Probably most renowned as the home of the England Rugby Team, Pennyhill Park is a luxury hotel set in acres of beautiful grounds in the leafy Surrey suburbs. Michael Wignall has a wealth of experience with multiple tenures at Michelin, GFG and AA recognised restaurants.
The marriage of the two – with Michael taking the helm of the blue riband Latymer restaurant – can only be an exciting one for both parties. A happy result too for all those foodies previously starved of fine dining of any quality or consistency in the area. Michael found time to speak to Simon Carter and Daniel Darwood of fine-dining-guide, here’s what he had to say.
Tell us some background about yourself…
I left school and didn’t really know what I wanted to do – I rode bikes initially and was sponsored to ride them. I wasn’t really sure what to do for a career and kind of stumbled into catering college. I lasted the full three years and then went to Spain for nine months to recover! I’ve been lucky since to have worked in a number of Michelin kitchens including, most recently, running my own (Michelin starred) kitchen at The Burlington Restaurant in Yorkshire.
I’ll quickly run through many years to give a brief CV of a chef: Early on, I worked at Broughton Park when Paul Heathcote was there, he left to set up Longridge and he took me and Andy Barnes (who had been with him for years), I was there for two years before moving onto L’Ortolan under John Burton Race. Then onto Cliveden under Ron Maxfield – I was head chef of Waldo’s and Ron Maxfield was the Executive Chef – We had four Rosettes and a Michelin Star. Then to Old Beems in Waterhouses in Staffordshire which was made GFG County restaurant of the year; a Michelin Star and three Rosettes. Then 3½ years at Michaels Nook which earned four Rosettes and a Michelin Star.
Throughout the last six months at Michael’s Nook I was looking for a new opportunity. I’d sworn that I wouldn’t work in another country house hotel; I wanted to do restaurant only. I was approached by the MD of the Devonshire Arms (Jeremy Rafter) to work at the Burlington restaurant. They had big ideas about getting recognition in guides such as the AA and Michelin: They’d had a few chefs trying to make that achievement. We were lucky; within six months we’d had two visits from Michelin and got the star straight away. The restaurant went from two Rosettes to four Rosettes in a year and a half. I did five years at the Devonshire Arms and in the end I’d achieved everything I felt I could achieve.
How did your move to Pennyhill Park Hotel come about?
I was approached. I was interested in moving back to the south of England and Pennyhill Park had ambitions to open a really top end fine dining restaurant alongside their hugely popular brasserie. It was exactly the kind of opportunity I was looking for. The Exclusive Hotels group (Pennyhill Park is one of four hotels within the group) has superb F&B focus and I knew that they would give me the backing and support that I need to take things to a new level.
What are your influences in Gastronomy?
First and foremost I am classically trained, however I do press ahead with modern and complex cooking. I would stress that I feel its important not to go OTT with modernity and I would never compromise combinations of taste and texture. I also like to eat out to see what is going on in other restaurants.
Yesterday I went to the Fat Duck for lunch for example. I go out once or twice a month, it really depends on where is open on a Monday. Heston came up to the Devonshire Arms a couple of times and I class him as a friend and positive influence.
I’ve been to Petrus a few times, the service and everything there is fantastic, similarly so at Ramsay’s where I had a great lunch recently.
Earlier in the year I went to Pierre Gagnaire in Paris and thought that was one of the best meals I’ve ever had. I like Sketch in London too – the concept of bringing up three plates for a starter cooked in different ways is impressive.
How often does the menu change?
It’s an ongoing thing. There’s no set in stone quarterly change. Some things stay on the menu longer than others; there will be tweaking of dishes until I’m completely happy with them. The menu also tends to change naturally with those ingredients that come into season.
Tell us about your menus?
We have a £32 three course lunch that includes amuse bouche and pre-desert. There are two tasting menus, one aimed at lunch and the other at dinner. I’m not a believer in taking dishes from the carte and putting reduced portion sizes on the tasting menu.
What is your view on sourcing local ingredients?
In an ideal world every chef would be able to find the very best ingredients, organically, sustainably and sensitively produced in the next door village – but in reality, of course this isn’t the case. Whilst the ‘no food miles’ trend is a worthy one in many respects, there are many other factors that a professional chef has to consider. The main ones for me are quality and reliability. Guests coming to my restaurant are expecting the very, very finest ingredients and I simply won’t compromise on quality – which means that sometimes I have to look further a field for produce. The same goes for reliability, I need to have 100% trust in my suppliers, otherwise it becomes impossible to run an efficient kitchen.
How would you characterize your kitchen?
One that is run in a strict but fair way. I have an excellent team of dedicated and talented chefs who work near to 80 hours a week – there’s so much preparation. They get in at eight in the morning and leave at eleven or twelve in the evening. There are seven in the brigade at the moment but when the operation fully steams ahead there should be ten.
Our kitchen has been cordoned off from the brasserie and we have an air-conditioned pastry and larder section. The brigade are pretty much heads down and focused all service.
What are your plans for the future?
I’d like to stay here for some time and aim to reach the Michelin Two Star level along with 4 AA Rosettes. It’s a big goal but I feel I’ve reached the right maturity with my cooking and that Pennyhill Park Hotel is the right environment for that goal to become a reality. My cooking is quite complex and labour intensive and I’m confident that the style is close to unique and will be recognised as such through natural process.