It’s not often you get the chance to sit down and eat with a Michelin-starred chef, so when Nigel Mendham, he of The Samling in Windermere, came to Leeds to visit Harvey Nichols’ fourth floor restaurant, it was too good a chance to miss.
Mendham was a guest of Harvey Nichols’ executive chef Richard Allen, to share a few ideas. Also at the table was Sam Hall, sales and marketing chap at Von Essen hotels group, which owns The Samling and has just built a very posh hotel called Verta in London, complete with its own helipad.
The Samling is a small yet perfectly formed place – only 22 covers – and for Mendham, the star was especially significant. He had one and lost is shortly after joining the venue, so regaining it was even more rewarding.
“I started there in 2005 and lost it, so it was really good to get it back,” he says. “But we always just try to cook the food that we think is good.”
Mendham will find out this week whether the Michelin judges have been cruel or kind to him this year, as the 2011 guide is released. Until the moment the book hits the shelves, Mendham doesn’t have a clue as to who is in our out.
“It can be difficult to gauge whether they like you or not,” he says. “There is no set list of criteria and although you get informed if you’ve been given a star, there’s no feedback as to what the judges liked or didn’t like.”
Mendham says that was part of the reason why he tends not to bother with fads in the kitchen, preferring to concentrate on good ingredients.
“Winter is a good season actually; you’ve got really good root veg and really goods meat,” he said. “We’re big on locally produced Herdwick lamb at the moment – and there is a lot of good duck and game. Venison is great to work with.
“It’s good hearty food, but done in a refined way. February to May can be a really difficult period actually, when you have to switch the menu. Then you get into the summer and it becomes a bit easier. When you start seeing wild garlic, I take that as a good sign.”
Allen is hoping some of the Mendham magic will rub off in his own kitchen, following a trip there at the end of last year. Harvey Nichols appears to be putting on good business in Leeds – 50+ covers for lunch and around 70 for the dinner through the week – but Allen is always keen to improve things.
“We went to The Samling before Christmas and it was brilliant,” he says. “We wanted to look at the produce and ingredients they use. Obviously we want to be known as high end in Leeds but accessible; we’re not fine dining but we do want to be at that top end in terms of quality.”
Mendham has seen his own star rise since Michelin came to stay too. Which should help, given that The Samling is due to star in its own fly-on-the-wall documentary soon.
“Since I got the star, I’ve been out and about a bit, yeah...you do get recognised,” he says. “It’s good for profile and for The Samling.
“The competition is really fierce in the Lake District – there are some really good country house hotels there with fantastic food. Even the standard of gastropub food is high.”
You could also forgive Mendham for thinking of The Samling as home, because, well...it was, for a time. “My house flooded,” he said. “I spent 12 months in staff quarters with a very large German Shepherd dog.”
Michelin star firmly back under his belt, Mendham can look forward to the next 12 months in the kitchen. As for Allen, keep your eye on the Harvey Nichols kitchen – I’d wager you’ll be seeing some Samling-inspired dishes very soon.
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