Chris Harrod, chef patron, The Whitebrook, Monmouthshire

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 8th March 2016

A former protégé of Raymond Blanc, Chris Harrod went on to open Colette’s restaurant at the Grove in Hertfordshire before venturing out with his first restaurant with rooms, The Whitebrook in Monmouthshire, Wales.

From the age of seven, Chris – originally from Worcestershire – always knew he wanted to be a chef. Since opening in 2013, The Whitebrook has gone on to achieve numerous awards and accolades including 3 AA rosettes and a Michelin star. Tucked away in the picturesque Wye Valley, Chris uses his idyllic surroundings to create an array of dishes using only the freshest, foraged ingredients and locally sourced foods to truly capture the immense flavours of the valley.

The Staff Canteen spoke to Chris about earning a Michelin star within less than a year, why it was almost called Roots and Shoots, and why he likes to remove a dish if it becomes too successful.

Chris Harrod, The Whitebrook
Chris Harrod, The Whitebrook

What was it like working with Raymond Blanc?

That was always my intention growing up, to become a chef and to work with him. There was something about him and I think that passion just exploded off the TV screen. The fact that he grew everything as well, I was always growing veg as a kid. His quest was always for unbelievable freshness and flavours and it’s those foundations which I still use today.

A lot of the recipes and a lot of the techniques and the foundations of the dishes are all from what I learnt with Raymond and it is what I try to instill in the kitchen now. It might be slightly older techniques but to me sometimes with the newer techniques although you get great results you don’t get the flavour. At Le Manoir we used to  pan roast the meat to achieve lovely caramelisation and we used to tip the fat out and deglaze the pan and use the juices. It’s something that I took from Raymond and what I try to instill into the guys, when you step out of the kitchen and speak to the customers that night their response is always ‘the flavours are amazing’ and that’s when you know you got it right.

You forage but how do you make sure those ingredients aren’t just gimmicks now that the trend has become so mainstream?

We are literally just using what’s on our doorstep so dishes change as and when ingredients comes into season. All the veg comes from Ross-on-Wye which is about 15 minutes down the road and there’s a lady, Amanda, who grows our heritage vegetables, we also have a veg garden; which we have just started to put in slowly which was an experiment last year depending to how much sun we would actually get but it worked until the deer found it! We try to use what’s on our doorstep and by changing the name to The Whitebrook, it’s putting the valley on the plate. If I was in a different location or a city then it’s unlikely the foraged ingredients would be part of my menu.chris harrod quote

The Whitebrook is the first restaurant with rooms that you have owned, is that something that you always wanted?

I had always wanted a small restaurant tucked away in the middle of the countryside. We also went on lots of family holidays and would take about four-to-five days driving to the south of France. We would turn up at auberges in the middle of nowhere and get an amazing menu and a room for the night, and I was like, yep that is why I want somewhere like this. That is something Raymond always said, ‘if you’re opening somewhere outside of a city you have to have rooms’ and without rooms here we would have no chance.

You took over when it went into administration a few years ago, what was your initial goal for the restaurant after taking over?

Making my own name for it and establishing myself because it was a bit of a double edged sword taking over the Crown due to the reputation James Sommerin had. It was headline news when it closed with James and it wasn’t until we got the star at the end of the first year that it finally put us on the map. We just built it slowly, we changed the name and did the rebranding but looking back now I wish it was something I did from day one. We didn’t want to change the name completely, we wanted a name that reflected the history but also the new, as well as the foraged element of the menu, that’s why we have the vibrant greens in the branding.

At one point we were going to change it to something silly like Roots and Shoots, and then the idea came up that it should be named after me, like Chris Harrod at the Whitebrook but I never liked the idea of having my own name above the door. We have also made it a lot more relaxed so you can come to the country and just chill out with some brilliant food and wine, we make sure the service is attentive and informative rather than formal.

Chris Harrod, The Whitebrook
Chris Harrod, The Whitebrook

You achieved a Michelin star in under a year, was it always your goal?

I’ve worked in the industry for 20 years pushing, at Colette’s that was always our aim, everyday just star, star, star, that’s all we worked for. Here it was really just the pressure of getting the place opened. Obviously I came here wanting to get a star because it previously had one so I was always going to be compared to James. But to be honest it really did get put on the backburner, a bit like now because we are just concerned with the day to day running of the place and constantly looking at how we can improve and do things better. I remember executive chef, John Wood at the Grove always said "the best way to get a star is to not think about it". So we work hard and we push, but we push to be the best we can be and it’s great that it gets recognised.

How many staff do you have working with you in the kitchen?

We still only have four in the kitchen, we’re not a massive restaurant, we can only really do about 32 covers. I look at people like David Everitt-Matthias at Le Champignon Sauvage to see how he does it with such a small team. I think it is great for any young chef that comes in because they get to see everything and learn lots of different techniques and methods and also I’m in there cooking every day. If we do anything we will go up to five but it will always be a small team.

How do you think using locally sourced food and freshly foraged herbs sets you apart from other restaurants of the same calibre?

The setting almost makes you unique and eating what is there can’t be done anywhere else. If we have the very best suckling pig coming from about 10 miles down the road served with what is available in the hedgerow surrounding us and veg from the garden you can’t compare it. It’s the journey as well, you get in the car and as you’re driving here you are actually seeing the menu as you drive in. It is a bit like what makes Michel Bras so special, it’s because of the location and what he does, it’s that magic when it all comes together and that’s what makes it special here. If we did a normal menu ignoring what is around us I don’t think you would get the same experience here at all.

How often do you change the menus? 

The Whitebrook
The Whitebrook

Our main ingredients don’t change, we will have the venison on for two to three months over winter before changing to the lamb for example. With the venison dish it might be completely different in garnish because of how the seasons have changed outside.

Right now we have lots of shoots coming up so we’re starting to see that on the menu so you get fresher, lighter flavours coming through. It’s the same with the greens, what we are using now is completely different to what we were using in November. It’s the same for the artichoke dish, we have nettles coming through now which brings a hint of spring. We have hogweed coming through this week which is very much a spring foraged ingredient which will now be incorporated into the menu. So we work with the suppliers and wait for them to see what they have and then that makes its way to the menu but we will never ever do a big menu change, it just evolves like that.

Where does your inspiration come from?

We just let the ingredients do the talking, they come in and then we say how can we use this? I’m always looking up the latest techniques and Andy in the kitchen is very much into that modern style of cooking so he will always come in with a new technique or new product. So you let the guys play with these different things which is great because then you can go, yep that works, I’ll use that. We do keep an eye out for different techniques and just go with one or two that work with our style. Since finding our style we try to incorporate one foraged ingredient in every dish.

What is your favourite ingredient you enjoy working with?

Chris Harrod, The Whitebrook

Chris Harrod

The Whitebrook

Whatever I’m working on at the time, I love the venison dish and that’s my favourite at the moment but in a few weeks time we have the Wye Valley asparagus dish coming up where we literally use the whole hedgerow for the dish. We use hogweed on their which is like a strong celery flavour, fiddlehead fern, hedge bedstraw, Tintern mead which is from just five minutes down the road which all goes on the dish and is from the area which you can’t replicate anywhere else and that excites me.

It’s like the suckling pig dish, we know that every time we send it out it’s a success, but if we get a dish that becomes too successful I don’t just like leaving it on the menu because the menu becomes stagnant, I don’t like sticking with the same.

What’s next for The Whitebrook?

I want to develop the menu a bit more but I’m holding back because I don’t want to just follow the trend and say yes we’re doing a ten course tasting menu now and here’s five snacks before you get to the table, let’s see what we can do different.

We still have more rooms to do, we have standard rooms that we are going to knock through to make three superior rooms and turn into mini suites, so we are constantly looking for ways to lift the luxury the whole time.

I’m also still trying to establish my name and get it out there and getting The Whitebrook established as one of the best in the country, that’s always been the plan from day one. I have always wanted to be a chef and if you want to be a chef let’s be the best and that’s what brings me in to work every day.

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 8th March 2016

Chris Harrod, chef patron, The Whitebrook, Monmouthshire