Chef Interview: Mark Kempson, Kitchen W8 (March 2019)

Posted on: March 7th, 2019 by Simon Carter

Mark Kempson is the Head Chef of Kitchen W8. Chef and restaurant are celebrating ten years of a happy marriage in 2019. The restaurant has been in safe hands for co-owners Phil Howard and Rebecca Mascarenhas. Holding a Michelin star since 2011, the offering has developed and evolved as its successfully serviced the discerning clientele of the Abingdon Road, Kensington neighbourhood. Here, Mark speaks to Simon Carter of fine dining guide about his career to date, in addition he kindly provides an analysis of three signature dishes by the Michelin criteria for the awarding of stars* namely provenance, cooking technique and balance and harmony on a plate.

*See Interview with Michael Ellis, WW Director Michelin Guide (Oct 2017), where the criteria for awarding Michelin stars were first outlined.

Mark Kempson

For Mark Kempson, cooking as a career really came about by accident. The nearest paper round opportunity was the nearby Hartley Whitney village, which was too far away from Mark’s home in Eversley, so he ended up collecting glasses on a Sunday afternoon at a nearby Whitbread Brewers Fayre pub.  This built up over a couple of years, before one day a chef was off sick and he was asked to help out in the kitchen – the buzz of the service, the hectic environment, the fact that three or four pairs of hands would converge to create something, the pressure, the noise (some shouting), the heat – it triggered something in him as being appealing and exciting.

Having achieved reasonable grades at school, Mark studied a btec National Diploma in Hospitality, which was followed by NVQ Level 3 specialising in the kitchen and an HNC Level 4 Kitchen Management Course.  Across three years of education, he worked shifts at Blubeckers in Odium, a busy restaurant with 390 covers on a Saturday night with 120 of those covers in the first hour.  Just about everything was made on site with only five chefs in the kitchen which was an extraordinary experience, indeed instead of putting him off, it simply made Mark want to learn more.

Co-Owners Kitchen W8: Phil Howard, Rebecca Mascarenhas

Toward the end of college, Mark circulated his CV and fortunately Pennyhill Park responded, at that time Karl Edmunds was Executive Chef and Marc Wilkinson (most recently of Michelin starred Fraiche) was head chef at the hotel’s The Latymer Restaurant.  After starting during college holidays in banqueting, as soon as he graduated Mark started full time at the Latymer, which was a 3 AA Rosette restaurant. 

“Those were the days when a company like Wild Harvest (food produce supplier) was a man and a van, who somewhat romantically drove over from France, arrived at the hotel, opened the boot to show an extraordinary array of world class produce – baby veg, truffles, varieties of mushrooms, squab pigeons, lentils and so on.”

It was an eye opening learning experience about provenance.  What sheer quality means in terms of the love and care that goes into providing such great ingredients and the respect required in bringing the best out of them when cooking.

In 2004, Mark moved to John Campbell at The Vineyard, he started as a demi-chef de partie and over three years he worked his way up to Sous chef. Mark was part of the brigade awarded two Michelin stars (when that category was even more narrow than it is in the UK today and there’s only 20 in 2019). 

“John had the extraordinary ability to orchestrate, motivate and multi-task nineteen chefs to run a hotel kitchen, he was a special man manager.  It goes without saying, his palate and skills were right up there with the very best to enable him to deliver such great food in the main restaurant.”

Working in a luxury hotel in the countryside was great but the buzz of London appealed, at least Mark thought it did until he started under Phil Howard at The Square.  “The first three months were so difficult, I felt I had made a mistake, then suddenly the whole thing just clicked!”

New Kitchen W8 PDR (Private Dining Room)

The Square, another of that small breed of Michelin two star restaurants, was so different to what he had known before; an independent restaurant in the heart of London, packed every day, serving 80 to 90 at lunch, another 80 to 90 at dinner.  The Square was spending and making a lot of money; a packed front of house and the best of the best coming in through the back door with some serious food of a very high quality passing through those kitchen doors. 

Mark was promoted to sous chef within a year, he found watching Phil and Rob Weston (currently Head Chef at La Trompette) amazing; “you had to keep your eyes and ears open as there was so much to learn.” 

As an example, on one morning, we’d have a box of cepes coming in and chef would say, ‘what can we create that makes the best out of this product’, the spontaneity coupled with the intense creativity would bring out some of the best dishes that left that kitchen.

Kitchen W8

In 2009, Mark was thinking about what to do next and had a chat with Phil Howard.  Phil suggested that he and business partner Rebecca Mascarenhas were looking for a new site in Abingdon Road, Kensington.  Mark was to be offered the position of Head Chef and after discussions about the concept for the restaurant and the type of food that would be served, the doors of Kitchen W8 opened in October 2009.

For the opening, Mark wondered if Phil would be in the kitchen but instead he came to eat, in fact has never really never set foot in the kitchen, as he has trusted Mark’s ability.  They worked closely together for the first year to year and a half on menu creation (as perhaps this restaurant might have been perceived as a neighbourhood version of The Square), Mark was then given the creative opportunity to develop the menu going forward.  The Michelin Guide awarded a star in 2011 which has been retained ever since, something the whole team are so proud and delighted to have achieved.

Kitchen W8 Interior

To service 500-600 covers a week there is a brigade of nine chefs.  Every chef counts and there is no hiding place with those numbers.  To motivate chefs in the kitchen, Mark likes to lead by example, to work wherever in the kitchen he is best employed at any given time.  The creative process may start on paper at home, having looked through recipes, eaten out or browsed through social media, Mark gathers snippets from many sources.  This initial creative research process helps to stimulate taste memories, perhaps of forgotten ingredients, that will allow a dish to progressively come together in the kitchen. 

Where needed a recipe book of past successes may see dishes return in the appropriate season. The process begins with printing off the last three or four years menus and looking at how dishes evolved.  Supplier relationships are a key factor in returning certain dishes year to year.  Why?

Selection of Kitchen W8 Dishes

“It’s not about saving a couple of price points on product, its about quality shining through and with any great relationship it works for both parties and works both ways.  If times are tough for them, for example the weather is terrible and fishing is difficult, we know we can still get the best of the catch.  Likewise I can bring back dishes where suppliers have come through for me and guarantee them good business for a season.”

In menu terms, this is reflected by dishes based on quail or duck in January and February, moving to Huntercombe middle-white pork and Welsh lamb in March and April and say venison in early autumn and so on.  There will always be a balance of creativity and returning dishes to ensure motivation and focus remain strong.

Here below, Mark analyses three of his favourite dishes to create and to cook at Kitchen W8.

Signature Mackerel Starter

A signature dish is described on the menu as Grilled Cornish Mackerel, Smoked Eel, Sweet Mustard and Leek. This is a flavour driven dish, which is presented in a new way.  Having stripped back to the elements, perhaps certain proportions here and there changed but the overall dish has simply evolved and improved. There’s the earthiness of the beetroot dressed with a Chardonnay vinegar which enhances sweet and sour notes.  The smokiness of the eel works well with the Mackerel.  The Mackerel is cured and lightly cooked and then sprinkled with brown sugar powder before being blowtorched to give a crisp skin to counter the oiliness of the Mackerel flesh and the fattiness of the smoked eel.  Then some old school flavours are brought into the modern day; a kind of loose sauce Gribiche with mustard dressing, capers and cornichons provide some acidity to cut through and deliver balance to the dish.  Overall taste, texture, temperature and presentation are right for this dish and I’m delighted with the end product for customers.  Even my family won’t let me take this one off the menu.  

A second dish will be described on the spring menu as Gilted Head Sea Bream, Razor Clams, Smoked Sausage, Cider, Onions and Apple.  The bream is farmed so it is sustainable which is appropriate in the modern day. The farmed fish has a great skin to flesh ratio, which means that it pan fries beautifully. An emulsion is made from the cooking liquor of the razor clams. The idea of the home made smoked sausage stems from having a separate dish on the menu, which is fifty-five days aged Huntercombe middle-white pork and as we buy around a pig a week, all parts of the animal must be utilized. In this case the opportunity is to add a smoky shoulder meat sausage, balanced by pickled apple.  Overall there is a heady mix of smoky, sweet and sour with the pan-fried bream having a crispy skin, finished with some crispy fried onions.  The dish is garnished with tarragon to tie it all together.

A third dish this spring is Chocolate Panna Cotta, Hazelnut Ice Cream and Lime.  Chocolate tends to be on the menu in some form, as a guilty pleasure, so moving to spring the kitchen wanted to avoid a baked dish, instead aiming for something lighter, that is all about texture. This dish is about simply three elements delivering the flavour impact.  A seventy percent Valrhona chocolate panna cotta with a hazelnut ice cream that has a smooth elegant taste and texture, some lime zest provides the wakening of the palate. 

Kitchen W8 celebrates ten years this year, over which time Mark feels confident that he has developed and matured as both a chef and as a person.  He understands how a neighbourhood restaurant retains an identity, while attracting new business in 2019, and that aspects of this identity will have evolved from the one that worked in 2009.  So adapting over time has been important.

For a while the food may have become more complex, refined and artistic before evolving to become simply flavour driven, with customers enjoying a sense of a lighter touch.  The addition of the private dining room has been a real hit and the recent redecoration has added a light and airy feel to the dining room.  Above all, always honest and delicious food, well prepared, with strong ingredients is the constant mantra.