Kenny Atkinson, Head Chef, Rockliffe Hall, County Durham

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 23rd February 2011

Kenny Atkinson is a two Michelin starred chef, and currently head chef of three restaurants at the luxury five star hotel resort Rockliffe Hall, including his flagship Kenny Atkinson at The Orangery.

Kenny studied catering and hospitality at Newcastle-upon-Tyne College and worked at a number of restaurants in Newcastle. Eventually on a break after being offered a job in the Midlands by Steve Waites, Kenny met and worked for Simon Radley at the Chester Grosvenor, who introduced him to the world of fine dining.

Following his advice he moved to London and worked at the Mandarin Oriental hotel. After this he became head chef at the Greenway Hotel in Cheltenham, where he gained three AA Rosettes. This was followed by a move to the Scilly Isles where he won his first Michelin star working at the St Martin’s on the Isle hotel and restaurant. The journey the Michelin inspector had to make to the restaurant made national news, leading to Kenny getting a head chef position at Seaham Hall in Country Durham, where he won a second Michelin star. In 2009 he was offered the opportunity to appear on Great British Menu and again a year later. The exposure lead to his current job at Rockliffe Hall.

How long have you been here what are your goals for the business?

The Orangery, Rockcliffe Hall
The Orangery, Rockcliffe Hall

Well the business itself it's a leisure complex hotel with 60 bedrooms currently running at 5 star level, we have three restaurants within the hotel as well as an awarding winning spa and a golf course, one of the longest golf courses in Europe. So like any big five star luxury hotel, we have numerous dining options, a sixty cover bistro, a hundred cover clubhouse, two hundred banqueting department and the hotels flagship restaurant Kenny Atkinson at The Orangery, this is my baby, a sixty cover fine dining restaurant.

My goals, probably the same that any other top chef, we want to have a star for the restaurant and we want to have other accolades too, as this helps bring in, not just staff, but publicity that will put the hotel on the foodie map, I am committed to working very hard to create something special here at Rockliffe

So are you a totally standalone restaurant within the hotel?

No we are not, the way the food outlets were designed, breakfast & afternoon tea comes from my kitchen but we have a breakfast team under my guidance take care of this, all functions, weddings & room service come from the other restaurants within the hotel.

Okay and how many guys have you got in your team?

We have a team of 8 chefs at the moment with three kitchen porters and this covers a Monday to Saturday dinner service, but we are wanting to build that all the time. Like anything really, you know, you pick up talent and you've got to keep a hold of these guys and that's been probably the biggest challenge since moving back to the North east, getting up and coming young talented chefs into our kitchen. The north east has not the attraction of London, we do not have a huge amount of Michelin restaurants in our area, so getting guys up here has proved difficult, and these young chefs need those starred restaurants on their CVs.

Who's your main clientele then is it non-residents? Is it hotel guests or a mixture of both?

It's a bit of both, we have a huge amount of residents and non residents coming to dine with us because they've seen me on the Great British Menu & Saturday Kitchen, we also have a large amount of guests come to stay with us because of the stunning spa within the hotel as well as the golf course with its own driving range.  We are starting to develop a loyal local market too.

And what about the food here?  How would you sum up Kenny Atkinson's food?

How can I sum up my food? I think it's just I keep saying the word local, I think every chef uses local produce, you know, we do exactly the same, you know, I try to use, as well as local produce, local people, we're very big on colleges and get new guys coming through here. Everybody in the kitchen is from the northeast which is great. You know, honest, we're not trying to be Heston we do a lot of work on the food, we try to have that "˜wow' factor but at the same time we're not trying to scare people away so people know what they're eating and that works for us. I think you've got to look at where we are as well, you know, in the northeast there's not a huge amount of fine dining restaurants up here so you've just got to build people's confidence up but it's hard.

Kenny Atkinson, Rockliffe Hall
Kenny Atkinson, Rockliffe Hall

How has your food evolved in the last sort of three years?

My food has defiantly evolved, I think as I've become older and a lot more mature, my food has become a lot more refined .  When I was at the Greenway Hotel, my first Head Chef role at the age of 26, I was working ridiculous hours and trying to do far too much with the food; trying to impress the customers and trying to achieve a Michelin star, but 4 years we've achieved 3 rosettes but never a star.      

And what about menus how many menus are you running?

We run three menus. I don't do an à la carte and I'll tell you the reason for that in a minute. We do a six course tasting and an eight course tasting and a market menu, when you do an à la carte menu you know you're very structured in what you're doing and what I've found is that when I had all my little suppliers, all my little farmers coming and saying, "Oh I've got these fantastic young globe artichokes I've just grown, do you want them?" and I'd be like"¦Can't use them, on the menu. And I thought I'm supposed to support these guys, help put money back into the local producers, which then allows them to grow more stuff so I thought to myself, "˜Why don't I just do a market menu and if I've got some stuff coming I'll just take that dish off and put a new dish on,' and obviously we try it out and we're not just putting anything on there.

Rockcliffe Hall
Rockliffe Hall

In terms of the menu then what dish on your menu best says, "This is Kenny Atkinson?"

I think now it would have to be the mackerel. I'll tell you why - Great British Menu, it was a dish I came up with right last minute. It was an old classic one. When we were given the format to the programme, you know, you try to keep to something that was regional, something that was to the area, and then in this old book, there was a woman called Mary Smith and she had a recipe for potted mackerel with a gooseberry jam and crusty bread and we had a beautiful gooseberry farm up in Northumberland and I really wanted to use gooseberries and I thought about it as a starter and I couldn't decide which way I was going to go.

Then I come across some gooseberry wine down in Holy Island and I thought, "˜What if I incorporate this some other way?' and I didn't want to just do a potted mackerel because it would be shit, it really would have and I thought"¦wouldn't it be different to do textures of gooseberries and do like a hot gooseberry jelly with gooseberry puree and pickled gooseberries and I tried it and it just worked really well and I did it with the mackerel, we pan-fried it and with the mustard it was beautiful because you needed that heat with it and it was just lacking texture and I thought, "˜What can I do with the bread? Do I do a bread tuile and I thought, "˜Why don't I do like a wellington?' So I rolled the bread out, wrapped it and pan-fried it like a little toastie and it just worked. It didn't look like a lot of work but I tell you what when you taste it it's f**king beautiful. 

So what can we expect to see from you over the next couple of years? More TV, books?

I've got a plan for a book. I think I'll kind of probably start on something next year but I think the first priority is that I really need to get this place sorted and what I mean by that is we've only been open six months, since the restaurant opened full time, we need to get the accolades. We've got no rosettes, got no stars, we've just got five out of ten in the Good Food Guide. You know I had six before and I believe we can better that. So I'm happy with that at the moment but there is a hell of a lot more work to be done if we are to reach our full potential.         

Rockliffe Hall
Rockcliffe Hall

Do you pay much importance to those lists?

Do you know what I think it's nice to be up there because you feel as though you're up with the big boys. Everything's important, you know, it's publicity and if you've got people voting your restaurant up in the top 100, you know, it means you're doing something right it means everyone's happy with what you're doing because everyone's conscious, everyone's always looking at other people's food and if you look at food now I just think it's gone mad, everything's"¦there's all these foams, gels and it's crazy now and I much prefer the square approach or Nathan (Outlaw)'s approach or even (Gordon)Ramsay's approach, you know, just good ingredients and not  pissed around with and that's what I'm starting to come round to and that's what I really want to focus on but if TV comes up, if it feels right for the business and for me then I'll do it but I don't want to be away weeks on end because I want to be in the restaurant, you know, that's my first love. The Great British Menu that was always going to be a chef's programme which was going to be"¦

 Absolutely and you cooked the food that you were doing in your restaurant anyway didn't you?

Yeah exactly.  But you've got to cook for the format. Because obviously you've got to simplify a few things but you are up against the likes of Tom Kitchin, Glynn Purnell and you're all one on one. So from that side of it it's a programme that you just love and you want to be part of and Saturday Kitchen is the big one at the moment, that's what puts you into three or four million people's houses. Absolutely So I'm very happy doing that at the moment. 

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 23rd February 2011

Kenny Atkinson, Head Chef, Rockliffe Hall, County Durham