We grill head chef Ben Wilkinson on seasonality, food trends, his great ingredient loves and mastering the art of the supplier-chef relationship.
Ben Wilkinson is head chef at Rampsbeck Hotel, a luxury hotel in Ullswater. The 19-bedroom boutique is the debut hotel in the Another Place collection, a new group of properties headed up by Will Ashworth of Watergate Bay in Cornwall fame.
We quiz him on his kitchen tactics and find out how he ensures his menus showcase the very best of the region’s local produce available on the doorstep of the hotel.
The best part about spring is that things start to grow so we get a few foraged things like wild garlic, which kicks everything off. Later on in spring, we see asparagus and jersey royal potatoes and also seafood like langoustine, lobster and crabs as well as wild sea trout toward the end of spring in May. This is the time of year when you start to notice a big difference in the quality of wild fish.
In summer, we start to see things like proper globe artichokes and courgettes as well as the start of some fruit like apricots and cherries, which are really good in summer, and then strawberries later on in the season. This is also the perfect time for produce that you can grow really easily yourself such as small salad leaves, baby leaves and tomatoes.
I do like autumn. You start getting vegetables that need a bit more work like squashes, beetroot, jerusalem artichokes, and pumpkins. In spring and summer, everything is so green and fresh but in autumn, things need a bit more work. Autumn is a really strong British season for growing. We produce amazing blackberries and mushrooms, and nuts like cob nuts and hazelnuts are just fantastic. I really like creating dishes with some of the beautiful wild mushrooms and elderberries at this time of year. Of course, autumn is also the start of the game season so we feature all the really fresh, seasonal grouse, partridge, pheasant, and hare on our menus.
In winter, we see more root vegetables come on such as swede, celeriac, and parsnips.This is also the season when you have the chance to work with some fruits from abroad like satsumas and passion fruit as they can add a bit of colour to the dishes. I wouldn’t use them if there were British versions available, but in winter you need to look that little bit further afield to find the colour. Although, even in winter, we have British pears and apples that are still amazing. The Yorkshire rhubarb season, which starts in January is also a bit of a highlight for Britain. Again, rhubarb brings some colour into winter to brighten the dishes as the shocking pink provides a nice contrast from the root vegetables. Game is also still going strong in winter with venison, partridge and hare running right through the season.
At Rampsbeck, I am always on the phone to suppliers as we are regularly changing our menus. This means we are able to add new produce to our menus as soon as it is good enough without waiting until it is necessarily ‘in season’. Not all summer fruit becomes available on the first day of summer! As I am always planning ahead with ideas for the next menu, my suppliers know what I’m looking for and I’ve now been working with the same local suppliers for three years so we have a really good relationship. For example, last summer they told me that the cherries were going to be amazing and to get as many as we could so we really made the most of them in jams and by pickling them.
How do you go about updating your menu from season to season and how long does the process take?
At Rampsbeck, we update our menus as soon as something new and of great quality becomes available so we are not restricted by the seasons. The length of the process can really vary. Sometimes I’ll think of something and the next day it will be a new dish on the menu and other times it may take three or four weeks to perfect the final dish. Its like anything, sometimes you’ll create a great dish on your first attempt and then other times, it might take a bit more tweaking.
How many staff members do you have working in the kitchen?
We have a small team of six chefs who are a fairly young brigade and everyone helps each other. We all get on really well and the team always want to learn more so we’re teaching them as we go to keep pushing them and improving standards.
What’s your favourite produce to cook with?
This is a tricky one as every season has its own highlights so to be honest it’s constantly changing. If I had to choose something, I really love making bread! We use some fantastic flour from a local organic mill and bread is a favourite all year round – it can really cheer you up and it’s always something to look forward to!
What do you think will be big food trends this year?
Personally, I just feel like the movement toward local and artisan food will continue with people moving away from mass produced ingredients. Restaurants are also moving much more toward home-grown produce with little kitchen gardens popping up and we’ll be creating our own kitchen garden at Rampsbeck this year, which we’re looking forward to; fresh, seasonal and local will become less of a trend and more of an expectation.
What dishes do you always make sure to include on the menu?
Our Herdwick Hogget tends to feature on the menu throughout the year and, although the main component won’t change, we’ll always introduce seasonal variations. In summer, we’ll use turnips with peas and beans, which is a lighter version and then in winter, we’ll switch over to something a bit more hearty.
What are your best selling dishes?
Our Hogget always sells really well. It comes from Heritage Meats at Yew Tree Farm in Coniston, which was once owned by Beatrix Potter. Hogget is something that this area specialises in and guests want to try the local specialities when they are staying and dining at Rampsbeck. We are really lucky that we have such great suppliers. Our game dishes also sell well as people that come here love the outdoors and the rural setting so it suits them and they tend to expect to find game dishes on the menu.