It might seem that leaving a restaurant that you just helped achieve a Michelin star is a strange move, but not so says former Roots head chef Sean Wrest.
Wrest left the York restaurant owned by Tommy Banks last summer and has just revealed he is to head up his own place on the other side of the Pennines.
“The hardest thing was telling my 90-year-old grandparents that I was moving to other side of the Pennines,” says the 30-year-old chef from Leyburn.
“I think they’ve forgiven me. I already support Manchester United so I think they’ve given up on me.”
Wrest is now taking on the The Horns Inn at Goosnargh, a 17th century, Grade II listed building in Preston, which is currently undergoing a substantial renovation.
He had actually decided to leave Roots and go it alone before the restaurant achieved its first Michelin star. It is the second for Banks, who
also owns the Black Swan at Oldstead where Wrest also worked for three years.
“I have loved working with Tommy and I am really grateful to him and his family, he taught me a lot about foraging and preserving. But it was time for me and Sam to do our own thing,” he explains.
“I was coming up 30, we were in the middle of the pandemic and we started talking about doing our own thing – and then we got the (Michelin) star.”
Wrest will be joined by his fiancé, Sam Haigh, who is leaving her job as restaurant manager at The Black Swan at Oldstead, to become The Horns Inn’s general manager.
The Michelin star came after a difficult 18 months during the pandemic where Wrest was forced to adapt the sharing plate ethos of Roots to a tasting menu.
“Leading the team to become the first ever Michelin-starred restaurant in York’s history will forever be a hugely proud and emotional moment and I cannot thank every single member of the team past and present for making that dream come true.
“We just didn’t expect it that year, as we hadn’t been able to open normally for months, and we had to change what we did.
“No one wants to share a plate with someone else on their table during a pandemic.”
Despite this, Wrest stuck to his guns and left Roots in the summer, to gather his thoughts and decide what to do next.
“Will Lockwood, who had also been at Oldstead, took over from me as head chef at Roots and he is doing some incredible things, taking it in a different direction. It’s worked out for him and me.”
Wrest got into cooking completely by accident. “I was in year ten at school and we had to do two weeks work experience. I’d wanted to go to the police but for some reason at the last minute it didn’t come off. I was left with two choices: work at The Sandpiper in Leyburn, or spend two weeks on the building site with my dad. The hours and the pressure would be less at The Sandpiper than working for my dad. And I just loved it.”
He was determined to do his A Level’s to keep his options open, but he knew that he really wanted to be a chef.
He enrolled at Darlington College, who now have a kitchen named after their accomplished alumni, before getting a job back at the Sandpiper under chef patron Jonathan Harrison, where he stayed for six years.
Keen to learn from different chefs, he decided to do internships first at the three Michelin star restaurant the Fat Duck in Bray, owned by Heston Blumenthal and then the restaurant Maaemo, in Oslo, Norway.
“As a chef there’s nothing better than taking yourself out of your comfort zone,” says Wrest. “Internships were perfect for learning about new ways of working and new cultures – it really broadens your knowledge. Jonathan was a classically trained Roux scholar and then I learnt very different ways of cooking in Oslo where they were doing some really cutting edge cooking.”
Returning home to Leyburn, Sean took up a position at Yorebridge House, Bainbridge before being taken on by celebrated chef Tommy Banks as a senior sous chef at the Black Swan and then three years ago he was made head chef at the newly opened Roots in York.
Mental health in professional kitchens is a hot topic at the moment with the new film Boiling Point shining a light on the issue.
It is something Wrest is passionate about.
“The industry has always had a bad reputation for the long hours and sometimes bullying behaviour, but I do believe we have come a long way, but things could still improve,” says Wrest.
“I know I haven’t always been the best and have regretted some aspects of how I handled situations but I am happy to admit that and to seek help. I just want people to be able to feel they can talk openly about any problems. We have to make kitchens great places to work.”
Last year Wrest received the Acorn Award given only to the country’s best young chefs. He was taking time to decide his next move with his fiancé when he was approached by Alysia Vasey, probably better known as the Yorkshire Forager, and for her appearances on James Martin’s Saturday Morning. But she also works as a consultant to the hospitality industry.
“I was approached by the owners of this most amazing building in Preston,” explains Vasey. “I knew that it was going to be something special and they wanted me to get a team together and I knew Sean would be perfect to head up that team.”
It was Vasey’s involvement that convinced Wrest to go over the Pennines and take a look at The Horns Inn.
“It was Alysia that got in touch with me first to see if I would be interested and I knew that if she was recommending it, it had to be something special – she doesn’t do anything she doesn’t believe in – and she was right. When I drove into the car park I just knew it was a really special place.”
There will be a 60-cover flagship restaurant which will be more a la carte than tasting menu, as well as small plates served in the bar, but Wrest is keen not alienate the local drinkers.
“At the end of the day it is someone’s local and I want everyone to feel welcome and for people to want to keep coming back,” he says. They will also offer afternoon teas.
Wrest is currently working on the menu which he says will bring together all of his previous culinary experiences.
“I have worked in restaurants where we’ve created menus around foraging, fermenting and pickling but also where we’ve used more classical techniques and recipes,” he says.
“I will be bringing together everything I’ve learned over the years in what hopefully will be a really authentic and exciting offering. I feel really grateful for everything Tommy has done for me but it was time for me to go on my own with Sam.”