'Running a small kitchen may be limiting in some respects, but it gives you focus'

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 2nd January 2020

IN ASSOCIATION WITH

Chef Ben Wilkinson didn't come to The Cottage in the Wood expecting to earn a Michelin star.

 

A fortnight turned into a permanent position as the person he came to replace at the restaurant tucked away in the depths of the Lake District's forest of Whinlatter never showed up. He eventually stepped up to the head chef position when his predecessor left to found a family.

And a year later, his invitation to the awards ceremony came in the post. 

We spoke to the chef about working at a Michelin level within a family-owned restaurant, how he and his team have had to adapt to the constraints of a small kitchen - and how this has allowed them to focus on the essentials.

 

What is it like to be entrusted with someone's small business?

Working for owners Kath and Liam Berney, both of whom are hands-on at the restaurant, Ben and his partner (and front of house manager) Monica Zurawska are free to think on their feet, with the agility only afforded to small teams. 

"We can respond to issues very quickly,  if I make a decision about something in service, I don't have to then excuse that later on in a meeting. It's very visible why we did things at the time and everyone is happy that that's it; there's good clarity there." 

On the other hand, he explained, the onus is on him and the team to excel - meaning that if something goes wrong, there's nowhere to hide. 

"It's great to be given that much freedom, and you pay it back with the hard work. You feel a certain responsibility - I had no excuse, I had to deliver I suppose because I couldn't say 'oh well no, you wouldn't let me do this, you wouldn't let me do that' I could do what I wanted, I hired who I wanted and we got it done within that framework." 

Petit four selection

Size doesn't matter

And when it comes to success, they very much have 'got it done.'

Comparing his experience with that of working at Windows at Park Lane, the chef said that working in small kitchen has meant that they had to strip things down "to the bare necessities of what a dish needed." 

"For one constraint or another, whether it was time or equipment and looking at everything in that with a view of 'does that need to be there, do we need to do that.'"

"I can fit five plates on my pass. You have to take that into account when you design your dishes - we can't have anything that takes a long time to plate up, we can't have anything overly intricate." 

"It's all set up to be manageable." 

And though this can be a challenge, the chef stressed that it's important not to let it be inhibiting.

"There are things where I think: 'I wish I could do this' but it's just not possible because we don't have the time or the space but... Don't get hung up on that, wishing you could do this or do that, just do something else instead." 

"For example, I like tray service, but you can't get through the kitchen door with a tray, so we don't do it. It doesn't have a negative impact and I could get upset about it, but what's the point, it's not going to make the door any bigger." 

Equipment/tools Ben can't live without

This theory applies to equipment, too, he explained: "I don't have a pacojet, I didn't need one to get a star. There are chefs out there that think that's what's holding them back and they're hung up on the fact that they're cooking on gas and not induction - we've done it on gas, I've got a six burner. We didn't need a new induction kitchen to get a star. It would've been nice, it might have been easier, but we didn't need it."

This hard-earned success has the advantage of making sure that the recognition - from customers and from the guide - truly feels like their own. 

"For the business as a whole it's been great, it's really motivated everyone - everyone knows it's a hard industry, it's hard work and sometimes you just feel like you're getting kicked from every direction. When someone gives you a pat on the back like that, it puts it all into perspective a little bit." 

Does getting a star set the bar too high?

Though seeking constant improvement is inherent to what they do at The Cottage in the Wood, Ben said: "we're in a good position where we're busy and people that come are happy and want to come again and that's what we build on." 

Prior to getting a star, he said the team thought they delivered beyond people's expectations, and that when they received the accolade, they worried that this would change. 

"Now, people come thinking it's got to be good, so we don't have that anymore." 

"But if you want to take the praise you have to take the criticism haven't you. I've been more than happy through my time here, if the food got criticised, I'd take it and I'd take the responsibility for that because I had it in my mind that I wanted to take all the praise, I wanted to take all the glory." 

"If I take all the responsibility for the bad, it's got to be my fault when it's good as well." 

The 3 AA-Rosettes, one Michelin-starred restaurant with rooms, 
The Cottage in the Wood

 

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 2nd January 2020

'Running a small kitchen may be limiting in some respects, but it gives you focus'

IN ASSOCIATION WITH