up before the sun each day to gather up to 80 ingredients from the forests and fells, countryside and coastline of his native south Cumbria.
Tickle has been foraging for herbs and plants from a young age; however, he feels that the current fashion for all things foraged is getting out of hand. "I think people should start to behave themselves. We now have problems with trespassing and over-foraging. When my team forages, we do it responsibly: we won't take more than we need, we won't go onto somebody else's land and do it without permission."
The problem of over-foraging worsened during lockdown as people had more time on their hands, and this has particularly affected the supply of wild mushrooms.
"A lot of people will get to them before I do – even my patches that are out in the middle of nowhere." Does Tickle know who is taking them? "I've got a good idea," he laughs. "We're all friends in this industry."
Photography: Heft by Phil Rigby; Kevin Tickle foraging: Jenny Heyworth
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