This article covers notes from an interview with Lucknam Park’s Michelin starred Executive Chef Hywel Jones, a comprehensive review of the flagship ‘Park Restaurant’ as well as a brief overview of the second restaurant – The Brasserie. At the time of writing, Head Chef of The Park was Richard Edwards and Head Chef of The Brasserie was Benjamin Taylor.
Executive Chef, Hywel Jones has garnered many accolades for The Park including a Michelin star, held since 2006, Hotel Chef of the Year (2007) and high marks in all the top food guides. Whether talking about his regime in the kitchen, or Welsh venison and Wye Valley second season asparagus, a passion and genuine love of his craft is fully evident. There is also a keen sense of duty, to his kitchen team in particular and to the hotel in general.
With a brigade of 22 to cover both The Park and The Brasserie, each of which has head chefs, he is able to provide opportunities to work in both styles of service. His philosophy of kitchen management, inspired by his mentor David Nicholls, is simple: treat people the way you want to be treated, speak to them as you would your own family, creating a positive environment of mutual respect. In that way, the sum of the parts will perform to its very best.
He reinforces this approach with visits to suppliers of organic produce, recent ones being farms in Wales and Devizes. Here, staff can gain a fuller understanding of their provenance which helps to build a respect for ingredients in the kitchen, stimulating suggestions for their use. The head chefs in both kitchens are encouraged to offer new dishes as specials, which later might be permanently included in the carte.
Although menus reflect the seasons, Hywel is realistic enough to appreciate they have to be altered gradually, not changed wholesale. Indeed, it would be unwise to take certain dishes – like the hugely popular belly pork – off the menu.
Unlike some other (nameless) top chefs, he sees his role not merely as an outlet for gastronomic creativity, to be foisted on diners through a limited range menu. Indeed, the guests’ preferences are paramount, as reflected in the wide choice offered in both restaurants.
Having worked for Macro Pierre White, Nico Ladenis and David Nicholls, Hywel’s forte lies inevitably in the realm of fine dining, for which, he accepts, there will always be a niche market. Nevertheless, he sees the future for eating out lying in a simpler, more casual brasserie style. As he says, “Food does not have to be expensive and complicated to be good”.
That Hywel planned to stay for five years but is now in his ninth speaks volumes about his job satisfaction and commitment. He must be particularly proud that he has mentored two award winning chefs: Hrishikesh Desai, Roux Scholar (2009) and National Chef of the Year (2010); and Mark Stinchcombe, Young Chef of the Year (2010), Young National Chef of the Year (2010, from the Craft Guild of Chefs), and the “Award for Excellence (2010, from the Academy of Culinary Arts)
Not that Hywel wants to stand still: new ideas for the menu constantly evolve, and broader challenges emerge. In the short term he is finalising the November opening of the Cookery School. Next year he aims to extend the vegetable garden and to keep bees on the estate. Two Michelin stars and four AA rosettes would not be unwelcome, provided, he stresses, they are achieved without compromising his overall role at the hotel.
Hywel’s style of cuisine has deep classical French roots, although it is much lighter in composition. High levels of skill are demonstrated in precise timings, using a variety of cooking techniques – with the aid of modern technology- to enhance the inherent qualities of first rate produce. Combinations of organic, often local, ingredients are harmonious, with the main element always taking centre stage on the plate. Purity of taste, with a strong regard for balance of flavour and texture are emphasised. Contemporary elements such as jellies, purees, foams and micro leaves are used in moderation, but are integral parts of a dish rather than mere decoration. Presentation has clean lines, which add to the overall appeal of the dishes.
The carte offers ample choice with seven starters, seven mains, three desserts and a cheese option. The gourmet menu, with a vegetarian alternative, features seven stages, including an amuse surprise and pre-dessert.
Over drinks in the library, we enjoyed well-made canapés: corned beef hash fritters with a tasty hot filling; delicate cones of salmon rillettes; and crisp black olive straws.
An assiette surprise comprised a plump seared hand dived scallop topped with delicate, lightly cooked myler prawns – a relatively new addition to fine dining menus. The sweetness of the seafood and its butter sauce was balanced by the gentle bitterness of wilted iceberg lettuce.
As an unashamedly indulgent diner, I was pleased to see a torchon made from duck foie gras, which is richer and gamier than its smoother goose counterpart. This labour intensive dish had been skilfully marinated, poached, chilled and rolled, doing full justice to a delectable piece of offal. The accompaniments showed contemporary techniques applied well: compressed pear had an enhanced colour, texture and flavour, whilst chamomile and Sauternes jelly showed a good balance of floral and sweet elements. (Wine: Riesling, Eroica, Chateau St Michelle & Dr Loosen, Colombia Valley, Washington state, USA, 2010)
An extra course from the carte came next. A fillet of Devonshire Rose veal was accurately poached to maximise its delicate flavour and melting texture. More intense and richer was its sweetbread (pancreas), the creamy texture of which was lifted by a glaze of pancetta. With a light jus and garnishes of girolles, truffle and marinated salsify, this was a brilliantly conceived and skilfully executed autumnal dish.
A Cornish turbot fillet formed the centre piece of the fish course. Braising allowed the moistness of the firm, succulent flesh to shine through. Plump glazed crayfish, were sweet, soft and tender. Carbohydrate came in the form of crisp cylinder of potato vermicelli. Pak choy and broad beans added colour, texture and flavour, whilst two complementary sauces – an intense bisque, and a fragrant lemongrass butter – brought this tour de force of seafood cooking together. (Wine: Pinot d’Alsace Metiss, Domaine Bott-Geyl, Alsace, France 2009).
The game course featured Brecon venison from Andrew Morgan’s estate. The fully flavoured loin was precisely seared, giving a caramelised crust and medium rare flesh. A rolled lasagne (rotolo) of butternut squash and chestnuts, along with their purees, were earthy and robust. All these were balanced by a not over sweet sloe gin sauce. (Wine: Cabernet Franc, Broquel, Trapiche Mendoza, Argentina, 2009)
From an impressive selection of British and French cheeses we chose Mont d’Or, Epoisses and Somerset Cheddar, all in perfect condition. (Wine: Quinta da Romaneira, L.B.V. Port, Douro Valley, Portugal, 2005)
Layered cucumber jelly, apple and yogurt foam was the refreshing palate cleanser and pre dessert
A trio of desserts was an exquisite marriage of tropical flavours. An intensely flavoured but light passion fruit cream was glazed to produce a wafer thin, bruleed crust; lemon grass sorbet delighted with its herby astringency and velvety texture; and mango and lime leaf mousse, served in a shot glass, captured the essence of the fruit. (Wine: Pinot Gris, Vendage Tardives, Grand Cru Sonnenglanz, Domaine Bott-Geyl, Alsace France, 2006)
Other aspects of the meal deserve praise. Of the breads offered, focaccia, which came in a flower pot, was beautifully moist with a good balance of olive oil, salt and cheese. French baguette and brown bread were equally well executed. Macaroons and truffles served with good coffee showed the same painstaking attention to detail as the preceding courses.
Service was friendly, efficient and attentive without being obtrusive. Claire, our waitress for the evening, spoke enthusiastically about her training at Lucknam Park as part of the 10/10 scheme.
The flight of wines was expertly chosen from the extensive list to complement the dishes perfectly. Both wines and food were introduced concisely, avoiding the extended explanations that can delay their enjoyment.
Overall, dining at The Park was a joy, a highly memorable experience and one for which we, like many guests, are eager to repeat.
Arriving too early to check in, we decided on an impromptu single course lunch; and we were pleased we did. A classic British dish was raised to lofty heights with three plump, succulent middle white sausages, deep, rich onion gravy, and creamy, velvety smooth mash potatoes. A fillet of hake was perfectly timed to produce soft glistening flakes of sweet flesh. Roasted purple and golden beetroot were flavoursome accompaniments, giving textural contrast.
With its contemporary designed bar, lounge and restaurant areas, The Brasserie is a spacious, stylish venue for casual, all day dining. The open plan kitchen, complete with wood fire oven, offers a surprisingly wide range of dishes, including healthy options – possibly for those using the adjacent spa? There is also an excellent value set lunch available.
Overall Lucknam Park was a first class retreat, not just for the comfort and pampering on offer but also as a gastronomic tour to remember.