Two Michelin-starred chef Michael Wignall admits: “I pledged I would never return north or ever have my own place, and now look at me.”
We are sitting in the cosy bar of the Angel in Hetton which he has just taken over with his wife Johanna and close friends and business partners James Wellock and his wife Josephine.
You would be forgiven for possibly never having heard of Michael Wignall. Unlike many high profile chefs who gain celebrity status through television programmes and social media, Wignall likes his food to do the talking.
“I think I am quite an introvert and don’t really like the idea of appearing in front of a television camera all that much.” Here is a chef who would much rather be behind his stove. Other than the odd guest appearance in Celebrity Masterchef Wignall steers clear of the limelight.
He may not be that well known to the general public, but to foodies and fellow chefs he is a big deal. His move back to Yorkshire has caused quite a stir among those in food circles.
On the surface it seems an unusual move.
For the last two years Wignall has been at the highly-acclaimed Gidleigh Park in Devon which he took from one Michelin star to the coveted two.
He seemed very settled, having bought a house with wife Johanna and baby Isabella, now two, and those in the know were suggesting he could be set to achieve the ultimate culinary accolade, three Michelin stars. So what happened?
“There was a change of direction at Gidleigh,” is all he will say. “I could no longer do what I wanted to do. James (Wellock) and I had been talking for a while of doing something together – half jokingly. We’d thought initially about possibly doing a ski chalet as we both like skiing. Then James suggested the Angel, it wasn’t even for sale. But he lives close by and I knew of its reputation and so we decided to give it a go.”
It seems Wignall didn’t particularly desire to have his own place, having worked in high end hotel restaurants for most of his career. But what convinced him was the ability, for pretty much the first time, to do exactly what he wants, and that pull was enough. And, it seems, his imagination is already running riot.
Having taken over ownership of the gastropub in the heart of the Yorkshire Dales National Park, it immediately closed for nine days for a minor refurb and a lick of paint, reopening at the beginning of September. But Wignall is making no secret of his, and Wellock’s, plans to completely transform the Angel.
“We don’t just want to make it one of the best dining experiences in Yorkshire but the entire country,” says Wignall.
There are drawings hanging on the walls of the existing dining rooms which show ambitious plans to open up the Angel’s small rooms to a more open-plan dining experience.
“There will still be a bar and we very much want to still be a pub serving the local community,” explains Wignall of their vision.
“We want it to be very accessible on all fronts, it won’t be at all stuffy, it will be amazing food and friendly service, just somewhere you want to keep coming back to.”
But what really has whetted Wignall’s creative juices is plans for the ‘Cove’ – a unique fine dining experience which will be developed in the existing rooms across the road from the Angel.
“It is named after Malham Cove and it will be unlike anywhere else in the country.” It is where Wignall will showcase his complex and highly crafted dishes. He likes to sketch out a dish before he even starts to cook it.
When I ask him to describe his food he says ‘evolving’. It seems this chef doesn’t believe in standing still. Wignall and Wellock’s vision will involve an ambitious building schedule which will see The Angel closing on January 2 with the plan of having both venues open and ready for business ‘by Easter.’
Preston-born Wignall never really planned to be a chef, in fact he had a promising career as a professional BMX rider, but his parents encouraged him to go to catering college – to get a proper job.
His parents travelled a lot for pleasure in the days before most families did.
“I remember going to Turkey when I was about five, and it was long before other people were going on holiday there. Dad made me eat the food and I think their love of travel and trying new things definitely rubbed off on me.”
After college Wignall moved to Spain to experience front-of-house work, authentic cooking and the cuisine the country had to offer.
On his return to the UK his professional career started at Broughton Park, under Paul Heathcote, moving with him to his restaurant in Longbridge, Preston, followed by a spell working for John Burton Race at L’Ortolan. Following this he headed up Old Beams, Waldo’s restaurant in Cliveden Hotel, Michael’s Nook and then the Burlington Restaurant at The Devonshire Arms, which is where he first met James Wellock and achieved his first Michelin star.
He left Yorkshire to open Michael Wignall at The Latymer at Surrey’s Pennyhill Park Hotel where he gained two Michelin stars, it is also where he met and married Johanna who was in charge of some of the hotel staff, one of which had been shouted at by Wignall.
“I got this phone call from Johanna who said that I had no right to shout at a member of her staff. And that was it, she has been the boss ever since.”
Johanna, who is half Welsh and half German, moved with Wignall to Gidleigh Park and he says she is fully supportive of the move north.
“It is not ideal at the moment as we are trying to sell our house in Devon so we are renting in Yorkshire, but as soon as that is sold we will buy up here. It wasn’t until I returned to the North that I realised how much I liked it. Everyone is so friendly and just cannot do enough to help us. It was a very different story in Devon,” says Wignall who also has a son Matthew, 20, from a previous relationship.
He has a reputation for his exacting standards, although admits that he is a terrible self-doubter. “You always worry that what you are doing is good enough.” It is probably this desire to strive to be better that has earned him a Michelin star in every kitchen he has worked in since his first in 1993, more recently that has meant turning one Michelin starred establishments into two stars. So could he land Yorkshire its first two Michelin starred restaurant – or even more?
“There is no limitation to what we can achieve here,” he says. “Wherever I have worked I have had constraints. This is a blank canvas and gives us the opportunity to start from scratch and make something really special.”
And although he says getting a Michelin star is “a nice feeling” and a relief when you retain it, what is important is the team – both in the kitchen and front of house and, above all the customer.
“If you start cooking for the (Michelin) guides then you’ve pretty much had it,” he says.
He is well aware that being in the centre of the Yorkshire Dales National Park can be a challenge when it comes to accessibility and to this end they plan to put on cars to ferry people from Skipton station and even Leeds/Bradford Airport. They will also continue to have nine rooms with plans to increase at a later date.
But for Wignall the beauty of the surroundings and access to local produce far outweighs any logistical issues. “We want to create something that isn’t just unique in the North but in the entire country. To make the Angel a real destination once more. It will be like nowhere else.”