> Chefs

Chris Harrod

But then, a silver lining came seemingly out of nowhere – a friend got in touch about an old roadside inn that was for sale deep in the heart of the Wye Valley. The Crown at Whitebrook, as it was then called, had a pedigree as a dining destination – it held a Michelin star between 2007 and 2013 whilst James Sommerin was in the kitchen – but had recently gone into administration and closed. ‘I came and had a look and my first thought was, 'not in a million years!'' laughs Chris. ‘But everything was here already – the big attraction was that we could just come in and open it almost straight away. In the end, that’s what we did.’

Chris and his wife Kirsty stepped in at the end of 2013 and begun the process of rebuilding The Whitebrook in their own image. Chris spent the first few months punting out a modern French menu that drew on his previous experience at Colette’s and Danesfield House, but quickly realised it wasn’t working. ‘We were cooking trendy food and chasing stars,’ says Chris. ‘It wasn’t clicking. That’s when I knew we had to do something different. We’re in the middle of nowhere – why are people going to come to us to eat the same food they can have anywhere else?’

That was more or less the moment when Henry, a local forager, walked in the backdoor of The Whitebrook with a crate full of foraged herbs. ‘I thought foraging was a bit of a fad in the beginning,’ Chris admits, ‘but I started tasting the individual varieties, and realised they weren’t only delicious, they were the perfect way to give my food a sense of place.’

Chris has evolved since then into one of the UK’s most knowledgeable chefs when it comes to wild ingredients. Every dish at The Whitebrook makes use of the wild herbs and leaves of the Wye Valley, from the hedgerows to the estuaries. ‘For us, the asparagus dish encapsulates the whole ethos the restaurant,’ says Chris. ‘The asparagus comes from the Wye Valley. Then you’ve got the pine and hedgerow herbs that come from outside the restaurant. The mead comes from Tintern, which is a few miles up the road. The whole dish comes from within a six mile radius of the restaurant – it’s the Wye Valley on a plate.’

Less than a year after opening, Chris won a Michelin star for his cooking at The Whitebrook, immediately putting him on the map as one of the country’s most exciting chefs. Great British Menu came calling soon afterwards, but because Chris has such a small team – just three in the kitchen – it was a couple of years before he found time to appear on the show. ‘Great British Menu really helped us get across to people how different our food is,’ says Chris. ‘I think the food really stood out over the course of the show.

‘I was a little surprised at how people took to me on TV,’ he continues, a little sheepishly. ‘I thought it was going to be terrible, but people seemed to connect with me because my character is a little bit different.’

So often for chefs, it’s a Michelin star that represents the culmination of their journey. For Chris, it wasn’t so much the star as the subsequent appearance on TV – it brought him full circle, to a place where he could inspire a new generation of young chefs the same way Raymond Blanc had inspired him many years before. His TV appearance has also had a bonus effect on his business too – ‘it’s quadrupled the amount of business we do!’ he grins. ‘We get visitors from all over the world now. One guy arrived in a huge supercar last year – he could barely get it into the car park!’

With an extension in the works for the restaurant and a young daughter tearing around the Welsh countryside, Chris has plenty to keep him occupied these days. There’s no big goal or destination anymore; everything happens organically, much like it does in the valley around him. ‘We don’t follow a fashion,’ he concludes. ‘We’re going even more with what’s around us and what we can grow. Maybe in the past we were tempted to force things a bit more – now we just go with the flow.’

Three things you should know

If you’re around Whitebrook, you’ll often see Chris wandering up and down the hedgerows foraging for wild herbs, leaves and flowers.

Chris is a great lover of music, and would have been a musician if he hadn’t been a chef.

Chris still serves many of his Great British Menu dishes at The Whitebrook, including his ‘Everything but the Squeal’ suckling pig dish and his banquet-winning ‘Tea & Cake’ dessert.