Chef Name: Harriet Mansell
Title: Chef and Owner of Robin Wylde Restaurant
First place in the Antigua Concours de Chef, Yacht Chef Competition
How old were you when you started cooking professionally?
I worked in kitchens as a teenager, I also worked front of house too. I then worked in kitchens informally in my early 20s, as I cooked a little bit on a yacht I was working on when the Head Chef wasn’t there, it wasn’t until I was 23 that I started properly working in kitchens with the full dedication of knowing it was my career. It’s funny, because cooking and food were always my passion, and from the age of 12 I knew that one day I wanted to have my own restaurant serving all the things I loved. My parents and school were pushy about going to university and getting a ‘proper’ job, so I had to give that a shot before I was able to turn around and prove that a life in professional kitchens was what I wanted.
What’s your earliest and fondest first memory of food?
My earliest memory is… I’m trying to remember being really young and what I first remember, but honestly what comes to mind is being absolutely delighted by my friend’s dad making us wild garlic soup when I was about four, and the smell of this soup, and the taste. It drove us nuts. Concurrently, for whatever reason, I also really remember my first time trying tartare sauce, and wanting to devour the entire jar. Always a condiment fiend… and someone who goes nuts for that contrast of sharp and pickley, with the creaminess of the mayonnaise.
Another notable mention is that we used to have foreign exchange students come and stay with us, and they would all cook different things from their home countries. There was a Swiss girl who cooked us a fondue once, and it basically blew my mind that we got to eat pure melted cheese for dinner! I was in heaven. We also had an Italian girl who showed us how to make a proper sugo tomato sauce with ripe summer tomatoes.
Which chefs inspire you most and why?
Dominique Crenn, because just look. She is an incredible inspiration to all chefs.
Jeremy Chan, because he was an intern at noma at the same time as me and has gone ahead to carve out such a distinct and intelligent style within the culinary world.
Clare Smyth, for being at the absolute top of her game. I went to eat at Core the year it opened, and was blown away by what she had created.
Rene Redzepi because he has continually pushed to explore indigenous flavours and push boundaries with his team.
Douglas McMaster for pioneering his zero waste restaurants.
Massimo Bottura for being a ball of infectious passion. I ate at Osteria Francescana a few years back, and it was on another level. I adored the story that accompanied each dish and to meet Massimo briefly was the icing on the cake.
What are your two favourite cookbooks and why?
A Table in the Tarn by Orlando Murrin – it’s one that is never too far from me, for daily inspiration. It’s a grounded book, full of love and passion for home cooking and a respect of ingredients.
I don’t have any others that stand out because I love all of my cookbooks! It’s generally just such a joy to see an insight into another chef’s world.
Which two ingredients could you not live without?
The hardest question!
May I say herbs or do I have to pick one herb? Vinegar is the other one. My palette is really drawn to anything acerbic.
If I can only pick two, it’s back to basics then. Salt flakes and olive oil.
What is your favourite comfort food to cook at home?
This has to be fresh pasta with garden vegetables – whatever is in season, garlic, lots of the highest-quality olive oil and parmesan and whatever herbs I have to hand, sea salt flakes and cracked black pepper.
If you could eat at any Michelin star restaurant in the world today, where would it be and why?
Too many places on the list.
I would love to go to Eleven Madison Park and Per Se. Also Hisa Franko, Atelier Crenn, Arpege, Tickets, Geranium and Pujol and many more.
And who would you take as your guest?
Someone I love, probably my Mother.
What do you look for in a good chef?
Intelligence, no ego, desire to learn, tenacity, drive, ambition, passion, compassion, sensitivity towards ingredients.
What advice would you give to chefs starting their career paths now?
Soak everything in, you can learn from all around you – notice little things. Listen. Focus. Have patience. Be prepared to work hard, but enjoy the journey.
How has the pandemic affected your restaurant? And how did you adapt and evolve throughout?
We opened on the 28th October and closed one week later. We reopened on the 5th December, and then closed again on the 30th December and are still closed. We are preparing to reopen on the 19th May. We have shifted our focus to ensuring that everything behind the scenes is organised to within an inch of its life. We are staffing up for reopening, implementing systems that we didn’t have the time to do before, working on the menu and new wines. It’s not all bad! Cash flow is very difficult, but we are passionate about what we do, and so thankful to have the opportunity to make this place the best it can be for when we reopen. We are also working on another project – we hope to be able to open a wine bar that will complement Robin Wylde, so are working towards making this happen.
Can you share any wisdom from the experience so far with others? Have you changed? Has your cooking changed?
Well… unexpected situations most certainly provide unexpected opportunities! I think we have all seen this happening to some extent. My belief is that so long as you are staying in tune with yourself, working on aligning goals, beliefs and values, then you develop in ways perhaps not immediately obvious. I have done a lot of soul searching this past year, including addressing background anxieties, and my work surrounding this has allowed a feeling of greater space in my mind, which I hope will help me deal with the curve balls that may impact the running of my business in the year ahead.
Chef Harriet Mansell is Chef/Owner of Restaurant Robin Wylde
www.lilacwine.co.uk (opening soon)
Address: Silver St, Lyme Regis, UK
Telephone: +44 (0) 7308 079427