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Corkage: Simplicity at its finest

Melissa Blease goes Behind the Menu with Richard Knighting, head chef at Corkage, to talk about his favourite ingredients, slow cooking and pairing dishes with the perfect tipple

From a Michelin-starred kitchen in London (Marco Pierre White’s Mirabelle) to street food served at Bath Christmas Market, via assignments for celebrated chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten, and six years at the highly acclaimed Bath gastropub The Marlborough Tavern, chef Richard Knighting’s journey to Corkage has given him reason to tick off all the boxes on a very illustrious, very “cheffy” CV.

Corkage is a small bistro on Walcot Street that’s earned itself a big reputation as a harmoniously tasteful, cultivated destination diner since opening its doors towards the end of last year.

So, does Richard have stars in his eyes, an infusion siphon in his hand and espumas on his mind? To the contrary, his feet are firmly on the ground. He says: “Ultimately, I’m aiming to serve the kind of food that matches the general vibe of Corkage and the clientele we appeal to: gregarious, convivial and unpretentious, offering food and wine flavours together in perfect harmony in a casual, easily-accessible environment.”

To this end, Richard’s menus – served from a small open kitchen to the rear of the chic but cosy bar – bring classic themes based around simplicity and flavour together with style, with every dish infused with his trademark knack for delivering big flavours on small plates.

“I look for happy marriages of flavours from wherever in the world they may hail, but probably my most influential styles would be Mediterranean, Iberian and French. You could say it’s simple food from a simple kitchen – there’s not enough space for gadgets or a deep fat fryer, and my dishes offer an escape from the dreaded foam. I suppose it’s all largely food that people are familiar with, perhaps adding the odd unusual ingredient to compliment the main element; it’s never possible to be all things to all people but I think the menu has a broad appeal, and there are always a few vegetarian dishes on the menu that can be easily tweaked for vegans, too.”

But what about the abstraction of considering fashionable food – the Corkage concept is, right now, bang on trend, but does Richard ever concede to such notions when rustling up new dishes for, say, a new season?

“Not at all – in fact, quite the opposite”, he says. “I like to look back to what people were eating decades or centuries ago – food that has stood the test of time, and has a certain romance to it. Fashion comes and goes, but traditional, solid cooking is omnipresent and always will be – with very good reason. The fact that certain foods or ways of cooking may not be considered fashionable doesn’t condemn it to the mundane – it usually means it has history, tradition and a simplicity that allows the ingredients to remain the focal point of any given dishes.

“I like working with seasonal, locally-sourced ingredients and traditional cuts of meat that require slow cooking at low temperatures, just like all cooks, from domestic to professional, have enjoyed doing for years. Traditional cuts of meat may be more challenging to work with, but they’re so rewarding when you treat them properly, and the flavours evoke strong memories for so many people. Forgotten cuts also come at a more affordable price which allows me to keep the menu prices keener – and that’s very important to us as well.”

By ‘us’, Richard is referring to his business partner Marty Grant, who has owned the thriving city centre restaurant, bar and pub Gascoyne Place for a decade and is renowned for his encyclopaedic knowledge of wine. Marty is responsible for sourcing the extensive wine list at Corkage, all of which is available in tasting measures, by the glass, by the carafe or by the bottle, and from an off-sales section too.

“Basically, Marty aims to remove the mystique or fear of wine, and demonstrate how there’s something for everybody, regardless of budget or experience,” says Richard. “To this end, we don’t have a house wine, as such – all our wines are our house wines. In keeping with such an ethos, I don’t have a signature dish, although the crab (served very simply on toasted bread), the belly pork and the cavolo nero are incredibly popular – I’ll keep them on the menu as long as all the ingredients are in season.

“When it comes to my personal favourite dishes on my own menu, I have no choice but to choose the crab – it’s one of my favourite ingredients, and I spent many a childhood summer on the north Northumberland coast with family buying crab from the incoming boats and taking them home to prepare. Red mullet is a great ingredient too, as it can take flavour really well.

“But I like to keep dishes moving on, to feed my need to create and to keep things interesting for our regular guests. With autumn upon us, game will be featuring soon – I won a national game award in 2010 judged by Tom Kerridge, and I haven’t worked with it for a while so it will be an exciting time for me. I’m already thinking venison loin with wild mushrooms. And then of course we’re into Christmas, which will be a great challenge – we’ll be open for lunch and dinner, and I’ll be considering the big question: to turkey or not to turkey?”

Whatever Richard’s decision, it’s a safe bet that his little plates of big scrumptiousness will continue to be gobbled up with gusto throughout the festive season and beyond.

Try a taste of Corkage at home: Cavolo Nero

Strip and wash a bunch of cavolo nero and wilt with a finely chopped, deseeded red chilli and slivers of fresh garlic. Wash and thinly dice a conference pear (which Richard has recently been substituting with watermelon to very positive feedback), and crumble a handful of feta cheese with mint, dill, lemon juice and zest.

Mingle the warm cavolo nero with the pear and the feta, dress with a simple honey mustard dressing and top with toasted flaked almonds. Serve with a glass of lightly fruity, gently spicy Pinot Noir.

Corkage, 132a Walcot Street, Bath, BA1 5BG. Tel: 01225 422577; web: corkagebath.com. Booking is highly recommended and opening hours change regularly. Visit the website for up to date information. Follow @corkagebath on Twitter.

Images by Mike McNally