CHEF MICHAEL WIGNALL
Chef Patron at The Angel at Hetton
in the heart of The Yorkshire Dales National Park, UK
“How to Attract and Retain More Young Talent
to Our Industry”
Next to take the seat for our Chef Works Wearers* blog series is one of the most respected and celebrated chefs in the UK.
Michael Wignall is a serial Michelin-star winner. He’s won them in every kitchen he has headed since 1993, most recently at the iconic Gidleigh Park Hotel, The Latymer restaurant and the Devonshire Arms Hotel & Spa. He is famed for his respect for food and an ever-evolving style, creating unique flavourful dishes, underpinned by a contemporary, less formal approach to fine cuisine.
He’s now bringing that expertise to a new venue, having taken over The Angel at Hetton in North Yorkshire with his wife, Johanna. Their aim is to create a fine-dining space and “something slightly different” within the beautiful 15th-century, nine-bedroom pub.
His cooking style has won him a legion of fans and made him a true visionary in the UK culinary scene, cementing his position as a role model to younger chefs. That’s why we focused our interview with him on one of the key issues facing the hospitality industry right now: getting more young talent through the doors.
It’s widely been reported that young people are being put off becoming chefs because of the antisocial hours, high pressure and perceived hostile kitchen environments – so what can be done to reverse it? As someone who’s been at the top of this industry for the last 20 years, Michael is one of the most relevant people to offer advice.
* The Chef Works Wearers series is all about the people behind the uniform; the boundary-pushing chefs, chocolatiers, baristas and bakers who are making their mark in the UK scene and defining success on their own terms.
My path into cheffing
“I left school not really knowing what to do. I fell into catering college, mainly because my parents didn’t want me to spend my life riding a bike and this seemed like a logical option. My mum was a patisserie cook, so I had an idea of what cooking entailed. We never had a microwave at home, mum would always cook from fresh and once I started cooking, I enjoyed it. I’m one of those people that wants to be the best at things and I really push myself.
“I went front-of-house while I was at catering college, so I could earn more money and swapped in and out of working in the kitchen at various lesser known restaurants. I then moved to Spain and worked there for a bit, before coming back and really getting the bit between my teeth to become a proper chef in the UK. As a kid I used to travel all around the world, so I was lucky enough to get to try all the cuisines and developed a real sense of flavours and how to bring them together on a plate.
“Back then you had to write letters to get jobs. I’d make a list of the chefs I really wanted to work with and hand-write them a note saying how much I’d love to come into their kitchen to get experience. That still means so much more than coming through an agency.”
Too much, too young
“I became a head chef at 24 – that was too young in my opinion. You have so much more to learn at that age; I’m still learning now and will until the day I finish. It’s tough to have that responsibility at such a young age.
“My big break came from Chef Paul Heathcote (@paul_heathcote). I got a job with him for two months and from that short space of time, he took a punt on myself and Andrew Barnes (Head Chef at Paul Heathcotes restaurant in Longridge) and took us with him to his new restaurant.”
What keeps me motivated?
“Questioning myself and being my own worst critic is genuinely what I think has got me to where I am today. I’m constantly thinking ‘how can we make a dish better.’ While that level of attention to detail and critique can be tiring, it’s no bad thing to challenge yourself all the time – it makes you self-evolve a lot better.
“You’ve got to be confident in what you’re doing. If you start too young, you don’t have that.”
Don’t be a carbon copy
“A lot of young chefs are carbon copies of other chefs. They just look on Instagram for recipe ideas and styles, and there’s no denying that’s a brilliant place to be and inspiration is everywhere there – it’s not enough. You need to absolutely understand the fundamentals of dishes, the textures they bring, the balance of flavours, the qualities of the different produce.
“As with any industry and any era, young people want to shoot to the top quickly – but my advice would be to take your time, relax and enjoy it or you’ll burn out. Don’t concentrate on everyone around you and what they’re doing, just go at your own pace to get it right for you.
“You can work for amazing chefs, but they don’t let you have any input – I prefer to focus on developing them as a personality themselves and give them the confidence to have their own ideas. They might have a terrible idea, but at least they learn from it; young chefs should always have the support to express themselves, otherwise, they just end up as a copy of someone or something else.”
The impact of social media
“Social media has had a huge impact on how we work as chefs and whilst it’s brought a lot of good, it’s also brought negatives – mainly that people believe everything is instantaneous. The rise of online reviews puts a lot of pressure on an already pressurised environment. All I’d say is use it as a tool and don’t let it destroy your drive.”
I agree it’s harder to recruit young people now, but…
“…that’s nothing to do with the trade – the hours are better for chefs now, the money is better, the work-life balance is better. We have a lot more to pull in young chefs than we did when I started.
“I think the issue is that everything’s so easy and accessible for young people now. People are expecting being a chef to be easier and when they find out it’s not, some leave. For every chef that makes it, there’s a handful that don’t. They want to enter quickly, become like the chefs they’ve seen on Instagram and TV, get their stars, run successful businesses, but they need the old school work ethic to do that.”
Overcoming the barriers
“Being a chef means you can travel the world, you can express yourself and you’ll never have to clock watch; catering is one of the only jobs where you wish you could have more time! It’s definitely not mundane.
“Yes there’s hard work and blood, sweat and tears involved, but that’s what makes it one of the most rewarding jobs you’ll ever have. As owners and bosses, we’ve got to make sure young staff enjoy it and develop to in turn inspire their peers. If they’re not learning and don’t feel valued within that business, they’ll leave.
“I respect any young chefs that are in the kitchen and are valuing their staff, leading by example. Too many think they’re rock stars – that has an effect on staff; they’re too young to be thinking that way.
“Young chefs are our future; without them, we’re screwed! They bring such an exciting energy to the industry – I’m always excited when someone comes into my kitchen and challenges me, it’s important to give them that autonomy. You spend more time with your team than you do your family, so you need to give them your best.”
My five tips for young chefs:
1. Get a solid grounding of the fundamentals of cooking.
2. Keep your head down, go with the right attitude. Be able to motivate yourself.
3. Keep learning, keep asking questions, be inquisitive, be a sponge – absorb everything you can. If you show interest, others will show interest in you.
4. Save up, dine out, go to different places. It’s so important to see what others are doing to evolve your personal style, but make sure you don’t become a copy!
5. Don’t give up – there are times when you’ll hate what you’re doing, but it soon goes. The positives outweigh the negatives by far.
A big thank you to Chef Michael for taking part. For more information on his new venture at The Angel at Hetton visit: www.angelhetton.co.uk
Instagram: @angelathetton , @michaelwignall_
Photographer: Allen Markey