Meet the Chef - Michael Wignall, The Angel at Hetton
PUBLISHED: 00:00 04 April 2019
Say 'halo' to top chef Michael Wignall as he shares his devilishly good plans for The Angel at Hetton
When you’re reaching for the stars, it’s easy to overlook the small, seemingly insignificant steps you take along the way. You strive and strive, but your blinkered forward momentum can sometimes lead you to trip, stumble and, if you’re not careful, fall from a great height.
Renowned, multi-award-winning chef Michael Wignall is a man who strives every day. He’s ambitious, driven and never satisfied with ‘good enough’. But he’s also a man who pays close attention to the pointillist dots that make up the bigger picture – the grains of salt that make the dish.
The devil is very much in the detail for him, especially since he took over The Angel at Hetton with his wife Johanna and their business partners – and close friends – James and Jo Wellock. His food has always been technical, precise and planned out to the last pea shoot, but now his gimlet gaze is also taking in the plate as well as the food on it.
‘We want everything in our restaurants to reflect the area we’re in,’ Michael explained, as he took a break from the kitchen to enjoy the warm unseasonal sun outside his new Dales ‘home’. ‘Even the steak knives are being specially designed to include moss and leaves indigenous to this landscape embedded in resin in the handle. It’s these small touches – touches that some diners might not even notice – that will set us apart.’
Notice that he said ‘restaurants’ rather than ‘restaurant’. This is because he has not only taken over The Angel, a Yorkshire landmark made famous in the 1980s by gastropub pioneers Denis and Juliet Watkins, but is also transforming the pub’s old wine cave across the road into Cove (after nearby Malham Cove), a contemporary steel and glass space designed to put diners at the heart of the dramatic surrounding landscape.
‘The vision for The Angel and for Cove is the team’s vision, not just mine,’ said Michael. ‘They will be very different but complimentary spaces. I envisage people coming for a two-night stay to try both dining experiences. We want each of the restaurants to be super-relaxed but, at Cove, we’ll just take everything up a notch.’
‘Taking it up a notch’ could be translated as one Michelin star at The Angel and two at Cove, which might seem like we’re putting undue pressure on a team who only picked up the keys to their new venture in September. But Michael has a strong Michelin track record, holding two at Gidleigh Park in Devon and The Latymer in Surrey, and is not embarrassed about his starry ambitions for both his Yorkshire restaurants.
‘I know some chefs say they find the stars a bit of a burden, but I love having them – they’re what drive me every day,’ he said. ‘People who say they don’t mean anything to them are fibbing.
‘And stars are not just for the head chef – for me – they’re for the whole team. If you strive and have ambition and pride in what you do, your staff follow suit. They contribute hugely to the success of the business.’
Michelin assessors have already been to The Angel, where improvement work is scheduled right through into 2020, but Cove won’t be ready for this year’s guide. They are, however, excited by the plans and will undoubtedly be back in the Dales as soon as the dual dining destinations are both up and running.
The Angel and Cove mark a return to Yorkshire for Michael. He was born and raised in Lancashire (we’ll try not to hold it against him) but made a name for himself in the white rose county as head chef at The Devonshire Arms, where he earned a Michelin star and was named Yorkshire Life Chef of the Year.
‘I didn’t necessarily want to come back north,’ he said. ‘Not because I didn’t enjoy my time in Yorkshire, I just didn’t feel I had anything left to prove here. But the idea of controlling my own destiny was just too tempting to pass on.’
It also meant he could deepen his working relationship with James Wellock, head of his family’s eponymous fruit, veg and dry goods firm, who he first met at The Devonshire Arms.
‘That was his first experience of working with a Michelin-starred chef,’ said Michael. ‘I was very specific about what I wanted and he stepped up his supply to match. It’s a key relationship in any kitchen and we found a way of really making it work.’
When he moved to Surrey, he fully expected to use local producers and suppliers, but missed James’ expertise and the connection they’d developed. ‘He started couriering stuff down to me twice a week,’ said Michael. ‘Other chefs in the area started using him too, so he sent a van down. Then, eventually, he opened a southern hub. The same thing happened when I moved to Gidleigh. We were both definitely following the same trail.’
Michael is a little reticent about why his move to Devon was not the long-term success he had hoped for, citing management changes and divergent goals in what sounds like a speech of admirable diplomacy. But, frankly, we should be grateful because it ultimately led him back to Yorkshire.
‘It’s a bit of cliché but we definitely feel like the welcome has been especially warm here,’ he said. ‘Yorkshire people are quite blunt and will tell you exactly what they think, but they are also incredibly friendly and warm and helpful.
‘Obviously there has been some resistance. The Angel has been here for decades and we have come in and started changing it. But most people who are interested in food are open to change and are willing to give us a chance.
‘We are just at the beginning of a very long journey. We have so much to do. This is the final project for me – the big one. It’s everything.’
Since his earliest days at Broughton Park under Paul Heathcote, Michael has never given anything less than everything. And he’s not planning on slowing down anytime soon.
‘I’ll never be satisfied – if I ever am, it’ll be time to stop,’ he said. ‘Of course, some mornings I wake up and think, ‘what on earth am I doing to myself?’, but then there’ll be something new to learn and I’ll be back on it again.
‘I’m my own harshest critic. I’m always thinking of ways to improve my dishes. I’m striving to improve all the time. The fact is that, in this business, the work is as hard as you make it and, to be honest, I make it pretty hard for myself. But that’s how I like it. It would be very boring if it was easy.’