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Michael Wignall grew up in Preston. As a teen, he was a sponsored BMX rider, before his parents persuaded him to try catering college. Aged 19 he moved to Spain and, on his return, he worked at Longbridge in Lancashire, before L’Ortolan in Reading under John Burton Race. In 1993 he went to Old Beams, where he won his first star. He’s since gained stars at Waldo’s (Berkshire), Michael’s Nook (Lake District), The Burlington (Yorkshire), Pennyhill Park (Surrey) and Gidleigh Park (Devon).
To go from zero to two Michelin stars is the culinary equivalent of breaking the land-speed record. It happens very occasionally and, when it does, the sonic boom it creates sends waves through the industry from here to Tokyo. For the 2018 Guide, Claude Bosi’s Bibendum went straight in at two to some surprise. Whether the fact his restaurant resides in the original UK Michelin building might have helped his case, who are we to say?
While going straight in at two stars from zero is rare, for a new chef to take over a two-star kitchen and maintain those two stars in the very next guide is nigh-on unprecedented. Last year, Michael Wignall did just that. He departed Surrey’s Pennyhill Park in January 2016 for Devon’s Gidleigh Park. In his eight years at Pennyhill, he had taken The Latymer restaurant from two AA rosettes and no Michelin stars, to five rosettes (the AA’s highest accolade) and two stars, which Wignall maintained for three years. The restaurant lost both in the most recent guide after his departure. Breaking up, as they say, is hard to do.
‘It was the biggest decision of my professional life,’ says Wignall, both hands clasped tightly around a coffee cup on a chilly night in the pretty conservatory at Gidleigh Park. ‘Although there’s only so much you can grow in one place and jobs in iconic restaurants like this don’t come around often.
‘It was a massive risk. I’d had the two stars for three years, but it took me five years to get them. It could have easily been that kind of cycle again here. Historically, every chef that has done it, it has taken a few years to get them back, but I thought I’d give it a crack anyway,’ he says.
By road, there are some 200 miles separating the two hotels and a significantly different pace of life and service. One sits in isolation surrounded by sprawling Dartmoor; the other is a stone’s throw from Junction 12 of the M25.
‘I didn’t think many staff
would come with me as it was
such a different proposition,’
Wignall recalls. ‘I gathered
them in the pastry section
and told them the news that
I was leaving. Loads of them
jumped up straight away and
said they were coming too.
It was really humbling.’ In
total, 12 kitchen staff and
front-of-house joined Wignall
on his journey down the M4.
‘I guess, when you look at it,
it doesn’t really matter what
venue you’re in as we’re all
inside for 16 hours a day
doing what we do best. I’m
still there mopping the floors
at the end of the day and the staff appreciate the fact that
I’m in it with them.’
SLAVE TO HIS ART
It’s this dedication that sets Wignall apart. While all successful chefs live and breathe their restaurant, for Wignall, it seems to run deeper. He has a reputation for being moody, sullen and intense, although when you see his food on the plate, it’s anything but. From start to finish, his courses come as a joyous riot of colour, fun and flavour. While a ‘tortured artist’ tag may be a little strong for a chef, no one questioned Van Gogh’s symphonies of colour emerging from a downbeat disposition. For Wignall, there couldn’t be a greater dichotomy between his perceived demeanour and the food he creates. Its two-star playfulness and the way he brings in myriad international influences is superb.
‘I used to travel a lot as a kid with my family,’ he says. ‘We had a VW Campervan and used to take it all over Europe. One of my earliest memories is driving in it to Turkey in the Seventies. We were walking through an Istanbul bazaar and all I can remember was the smell of strong Turkish coffee and the stall holders going mad for me as I had long blonde hair. I think dad was offered about a dozen camels – there were some times when I’m sure he wished that he’d taken them up on the deal.
‘I’ve also been all over Asia and it’s a light style of food that really resonates with me. I’ve always been amazed by how you can single out each individual flavour and how much fresher everything seems. I’m not a big guy so I can’t eat massive portions and don’t enjoy stodgy meals. I like the taste of pasta, but can’t eat loads of it,’ he says. ‘I’m probably a bit gluten intolerant, come to think of it.
‘I always find myself looking back thinking I remember flavours and food experiences so vividly from over 30 years ago. It’s amazing what food memories can do and the impact that they have.’
Wignall draws on all the senses with his food. When he took over from Michael Caines’ well established two-star kitchen at Gidleigh Park, he undertook a root-and-branch reorganisation of the dining room which better spoke to his style of cookery. ‘The restaurant had Maximes all over the walls that, while beautiful, just didn’t fit in with my food,’ he says. ‘I designed and commissioned everything from the chairs to the crockery to work with my philosophy.
I wanted people to feel relaxed and intrigued, rather than worrying about making a noise with the cutlery. I want the waiters’ personalities to come out, too. I don’t want to give them a script to read from – it’s just not natural.’ I suggest to Wignall that it’s an interesting time for two-star food as we know it. Hibiscus in Mayfair recently closed, Phil Howard left The Square and a glut of international-leaning restaurants like The Araki (Japanese), A Wong (Chinese) and Jamavar (Indian) are those getting the pick of the plaudits. ‘It’s time for everyone to freshen up and rethink how we look at fine dining,’ he contemplates. ‘For me, it’s a lot about the surroundings, particularly when you get out of London. Your food has to pay homage to the area you’re in, even if you do choose to apply modern techniques and international flavours.’
On the day of printing, it was
announced that Wignall is to
leave Gidleigh to set up on his
own. One can only assume
he’s on the hunt for three stars.
‘Because I was so young when
I became a head chef, I’ve not really been influenced by
anyone. With a lot of people
you can say, “he’s worked at Le
Manoir” or “he’s been through
Ramsay”, and there’s nothing
wrong with that, but my food is 100 per cent me.’ Indeed,
Wignall is his own man and
wherever he sets up shop,
expect the Michelin man to
beat a path to his door.
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