With two Michelin stars and five AA Rosettes to his name already, Michael Wignall is destined to become a household name, says Marcus Janssen.
I have a confession to make. I really wasn't looking forward to meeting Michael Wignall. In fact, as I drove down the long and sweeping avenue of trees that leads you towards Pennyhill Park Hotel in Surrey, I was braced for a bit of a hard slog. Michael was a judge during the final stages of the BBC's Masterchef: The Professionals last year, and I just didn't warm to him. He came across as hostile, critical and moody. I just knew that we weren't going to get on well.
How wrong can you get. As I walked into Michael's bustling kitchen, I was immediately taken aback by the vibrant and positive atmosphere. Expecting to find his brigade working in absolute silence like Mobutu's minions, fearful that they may be turned into demi-glace if their carrots aren't turned to perfection, I was instead met by a smiling team of immaculately turned out chefs as they geared up for another busy lunch service. And Michael, rather than patrolling the prep kitchen with a silenced Walther PPK, just waiting for someone to overcook a paupiette of sole, was discussing the menu with his sous chef, who, remarkably, also looked relaxed and happy.
Already feeling slightly ashamed of my preconceived bias, Michael then rubbed finest Maldon sea salt into my wounds with his friendly and welcoming demeanour as he showed me around his two-Michelin-starred kitchen. “I hear the traffic was terrible on the M1,” he said with what appeared to be genuine sympathy. “You must be desperate for a coffee. Latté? Cappuccino? Americano?” he asked as he lead me to his chef's table where, I was soon to find out, I would soon be sampling a few of his incredible dishes. I could feel myself warming to him already.
As with all top chefs, Michael's passion for his subject seems to exude from every pore. And when it comes to the provenance of his ingredients, there is simply no room for compromise. “It is just so important to know where your food comes from,” he says, “particularly when it comes to venison and game. Has it been cleanly dispatched, or will it be tough and bitter? That's what I really love about stalking – there's the whole self sufficiency thing, but you also don't have to worry about it containing horse meat,” he says with a rare smile.
It's infectious seeing someone become so animated. “I have always maintained that the less processed an ingredient is, the better it is, because you can gauge the quality of it. That's why I have all my venison delivered whole, on the carcass. We hang it ourselves and we do the butchery here. With processed food, you have no idea what is in it. It has no semblance of anything real. And we seem to have gone so far down the processed food route that people no longer like to recognise their meat as having been derived from any living creature. A chicken nugget does not resemble any part of a chicken that I know of!”
Clearly one of Michael's pet hates, I run the gauntlet. “What would you do if your son asked for chicken nuggets for dinner?” I ask, slightly nervously. “He wouldn't,” he says seriously. “He just wouldn't. He knows I would rather he took up smoking. And I hate smoking.” I am not sure if he was joking. “Some of the stuff you see in supermarkets infuriates me as a chef – chicken breasts with the skin taken off just doesn't make any sense to me. It's the same with vegetables, people buying a bag of prepared vegetables for twice the price of the whole vegetables – I mean, how long does it take to chop up a broccoli? That's the world we live in.”
(Above: poached loin of rabbit)
So, what would Michael like to see on supermarket shelves, I wonder. “We still have a long way to go before we catch up with the French who do not have our silly attitude towards food,” he says with a sigh. “They will judge something on its flavour, its taste, not on what it looks like or how cute and cuddly it is. Rabbit is the perfect example – the French eat a lot of rabbit and I wish we did the same here. It is a completely undervalued and underutilised ingredient. But because we have them as pets, people have this strange connection between wild rabbit meat and cuddly domesticated bunnies. I had a customer recently who keeps rabbits at home as pets, and she didn't want to see rabbit on my menu, at all. She thought it was outrageous that I had rabbit on there, but she had absolutely no issue with anything else. She was wearing leather shoes and a leather belt, had a leather handbag... but let's not go down that route!
“I would also love to see more venison on supermarket shelves,” he continues. “It needs to be marketed differently too. People need to know that it isn't strong in flavour, that it is actually very subtle and inoffensive. Often it is more mild in flavour than beef.”
Like Michel Roux Jr, Michael believes that people have hang-ups about game because it was traditionally hung for a long time which gave it a strong flavour. “It's the same with pork. People in the UK think that it should be well cooked because of the risks that were associated with it during the war! These are perceptions that remain from earlier generations when refrigeration wasn't nearly as effective as it is today, and nor was the supply chain.
“People are also afraid of cooking game – there is this perception that it is complicated and challenging to cook, which just isn't the case. Of course, like anything, you can make the method complicated, but you can keep it simple too.”
Talking of simplicity... the first of Michael's dishes soon arrived for me to photograph and sample. Poached loin of rabbit with homemade rabbit chorizo porridge, braised salsify, shimeji mushrooms, milk skin crisp, tarragon tapioca, roche of Savarin cheese with truffle, white polenta and rabbit stock foam. And to think that I wasn't looking forward to our meeting. Like I said, how wrong can you get.
Michael, who was awarded his first Michelin star 15 years ago, describes his cooking as ‘complex and carefully crafted'. While the style is technical and the presentation elaborate, the food itself is not intimidating, having its roots in familiar classical themes. The textures, flavours and ingredients complement each other rather than jostling for position on the tongue.
Previously at The Devonshire Arms Hotel in North Yorkshire where he held a Michelin star and 4 AA Rosettes, Michael upped sticks and moved to Pennyhill Park in Surrey in 2007, opening his eponymous restaurant Michael Wignall at The Latymer in November that year.
The first of many accolades came the following year as he won Best Restaurant Newcomer of the Year in the Which? Good Food Guide 2009. Following this the restaurant scooped four AA Rosettes, and its first Michelin Star. In 2011 they were awarded five AA Rosettes – one of only eight restaurants in the UK to receive such an accolade. October 2012 saw Michael Wignall at The Latymer achieve a second Michelin star in the 2013 Michelin guide, firmly imprinting it on the British culinary map. www.pennyhillpark.co.uk