It’s a typical wet Cumbrian day as I walk up the front steps to the Lake District’s newest restaurant. The wind is whipping up the rain from all sides and my umbrella offers me no respite; but on entering Gilpin Spice, I am met with a sumptuous interior of vibrant colours that is both warm and cosy and immediately transports me to exotic climes far from here…
Turning right past a fabulously decadent red anteroom, I walk head long into the buzz of a pristine kitchen adjoining a striking long bar and dining area. Although it’s early the fire is lit and staff are moving effortlessly around the kitchen on the calm instructions I hear being given by the culinary King himself, Hrishikesh Desai. The Gilpin’s Executive Chef and recent star winner of the much-coveted Michelin accolade, turns towards me and flashes what can only be described as a mega-watt smile – well he is quite a celeb in these parts now… 😉
He quickly fires off a few last instructions to his attentive staff and turns to shake my hand. I immediately warm to his relaxed and friendly welcome which totally complements the opulent but cosy private dining area we go to for our Wellies chat.
First of all, congratulations Hrishi! How do you feel after such a prestigious win?
It’s fantastic, an unbelievable feeling but not just for me, the whole team as well. We have all contributed to the success. To be honest I still cannot quite believe it. When Rebecca Burr (Editor, Michelin Guide Great Britain & Ireland) called to invite us to the live event, I thought that she probably wanted us there to just fill up the seats… Right up until the last minute I did not believe we had won a Michelin Star! I am a massive fan of cricket and a true believer in the expression “You never win the match until the last ball is bowled.” Not until I received that phone call did the whole dream become a reality.
So where did all this begin for you? How did you get to this pinnacle of your career?
I always knew that I wanted to be involved in cooking, ever since I remembered going to a family wedding back in India when I was just four. I still have a vivid memory of the food and the celebration surrounding it. At nineteen I undertook a three year Diploma in Hotel Management after which I won a scholarship to study Culinary Arts & Management at the Institut Paul Bocuse in France. I was amazingly lucky to train for nine months under Olivier Roellinger at his restaurant Les Maisons de Bricourt. His restaurant already had two Michelin Stars but most importantly for me, Olivier’s main focus was cooking with spices. His training utterly compounded my passion for the spices of my childhood and the exploration of culinary art across the eastern continent. From France, I then moved to England…
How did your experience of cooking in the UK compare with France?
Very different! But of course, I came to England to work as well as learn. In 2003 I joined Macdonald Hotels as a Sous Chef. I was able to observe other chefs and for the most part all they did was fry! But what I did learn, however mundane, was how to make sandwiches – it sounds crazy, but I mean, how to make LOTS of sandwiches, efficiently, quickly and as tasty as possible. Eventually a group of us managed to change things, turn off the fryer and adapt the menus for good. Soon after we received two Rosettes for our efforts.
I imagine you didn’t stay there too long…?
No indeed. I stayed with Macdonald for just a year and then got a job as Commis Chef at Lucknam Park near Bath in 2004 . In 2006 I became Chef de Partie and we received our first Michelin star. Soon after though I decided to move to the Brasserie next door to become Head Chef.
Was the Brasserie not a kind of demotion when compared with the fine dining Michelin-starred restaurant?
It was certainly seen as such by some, particularly during several future interviews but I really thought about the move at the time and decided that if eventually one day, I was going to learn how to run my own restaurant I had to get experience of that whole administrative side of managing a kitchen. It might sound unglamourous but during my time as Head Chef of the Brasserie I learned key skills of how to manage a restaurant – rotas, food ordering, costs etc. Ironically during my time at the Brasserie, I won the prestigious Roux Scholarship and in 2010 I spent an amazing four months in California under the culinary guidance of Thomas Keller at The French Laundry. He has won a whopping three Michelin Stars six years in a row and despite his massive ego, was a complete inspiration to work with during my time in the USA.
We must be getting fairly close now to the Chefs On Trial TV series and the big move north to Cumbria?
Yes, it was March 2015 when I went on the Chefs On Trial series. It was pretty mind-blowing winning I can tell you. Imagine going for a job interview where there’s an entire TV crew in the same room and a load of people you’ve just got to ignore while you concentrate on just answering the questions as best you can!
And here you are having won the coveted role of Executive Chef at the Gilpin. What makes it all worth while for you?
Aside from the Cunliffe family who have made me feel so welcome, I get to manage three incredible restaurants – the Lakehouse, the new Gilpin Spice and of course ‘Hrishi’, our wonderful Michelin-Starred fine-dining restaurant. It’s fantastic to be able to work across varying culinary styles – and I get to include my love of spices as well 😉
What makes you different from other chefs? Are there any different ways in which you work?
I suppose that I don’t do something for tradition’s sake if I don’t think it works or isn’t right. So for example, I do not believe that wine should solely be paired with meat or fish. I think that often it is the sauce that should be considered. The flavours in a truffle or pesto sauce for example, often overtake the palatte and so for me it is important to consider the sauce when pairing the accompanying wine. That hasn’t always gone down well with one or two Sommeliers I’ve worked with in the past though…
And now on to Cumbria. You have been living in Kendal with your family for just over a year. What do you think of our fine but rather wet county?
I would say first and foremost I love the people. They are very friendly and my wife, daughter and I have been made to feel really welcome here. The scenery is of course stunning. I took my parents to see Aira Force when they came over from India last year and they were blown away by the landscape. The Kirkstone Pass is also something else during winter too..
Favourite Cumbrian food?
It’s got to be sticky toffee pudding. Hot caramel sauce with a mandatory huge scoop of vanilla ice-cream.
And restaurants? Where do you go out to eat (and not the Gilpin please!)?
It’s got to be Pizza Express.
Did I hear that right????
Yup! Pizza Express is the best. My daughter loves it there and you know what, the guys in Kendal make the most amazing Chocolate Glory – it’s to die for and costs just £5.65, although I think they put the price up recently by 20p… (!)
White wine – you cannot beat a fantastic French Alsace or Coteaux du Layon
And finally, any plans for the future? Another Michelin Star?!
Yes definitely, without a doubt another Star please! For the moment I just want to enjoy living here with my family and being part of the community. I have no plans to move – I have an amazing career and work with a family that could not have been kinder and more welcoming. I’m definitely here to stay for good long while… at least until I get that second Michelin Star…;-)
We say goodbye and Hrishi makes his way back to the kitchen. A genuine and open guy, I expected at least a small soupçon of ego, which to be frank would be entirely acceptable given the steady career climb and recent mega accolade.
Instead I was met by a tremendously warm, positive chap who simply loves life and cooking. There’s a depth of character which is combined with a strong sense of family and what can only be described as an innate kindness. Focused and quietly resilient yes, but not to the detriment of his team nor those around him. Cumbria is very lucky to have both Hrishi Desai and his culinary talents which make our county an even more fantastic place to live and visit.