Colin McGurran bought restaurant Winteringham Fields, which had two Michelin stars, and promptly lost them. Now, 14 years on, he has won one back. Catherine Scott paid him a visit.
The outskirts of Scunthorpe may not sound like the ultimate location for a Michelin starred restaurant with rooms, but that is exactly what Colin McGurran has achieved at Winteringham Fields.
It has been a long slog for the celebrity chef who is known to many for his appearances on the BBC’s Saturday Kitchen and Great British Menu, which he won in 2012 with his elaborate Quail in the woods starter – created from more than 50 ingredients – and again in 2014 with his nostalgic Dickin Medal dessert.
McGurran bought Winteringham Fields when he was just 28 years old. At the time it was a two Michelin star restaurant serving classical French fine dining dishes under the ownership of Germain and Annie Schwab.
“Looking back, it was a mixture of ambition and naivety,” he admits. “I had to break it to my wife who was very heavily pregnant with our second daughter that we were moving to North Lincolnshire.” McGurran is married to Bex and the couple now have three daughters aged 11, 13 and 15.
Although McGurran was a trained chef, he didn’t plan to work in the kitchen initially.
“We had a head chef and my plan was to be more front of house and to run the business.”
But within two years they lost the head chef and many of the staff – and one star, followed swiftly by the second.
“As we lost the stars and the chef, we also lost the bookings. People just rang up and cancelled. Things became very tight indeed.”
The young chef had to make a decision and quickly. He either had to change the way Winteringham Fields operated or face closing the business. “It was a matter of necessity really. We just couldn’t afford to be buying in lobster and the likes from Scotland.”
McGurran went back into the kitchen and Bex ran front of house, but the most radical change was the menu. He came up with the idea of a blind tasting menu, long before it became the trend in fine dining establishments worldwide.
“We started farming, producing our own food. I went to see the farmer next door and asked if he could plant some vegetables for us. I had never even grown anything from a seed before.” Now Winteringham Fields is almost self-sufficient, not only growing its own vegetables, but rearing its own pigs, chicken and sheep, which McGurran takes to Louth for slaughter, on his eight-acre farm.
“We use every piece of the animal and show it the respect it deserves. The menu changes daily depending on what we have available.” Anything that cannot be grown on site, such as beef and shellfish, is sourced as locally as possible.
Although tasting menus, and even blind tasting menus, are everywhere these days, 10 years ago it wasn’t the case. “We did have people turning up expecting the same dishes they had under the Schwabs. Many didn’t like the idea at first and they did take some convincing, I have to admit, but for us it just made sense from a business model point of view. We knew how many covers we have and what we were going to serve them and what we are going to charge, so that enables you to plan and that gives certainty to the staff and everyone involved.”
This decision made financial sense, but was also motivated by a passion for provenance and sustainability. McGurran loves the transparency a home-grown ethos brings with it, with front of house staff able to talk to customers about the ingredients on the menu with unusual precision and expertise, as they are about the excellent wines on offer from unusual vineyards such as Greece, Austria and round the corner in Louth.
The restaurant offers an eight-course evening ‘‘Menu Surprise’’, a tasting menu where only the merest tantalising hints are given to diners as to what they can expect and a shorter six- course lunchtime tasting menu. Of course, dietary requirements are catered for – McGurran is no doubt that his guests come first, no matter what.
Unlike many chefs, he is not scared of the dreaded TripAdvisor reports where everyone becomes a restaurant critic. “I am not worried about criticism,” he says. “It is the way you stay at the top of your game. We have a staff meeting every morning and we go through everything people have said – good or bad. Sometimes staff say the guest was in a bad mood when they arrived, but that is no excuse. It is our job to recognise that and try to improve their mood – that is what they are paying for.”
A few years ago, McGurran invested in Winteringham Fields’ bedrooms which are sumptuous to say the least. He realises that they are off the beaten track and many guests come to stay from all over Lincolnshire, Yorkshire and beyond.
McGurran was born in Zambia, returning to the UK as a boy. He trained at Bournemouth College before getting a taste of fine dining working at the two Michelin-starred Domaines Haut de Loire in Onzain, France. “I hated it,” he admits. “I learnt a lot, but the attitude in the kitchen was awful, with pots and pans being thrown at chefs. I thought if this is fine dining I don’t want any of it.”
He moved to Abu Dhabi, accepting a post as banqueting manager for the UAE royal family.
Returning to Britain in 2001, McGurran took over the Woolpack Country Inn in Whitley with his sister. But it was a desire to return to fine dining that saw him buy Winteringham Fields in 2005.
He had dined at Winteringham Fields some years before when it was still owned by Germain and Annie Schwab. It has taken him a number of years of hard work and determination to make Winteringham Fields ‘‘his own’’, which has now clearly done, but he is not one to sit still.
A few years ago he bought the Hope and Anchor pub in South Ferriby and admits he underestimated its popularity. It now has a Michelin Bib Gourmand. “It was madness,” he says having now passed on the business to his head chef, although he still owns the property.
A tie-in with Beverley Racecourse gives staff the chance to showcase what they do so well in a different environment and to a different audience.
While clearly not shy of hard work, McGurran is determined to maintain a work-life balance that many chefs can only dream of. While committed to his art, he doesn’t want to make the mistake of many a Michelin chef before him and sacrifice his family in search of stars. “I want to spend as much time with my girls as possible,” he says. It is made a little easier as the McGurrans virtually live onsite, with their house adjacent to the restaurant’s rooms. And he passes this attitude on to his staff.
The restaurant is closed on Sundays and Mondays and everyone gets two-and-a-half days off a week. It is also closed for two weeks over Christmas and New Year and staff are invited to join the McGurrans on their annual ski break.
“Staff retention is vital out here,” he says of the location on the banks of the Humber. “When you get good people you want to hold on to them.” To this end he has bought a number of houses in Winteringham where he houses many of the staff.
And it seems to be working. In October McGurran was given his first Michelin star and this month Winteringham Fields was announced in the top ten restaurants in the UK By Hardens.
While gaining the accolades are a testament to the hard work that McGurran, his staff and his family have put in to make Winteringham Fields what it is today, it is not what drives him.
“The last thing on our minds was getting a Michelin star, the main thing is the experience that we are giving to our guests. Don’t get me wrong getting a Michelin star is great, but now the hard word begins to maintain it.”