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Meet the chef: Gidleigh Park’s Michael Wignall talks to Natasha Heard

Michael Wignall

Culinary heavyweight Michael Wignall took over the reins at the two-Michelin star Gidleigh Park back in January 2016. The innovative chef spent nine glorious years at Surrey’s Pennyhill Park hotel, before replacing the legendary Michael Caines as Executive Head Chef at Gidleigh Park in Devon.

Michael has secured an impressive list of coveted awards and accolades during his illustrious career, including two Michelin stars and five AA Rosettes at The Latymer.

Natasha Heard, food and drink editor at Luxury Lifestyle Magazine, talks to Michael about his plans for Gidleigh Park, culinary influences, inspirations and what makes his dishes so unique.

You have a different cooking style from your predecessor, Michael Caines, how do you respect this?

Every chef has their own style, Michael has his own and I have mine. Food trends and styles change as well as chefs moving to different restaurants. Gidleigh Park is already well known for its food, so I am now in the spotlight with a completely different style, which is very exciting for me.

The experience of moving to Gidleigh Park has given me the space physically and creatively to continue to do this, with a restaurant that embraces and welcomes the style of my food.

gidleigh park in devon
Gidleigh Park in Devon holds two Michelin stars

What differences have you implemented at Gidleigh?

The newly refurbished dining rooms include new artwork, chosen by myself and Andrew Brownsword, from his private collection. Each dining room now has its own feel with hints of my own personality. I have also worked with Sarah Jerath of Sustain Ceramics, to create a bespoke collection of crockery, which features influences from my experiences in Japan. The order we gave Sarah was so big, she had to buy a new kiln! We’ve also included some fine French crockery piece by Limoges, which gives the tableware another eclectic feel.

How would you describe the changes to the menu since you’ve arrived?

Prior to the team and me joining, we spent three months working on the new menu, in order to get it absolutely spot on. I am dedicated to exceeding anything I have done previously while perfecting some of my staple dishes, such as the cassoulet of clams and suckling pig, but these will also change with the season and different cooking techniques, I always say, ‘you can’t reinvent the wheel but you can make it run more smoothly.’

My dishes are all about experimenting and evolution.

What is your favourite season in terms of the ingredients that become available?

Every season has its pros and cons. In spring and summer, there’s an abundance of produce, whereas in winter there’s a lot less but it means you have to be more creative with supplier produce. We also import some produce, such as wasabi from Japan.

What is your favourite dish to cook?

Too many to choose from and it changes on a regular basis! Since the start of my career I have worked closely with the pastry department in every kitchen. I feel it’s important to really work on the desserts as a lot of these dishes can be too sweet and don’t naturally fit with the journey of the menu.

There’s a great deal of natural sweetness that comes from vegetable, so I tend to experiment with this in my dessert dishes. Not only does it make for exciting texture and flavour combinations, it’s a natural sweetener, meaning no refined sugar is needed.

food at gidleigh park
Michael is famed for his respect for food and an ever evolving style which creates unique dishes full of flavour, underpinned by a contemporary, less formal approach to fine cuisine

What do you like about Devon?

Devon is a beautiful place to live. It’s right by the coast, so perfect for me when it comes to my hobby of wake surfing. Working in a kitchen you often forget about your surroundings. At Gidleigh Park we can literally walk out the back door onto the rolling hills of Dartmoor and take in five minutes of tranquillity.

Who/what are your culinary inspirations?

Apart from the ingredients, I also take inspiration from my surrounding and the places I have travelled. Most recently, my travels to Japan have really impacted my outlook, not just on my style of cooking, but the way they have total respect for the ingredients and the part each plays in the creation of the dish.

Do your personal preferences influence the menu?

To some extent yes, but it is so important to look at the bigger picture without compromising what you are striving to achieve. For example I think it is incredibly important to work as a team in a kitchen, bouncing ideas between one another, to really create and be confident with the menu that is being created for guests.

There seems to be a pattern of you joining a restaurant and gaining another Michelin star – is this what you hope for at Gidleigh?

Yes, this goes without saying. Every day we’re striving for excellence and it’s a news chapter for Gidleigh and of course myself and the team.