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Q & A with Barney Cunliffe and Hrishikesh Desai, Winner of Alex Polizzi’s Chefs On Trial

21 May 2015
Chef Profiles

Set in 20 private acres of country garden, moor and woodland, Gilpin Hotel and Lake House sits in the heart of the English Lakes National Park. Barney Cunliffe and Hrishikesh Desai recently appeared together in Alex Polizzi’s BBC2 programme Chefs on Trial as she helped the Cunliffe family search for an executive chef. Hrishikesh was selected from some very strong competition and is now settled at the Gilpin helm. We spoke to managing director Barney Cunliffe and newly appointed executive chef Hrishikesh Desai about Alex Polizzi, fine dining and the future of Gilpin Hotel and Lake House.

So Barney, how did your collaboration with Alex Polizzi first come about? We came across the Chefs on Trial programme via social media, we applied via Twitter and were shortly after asked to take part in some test filming. I think we were whittled down from 50 applicants - in fact the whole process happened very quickly. We started in September and in early October the decision was made! I think we were chosen because we had been searching for the right executive chef for a long time without success. I believe that executive chefs working at a particular level want absolute autonomy within the kitchen and restaurant. We were seeking a chef who would be able to work alongside us harmoniously. The right chef had to share our family ethos as investing in and nurturing our staff is an important part of Gilpin.

Is Alex as formidable and meticulous as she comes across on screen? Alex is very straight forward and direct however I wouldn’t say she was formidable! She guided us through the process of taking part in a TV series really well rather than the procedure of searching for an executive chef. TwoFour, the production company behind Chefs on Trial, were very professional before during and after the whole process, they really were magnificent. We felt as though we had complete control with regard to the decision making process throughout. Alex is very good at playing the devil’s advocate. She did however have a soft spot for Hrishikesh. He was in fact her outright favourite. That maybe didn’t come across throughout the course of the programme. The editing really does change the way in which people and outcomes are presented.

At Sugarvine we understand the dynamics of a family business. Do you always agree and get on as well as you seemed to on the show? No of course not,we argue all the time! The key to a harmonious family business is about trying to find a solution to a problem by allowing everybody to have a voice. For example my Mother and I are energetic with our ideas so are more inclined to clash. For example she takes charge of the Gilpin’s interiors. We may all have our opinions on a pair of curtains however since this is her specialist territory she has the final word. After some healthy debate, I might add.

How does it feel to have finally found a chef that encompasses everything you have been searching for? We had been searching for such a long time to find the right executive chef. Now we have found Hrishikesh we can move on with plans that had been put on the back burner for a while. We feel we can move forward knowing that there is trust between Hrishikesh and ourselves. There are six new suites opening this year with a totally new concept. We are all very excited about this. We see Gilpin Hotel as a market leader with further plans to develop the stable area.

Hrishikesh: Gilpin has held three AA Rosettes for 18 years and previously held a Michelin Star. How do you plan to propel the restaurant to Michelin status again? When I worked under Thomas Keller at The French Laundry, he said to me never look back - keep moving forward and I have carried this sentiment with me. Thomas Keller didn’t get to where he is with just the flick of a switch, he worked hard. This statement is what drives me. The concept of evolution is important, to keep moving. I believe in micro management and close attention to detail. I am in the process of teaching all of my staff how each dish should be made from scratch. Why it is important that every component of a dish is present. I am teaching each section individually so that everybody in my kitchen has the skills to perform each task to the best of their ability.

You are almost starting out in your position as a newly minted celebrity chef. Does that place extra pressure on you to perform and achieve accolades and awards? Yes, but this is what motivates me. Thomas Keller had a big impact upon me, he effectively taught me how to run a kitchen. People always have to come first, our existing and potential customers are important to us so achieving the right balance and for me this is paramount. Like I said before the evolution of a restaurant is important, the pressure to perform leads the way to creating a signature dish.

The restaurant is well known for serving some of the finest Lakeland produce and West Coast seafood. How important is provenance to you and what are you excited about in the Northwest? Provenance is everything. For example rather than buying in Parma ham we are using locally sourced Cumbrian ham. I am always working on ways to utilize home-grown produce and incorporate it into our menu so as to support the local economy and businesses within our supply chain.

Will the menus be completely reworked now? Yes we are totally reworking the menus.

Are we talking Heston-style dry Ice, Nomu-inspired foraged wild flowers or a more traditional approach to fine dining? I was a little nervous that Barney may ask me to cook molecular gastronomy-style dishes! Luckily he shares my approach to fine dining. I am working on introducing new flavours at present. Hywel Jones, the Executive Chef at Lucknam Park has held a Michelin star there since 2006, he has greatly influenced my cooking.

Barney: Where do you see the Gilpin Hotel and Lake House in five years from now? It will evolve continually, it is clear that Hrishikesh is forward thinking and the hotel will mirror this. We are independently owned so we want to be the best we can be, there are many plans in the pipeline. Fortunately we don’t have to answer to shareholders so we can move in many directions. We will realise Gilpin’s full potential as the finest restaurant and hotel in the Lake District.

And finally, how are you settling in Hrishikesh? I feel very at home in the countryside as I am a country boy at heart and my wife and I are currently looking for a permanent home here in Cumbria. Barney and the rest of the family have encouraged me to adopt a healthy work-life balance since chefs sometimes struggle to spend quality time with their families in such a demanding role. Taking the time to nurture and train my kitchen staff to operate to highest of standards without my presence are positive steps towards achieving that.

Chosen for his experience Hrishikesh’s CV clearly demonstrates his abilities and professionalism.

Working at Lucknam Park for seven years under Michelin-starred Executive Chef Hywel Jones and The French Laundry in California under Thomas Keller. Desai’s full Michelin credentials include; Institute Paul Bocuse, Les Maison de Bricourt (2*), Le Chateau do Bagnol (1*), French Laundry (3*), and Lucknam ‘The Park’ (1*).

He is also one of the few chefs to have won both the Roux Scholarship (2009) and the Craft Guild of Chef’s National Chef of the Year (2010) and is unique in that he won these in consecutive years.