Melissa Blease goes behind the menu to talk to Hywel Jones executive chef at the eponymous Michelin starred restaurant at Lucknam Park
There’s something about Lucknam Park that brings out the Downton Abbey yearning in all of us. This beautiful country mansion lies six miles east of Bath – seven if you include the dramatic tree-lined drive that leads visitors off the main road and up to the house itself.
The house has a fascinating history and is today a five-star, award-winning independent country hotel, part of the exclusive Relais and Châteaux portfolio. The grounds contain acres of picturesque parkland, manicured lawns, a riding centre, a spa, two restaurants and a cookery school. Inside the hotel there are wood-panelled drawing rooms and bars and elegant bedroom suites, which all combine to create a supremely luxurious experience. But in the kitchens of the hotel’s glamorous main restaurant and the informal Brasserie, executive chef Hywel Jones’s talent is what really captures the imagination of foodies, earning multiple awards and accolades including a bright, shiny Michelin Star.
While Benjamin Taylor oversees the cookery school and restaurant manager Chris Kidd choreographs the overall dining experience, the kitchens behind Lucknam’s two restaurants are Hywel’s exclusive playground – and a recent name change of the main restaurant pays respectful homage to the man himself: welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to a trip behind the menu at Hywel Jones by Lucknam Park.
Hywel began his career with David Nichols at The Royal Garden before moving on to work as chef de partie in two triple-starred Michelin establishments, Chez Nico at 90 and Marco Pierre White. Prior to his residency at Lucknam Park (which began in 2004), he was executive chef at Pharmacy Restaurant in Notting Hill. Quite a CV.
He says: “After being at Lucknam Park for 13 years, it’s a great honour to have the restaurant in my name. I’ve become very attached to Lucknam and for the owners to recognise me in this way is something I’m very proud of.” Understandably so. And it’s not only the restaurant’s name that’s changed during the recent reshuffle; the main dining room has recently unveiled a complete refurbishment, from menus (choose from three separate tasting menus alongside the a la carte offering) to new crockery and glassware. But what is Hywel’s overall personal vision for his new territory?
“Along with Chris Kidd, our aim is to offer our guests the very best food, wine and service in a professional but relaxed environment. We have a captive audience of hotel residents as well as a fantastic following of guests who live both locally and further afield, and we aspire to appeal to all of them.”
And what’s the best part of his job? “Working in such beautiful surroundings is obviously a massive bonus, but for me, the most enjoyable part of what I do is to work alongside the fantastic teams that I’ve built, and seeing them develop. Elly Wentworth, who recently did so well in MasterChef The Professionals, is a little superstar – an extremely talented yet humble chef. We’re also fortunate to have head chef Dean Westcar with us – he was a semi-finalist in the series prior to the one Elly was in. We’re all very proud of their achievements.
“But I’ve been fortunate to have had some amazing chefs come through our kitchens – Hrishikesh Desai is now at Gilpin Lodge, Richard Edwards was formerly at the Lords of the Manor, and Mark Stinchcombe at Eckington Manor and Robert Potter at The Manor House have all gone on to gain recognition and Michelin stars of their own”.
Ah, the subject of stars has arisen. Is it stressful to maintain star-spangled status and how important are stars and accolades to Hywel? “As a young chef, my ambition was always to achieve a Michelin star,” he says. “Having won a star once in London and then another at Lucknam Park is something I’m extremely proud of. It’s a very personal thing to a chef, but it’s also extremely valuable to the hotel from a guest perspective. There’s always pressure related to maintaining standards, but not necessarily stress – I tend to reserve feeling stressed these days for when I watch my kids play rugby. That’s not to say that my role is without its challenges, though; we constantly work hard to ensure we remain consistent with the experience we offer, and the standards and targets we set ourselves are demanding, which is why having such a talented team is so important.”
As the summer season dawns, I was keen to discover if there might be a dish that Hywel cite as representing his particular style of cooking. “We have a beautiful turbot dish on the menu. We braise the fish, and serve it with hand-rolled macaroni, buttered lettuce, flaked white crab and a butter sauce infused with Wiltshire truffle – this dish is attracting rave reviews and even I think it’s the best dish I’ve ever produced,” he says.
But in every dish, every day, Hywel uses locally sourced ingredients including micro-salads, vegetables and herbs from Lucknam’s kitchen garden and produce from local suppliers. “Right now, late spring vegetables are a joy to work with,” he says. “Local asparagus, peas and morel mushrooms can turn creating dishes into an absolute joy. Other than what’s in season, I pay no attention to the overall notion of fashionable food, though. The quality and combination of ingredients, plus the execution when cooking them is what matters the most.”
When Hywel takes a break from the kitchen, he uses his time to mingle with his contemporaries, citing recently appointed Bath Priory head chef Michael Nizzero as one to watch: “Michael has a great pedigree – I ate a fabulous lunch at the Priory recently,” he says. It’s true that there are other super-talented chefs doing wonderful things in the kitchens of some rather splendid hotels in and around Bath. But there’s something very special about Lucknam Park.
On the hotel’s website it says this is the place to sample the ultimate “do nothing, try something, indulge in everything” experience – and Hywel Jones by Lucknam Park is at the very heart of that tantalising objective. If you don’t set the SavNav for Colerne this season, you’re just not giving your downtime the Downton pzazz it deserves.
Lucknam Park Hotel and Spa, Colerne, Wiltshire SN14 8AZ. Tel: 01225 742777; web: lucknampark.co.uk.