It's not just fancy cooking that makes Colin McGurran's food stand out – almost all of the ingredients he uses in his kitchen at Winteringham Fields are grown, reared or foraged by him and his brigade of chefs, as Marcus Janssen discovered.
How would you spend your very last £200?
“I withdrew my last £200 and bought a labrador puppy,” says chef Colin McGurran. “I was on the cusp of losing everything and I knew that the one thing the bank wouldn't take from me was a dog.” I had only just met Colin, and I was already warming to him.
As it happens, through sheer tenacity and determination, he did manage to turn his ailing hotel business around and sell it a few years later for a profit. But, although that labrador puppy is now an old boy, you can tell that he hasn't forgotten what it was like to have his back up against a wall. “At the time it was hellish,” he admits, “I had put everything I had, my entire life savings, into that business but I made so many mistakes along the way that I ended up having to sell my soul to keep it afloat. I refer to it now as my time at Fawlty Towers, but if I did it all over again, I wouldn't change a thing – without that experience, I probably wouldn't be where I am today.”
Fast forward to 2015 and Colin now owns and runs one of the most highly regarded and successful fine dining restaurants in the north of England and is about to open a new pub nearby. With three AA rosettes to his name, his big break came in 2012 when the BBC invited him to take part in the Great British Menu. In his first attempt, his ‘Quail in the Woods' starter, which was described by Richard Corrigan as “utter deliciousness in its eating”, made it to the final banquet, a feat he repeated again in 2014 with a World War One themed dessert. He has, by anyone's standards, come a very long way since those days of serving all you can eat buffets just to keep his head above water. “Part of my success can definitely be attributed to my experience at Fawlty Towers,” he says with a smile. “Not only did it toughen me up and make me a lot more resilient and a bit more ruthless, but in a strange way, it reminded me of why I became a chef in the first place. I had to get back to what I love doing – proper cooking.”
After selling the business that almost bled him dry, Colin purchased Winteringham Fields in late-2005 with the view to creating a restaurant with a difference. Nine years later, and I think it's fair to say that he has more than achieved that goal. Not only has he established a reputation for outstanding and innovative cuisine, but much of the produce that features on his highly acclaimed seasonal tasting menu comes directly to his kitchen from eight acres of fields, hedgerows and woodlands that he and his brigade of chefs look after.
From chef whites to wellies
“It all started off with a few chickens,” he explains. “I really wanted my own fresh eggs for the eggs benedict on my breakfast menu, and before we knew it, we were producing everything that went into our full English breakfast – the eggs, bacon, sausages, black pudding, tomatoes and grilled apple. It was so rewarding that we decided to take it a step further and grow our own vegetables for our lunch and dinner menus.” Nowadays, Colin and his staff are responsible for growing carrots, leeks, broccoli, cauliflowers, four different types of cabbages, rhubarb, parsnips, potatoes, beetroot, sweetcorn, courgettes and pumpkins. And they also have polytunnels for their herbs, micro cresses, tomatoes and cucumbers, they have their own chickens, pigs, sheep, goats and beehives, and they make their own butter and cheese. “Everything is organic, and we are as close to self-sufficient as we can possibly get.”
Every morning Colin and his chefs go out into the fields, woods, chicken coups and polytunnels to harvest, gather and forage for the ingredients they need for the day. “If something is your own, you will treat it with a lot more respect, he says. “People ask me what makes my lamb so good and I will tell them it is because it has been loved by me! But, of course, we are chefs, not farmers, so we have had to experiment and learn by trial and error. Some things have worked, others really haven't,” he admits. “But the more time you spend outdoors, tending the fields, looking after your own livestock or foraging for wild ingredients, the more you learn from nature. For instance, I had an excellent crop of elderberries one year, but noticed that they were being decimated by woodpigeons. So, I decided to combine the two and served the woodpigeon with a jus made with the elderberries. It was a perfect combination and our customers loved it.”
Another major challenge is the natural variations in abundance and availability through the seasons. February and March pose the greatest challenge as the ground is often frozen solid in North Lincolnshire. “In the depths of winter we have to be really savvy and plan ahead. Of course, we do have to order in some fresh produce, but we always ensure that it comes from local growers who share our values. From October through to February, we also struggle to produce enough of our own lamb and pork, so we use game instead.”
A restaurant with a shoot
Colin thoroughly enjoys the bucolic atmosphere of shoot days, although he doesn't pull the trigger himself. Yet. “I like to go beating and work my dogs,” he says. “This year, I went on a grouse shoot for the first time in County Durham and absolutely loved it. With the heather in bloom, breathtaking views and the wonderful camaraderie between the Guns, beaters and gundog handlers, it was a magical experience. I brought back 80 grouse to use in the kitchen and I am definitely keen to take up shooting in the future – it's just a matter of finding the time as I am kept so busy with everything else!”
But Colin has come up with a brilliant arrangement with a local shoot syndicate whereby the release pens are located on the land he manages and, when the birds are released in autumn, his organic root crops and sweetcorn provides them with excellent holding cover. In return, the Guns supply him with as many pheasants and partridges as he needs.
The Winteringham Fields ethos is all about utilising what is in season and trying to get the very best out of it. “I just want to take each ingredient and turn it into something that I want to eat myself,” says Colin. “My motto is comfort first, refinement second and presentation third. It's all about the natural ingredient. For instance, we serve pure, unadulterated carrot juice at breakfast – nothing added, nothing removed – and it is astounding how good it tastes. To me, that is a perfect lesson from Mother Nature: food doesn't need to be complicated. That carrot took five months to grow – nature has done the hard work, so why would you try and change that?”
And in terms of Colin's cooking style, with a background in classic French cuisine (he trained at the two Michelin-starred Domain des Hauts de Loire in Onzain, France), he makes no bones of the fact he is quite traditional in the methods he uses. “I am happy to use modern cooking methods if they genuinely enhance a dish,” he says. “For instance, I like to use water baths to cook certain fish – but, honestly, I think the molecular cookery that was brought into vogue by the likes of Heston Blumenthal and Ferran Adriá is on the way out. If you look at places like Noma in Copenhagen (rated as the best restaurant in the world), there is definitely a trend towards utilising ingredients in their natural form, and a return to more traditional, proper cooking methods.”
And as soon I tasted the venison dish that Colin had cooked especially for Fieldsports, I silently thanked the gods of gastronomy for traditional cooking methods. In the words of Richard Corrigan, it was quite simply utter deliciousness in its eating and, as I forlornly looked down at my empty plate a few minutes later, it dawned on me that I now know what I would spend my last £200 on – dinner for two at Winteringham Fields.