Essence of Japan: Michael Wignall

PUBLISHED: 16:14 30 June 2017 | UPDATED: 16:14 30 June 2017

Michael Wignall at Gidleigh Park

Michael Wignall at Gidleigh Park

Matt Austin

Michael Wignall’s global food adventures are shaping the dining experience at Gidleigh Park, reveals Catherine Courtenay

One of Michael Wignall’s earliest food memories was of his dad giving him Turkish coffee in Istanbul when he was just four years old.

It seems travel, and food adventures in particular, have always played a big part in the life of Gidleigh Park’s executive chef.

“We’d go to all those weirdo places that no one ever went to,” he says, reflecting on his somewhat unusual family holidays.

“We went to Istanbul in a VW campervan and it took a week to get there. We went through Sarajevo in the year they invaded Cyprus and there were rocket launchers and military everywhere.”

“Dad would never go to tourist places; it was like, ‘Oh my god, you’d never go there!’, but he just went marching in.”

“My sisters and mum were quite squeamish about food but dad would eat anything, literally anything…”

Whether it was tasting a perfect tomato in Spain, dropping a mammoth water melon in Turkey, the scratchy sensation of having a peach rubbed on your skin, or his first taste of Turkish delight, Michael has carried these memories through to adult life. And he’s still soaking up new global culinary experiences.

He arrived at Gidleigh in January 2016 and within months had already achieved two Michelin stars, a five star AA rosette accolade followed in January this year.

His dishes are individual and extraordinary, a notable absence of cream and butter giving way to inventive creations which give prominence to clean flavours, clever techniques and an array of textures. Every carefully chosen element is given equal value, whether it’s meat, fish or veg and his magic touch means you taste every ingredient, its natural flavour enhanced and allowed to shine. As a consequence his vegetarian dishes and tasting menus are legendary. “There’s so much you can eat without ever having meat or fish,” he states.

Michael Wignall at Gidleigh ParkMichael Wignall at Gidleigh Park

His food is constantly evolving and always influenced by countries he’s visited but three weeks in Japan had a very specific influence on what he wanted to achieve at Gidleigh.

Spending time with chef friends who live in the country, he and his wife Johanna visited Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka, and were taken to places off the normal tourist trail. One minute they’d be behind the scenes in a Tokyo fish market, the next using a vending machine to order “amazing food for next to nothing”, then dining alongside a geisha in three Michelin-starred restaurant, Ryugin.

“As a kid I used to be amazed by the place, and I liked the music too, when everyone else was in to pop music! It’s the respect they have, how clean the food tastes and how it’s immaculate no matter what they do.”

A little time spent in the remodelled Gidleigh restaurant, sampling his food, it starts to become clear where the Japanese influences lie, influences which are felt not just in what you eat, but the whole experience of dining at Gidleigh.

His meticulousness means he goes to extraordinary lengths to perfect every element on the plate; just one example is the tiny, white burst-in-the-mouth balls which accompany a mackerel dish; it’s yoghurt, but by immersing it in an algae mixture its viscosity changes and it sets on the outside.

The sourdough bread at Gidleigh took five months to develop. “It’s pretty much how we want it now,” he says, but you get the distinct impression it will probably never be perfect in this chef’s eyes.

“I’m always questioning; I’m never entirely happy - not at all. All my lot know that in a week or two I’ll be changing it, doing something else better or making it better. As with anything you want to be good at, you have to be working at it all the time.”

“I feel guilty standing still”, he muses.

“Is that a bit Japanese?” I ask.

“I don’t think so, I think I’m just a bit mental!”

Michael Wignall at Gidleigh ParkMichael Wignall at Gidleigh Park

Michael’s best subject at school was art (he also did well at home economics, but at the time thought that was “a bit of a girls’ thing”) and to this day he will always sketch a memorable dish that he’s eaten.

His creativity shows in the way his dishes are presented, not only the individual elements but, in true Japanese style, also in the plates they are served on, which have been designed specially for him by ceramicist Sarah Jerath.

His restaurant is presented in soft tones of green and grey; single sprigs of greenery or herbs sit in earthenware vases on clean white tablecloths. It’s very understated, perhaps a nod in reverence to the dramatic natural landscape which surrounds the hotel.

The sourdough is brought to the table in a basket, wrapped in a hessian cloth held together by a wooden peg. The baskets were made after a chance meeting with Chagford artist Linda Lemieux.

“She came up here with samples of reeds which she collects from the river here in Chagford. The pegs are made from local trees and she even made a little basket to collect the pegs in.”

It’s a beautiful, almost ceremonial moment, when the waiter releases the peg, and unwraps the hot bread. This ceremony of dining also reflects a Japanese theme. And that’s not to be confused with the stuffiness and formality associated with fine dining. In fact, Michael has taken care to create a much softer and more relaxed approach at Gidleigh. Instead, it’s about respectfulness, a thread running throughout the dining experience and into the kitchen.

“Rather than feel like an effort, I want people to feel relaxed and enjoy it more. It’s a journey, a talking point; it’s about being intrigued by what you’re eating, but not intimidated. I want to take people out of their comfort zone, but to feel comfortable in that zone.”

Michael is a quiet and respectful chef. And he hates chaos.

“If someone slams a door it drives me insane,” he says. “I’ve gone through the shouty sweary kitchens, and I’ve been guilty of being like that, but it’s not productive. Some people love banging and bashing, but it’s just awful!”

The respect extends to the team around him. Michael is at Gidleigh “98% of the time” and has a close team including 12 who made the move to Devon with him from The Latymer restaurant at Pennyhill Park hotel in Surrey. He encourages openness and trust, valuing ideas from everyone: “You learn from everyone, no matter how junior,” he says.

Leaving Gidleigh, driving back along its famed winding lane driveway, you feel a real connection between the natural world and the hotel’s approach to the dining experience. The moss-covered granite, ancient woodlands and crystal clear rocky stream are all elements that echo the beautiful purity and yet powerful, earthy quality of Michael Wignall’s food.

Michael’s top 10 Japanese kitchen items:

1. A good Japanese knife. There is a place in Tokyo, called Kappabashi. It’s basically a whole road, about 1km long, just for kitchenware/tableware/knives etc. My favourite is a Miyabi, it’s such an elegant, light-weight knife and obviously super sharp. You don’t need to spend a fortune to get a good one, there are cheaper alternatives, such as ‘Tojiro Japan’ which are also less fragile. (Tip: remember never to put any quality knives through a dishwasher - treat it with the respect it deserves and it will serve you admirably!)

2. Fresh wasabi. Until you’ve tasted fresh wasabi, you haven’t experienced the true taste. A lot of dried and tubed wasabi is majority horse radish, hence the punch when you eat it. I currently use English wasabi, which is amazing and just as good, if not better than some of its Japanese rivals.

3. Japanese mandoline. A great piece of kit and not super expensive. I have one at home too - just watch your fingers and always use the guard!

4. Yuzu juice. Go for an unseasoned one and once opened keep refrigerated. It’s very strong in flavour, even more so than lemon or limes, so a little goes a long way. We use it for seasoning, marinading and its great for cocktails.

5. Kombu. This is basically seaweed, which we use for making dashi and we also make a kombu jam. Once cooked slowly, for a long time, it goes soft and very sweet. I get mine directly from Japan but there are some great British suppliers.

6. Bonito. This is dried, fermented and smoked skipjack tuna, otherwise known as ‘Katsuobushi’ We use this for broths and also, we infuse the flakes in dashi.

7. Soy sauce. I use this as a seasoning ingredient. I tend to use a light soy, low in salt, so as not to over power. Sometimes, I also use a white soy, which is clear in colour. Like good balsamics, or olive oil, it’s always worth paying a little extra to get a good quality one which is properly fermented and without any chemicals. Soy sauce is a lot like wine, the longer it ages, the better it gets. Kikkoman is a great one to have in the house (I use it myself).

8. Sake. I love sake so much! I think people are scared of Sake, probably because they haven’t tasted a good one! There is such a diversity between producers and methods used, the polish and size of rice...Decent ones are relatively inexpensive.

9. Rice/noodles. We have a ‘moshi roll’ on our snacks, to start our menu. It’s made with glutenous rice, lightly steamed and rolled very thinly. We then add our own, homemade Japanese barbecue sauce, roast white cabbage and sesame and chai seed. It’s our version of an Asian favourite.

10. Bamboo matcha whisk. I actually picked this up in Osaka and it’s great. Its the authentic way to make matcha tea. I went to Japan hating matcha tea and came away loving it! It was served with the majority of meals, using the authentic ceremony and was just fantastic.

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