“You just never know and that’s the beauty of it, you just don’t know.” Michael Wignall on the Michelin Guide UK 2020

The Staff Canteen

With just a week to go until the Michelin Guide UK 2020 is revealed, all anyone in the hospitality industry is talking about is stars.

So, it seemed fitting to talk to Michael Wignall, he’s been through it enough times, and this year he is in the spotlight with his first venture. He also spoke to The Staff Canteen about the Angel at Hetton, 12 months on from taking on his first solo project. 

michael wignall michelin 2018
Michael Wignall - credit @michaelwignall_

There will no doubt be chefs around the country this week with just one thing on their minds - Michelin. The effort they put in all year comes down to this one day and Michael Wignall is no stranger to the michelin build up.

“I’m my biggest critic so you are always beating yourself up thinking it’s not good enough, or thinking was I there when they came (Michelin) or was it the day something happened – you are always second guessing."

Michael says he 'never set out to get stars' and ' he never thought he was good enough'.

He said: “I got one and thought ‘that’s amazing’ – I can still remember how that felt.

“When we got the second star at PennyHill it was leaked so even though I knew first thing in the morning it wasn’t officially announced until 5pm that day.

“It was a feeling of disbelief getting the second star but then you think we’ve worked flipping hard for that. Although I’ve never said to any of my staff we are pushing for a  star, we just do what we do everyday and believe in what we do.”

For the past three years Michelin has revealed the guide at a live event, it’s a room full of every Michelin-starred chef you can think of and although Michael says he prefers it this way it is still ‘nerve-wracking’.

“When we regained two stars (Gidleigh Park) we had no idea what we were there for, I spent an hour and a half in a room with other chefs not knowing," he explained. "Then it’s your turn and a woman with a clipboard says ‘do you know what you are getting’. I said hopefully two stars, she said yes and then the doors open and your in the room – it was horrendous!"

“For me it has definitely helped my career and I still support them as much as they have supported me."

He added: “We had to wait until a few days before the event to get the invite and I knew everyone else had theirs so I was really panicking thinking we had got nothing. But you just never know and that’s the beauty of it, you just don’t know.”

This year in particular there have been a lot of chefs questioning the accolade of a star, so are guides still relevant in this evolving industry where often the size of your Instagram following can be condidered more credible than which guide you are in?

"There are some doubters about the guides but at the end of the day everyone needs a pat on the back, for yourself and the team," said Michael. "It’s an amazing accolade to have, it’s recognised world wide and yes there are doubters but I’m sorry there’s not many chefs who would turn their nose up at it.

“There will be people who don’t agree with that but for me it has definitely helped my career and I still support them as much as they have supported me. I think it’s super important."

Michael took over The Angel at Hetton with his wife Johanna and business partner James Wellock a year ago. He’s renowned for his savy approach to running kitchens but owning his own restaurant is a new challenge, one he had never thought he wanted.

“I never thought about having my own place. I always had enough to worry about in the kitchen because I’m predominantly always in there.

michael and wife johanna credit michelin guide
Michael and Johanna at The Angel at Hetton - credit Michelin Guide

“James was selling Wellocks and at that time I wasn’t particularly happy where I was - it was a real turning point for me, wondering what I was going to do for the rest of my future career.”

He added: “The frustrating thing about your own place is you want things to happen today but they don’t – planning and everything takes a long time. We’ve had some highs and some flipping lows, the usual things people cry about like staffing. We are rural so it’s hard but luckily quite a lot of staff came with me.

“It’s been a learning curve but you are the maker of your own destiny really which is nice, as you don’t have to be dictated to on which direction you need to go."

The pair knew the area and they could see the potential in the site. As well as the pub there are buildings opposite which once planning permission is approved, will be turned into a fine-dining restaurant called Cove, which Michael will be pushing towards accolades.

“Cove will be everything I’ve ever wanted to do," he said. "I’ve always gone to resataurants which are established or the restaurant has always been designed or thekitchen has been done – so I’ve had no say because it’s already there in bricks and mortar.

“The site across the road is new, it’s from scratch so it will have my personality all the way through it and it’s everything I would want in a restaurant. That’s why as a chef it’s so important to dine out everywhere, you can take something from everywhere you go. I’m hoping we will make Cove amazing!"  

Getting a good team is one thing and as Michael says being rural can make recruitment even harder, but he also says looking after your team is just as important and finding the right management style is essential.

michale wakeboard   credit his insta

"To be more creative you have to have a release."

credit @michaelwignall_

"I think there are certain aspects that you can’t change within yourself, but you get older and you mature and you realise you can’t be like that with everyone. In this day and age staff are few and far between, you have to look after them and you have to respect them.

“I’m a great believer in you practise what you preach, if you expect people to work a long day and you don’t put the hours in yourself, that will have an impact on their attitude.

“We involve everyone in everything, including dish development – it may be a rubbish idea but at least they are thinking about it and one day they will be a head chef and if they’ve never had the thought process of creating dishes they won’t know what to do. I’m really open to chefs being involved, you can learn from everybody.

“You have to eveolve, that’s how you keep your staff interested. I think a lot of chefs are afraid of failure – if you make a dish and it doesn’t work, well why doesn’t it work? You keep working on it until it does and if it doesn’t you move on."

Opening a new place is consuming, in fact just working as a chef makes it difficult to find a balance but it's important to try and have interests outside of the kitchen. Michael is a big advocate of that and says to be more creative you have to 'have a release'.

He said: “I’ve always been the same since I was a kid, I loved cycling, snowboarding, wakeboarding and it sounds arty farty but it’s a different artform and allows you to be creative in another way. And you can’t be daydreaming when you are on the mountain or on the water, about a new dish or what has gone on in the kitchen the night before because you have to focus on what you’re doing – that’s why I like it."

*Since this interview Michael and the team were awared four rosettes in the AA Restaurant Guide 2020 - but will he be adding a star to this year's accolades? Find out on Monday, October 7. 

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The Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 30th September 2019

“You just never know and that’s the beauty of it, you just don’t know.” Michael Wignall on the Michelin Guide UK 2020