Harriet Mansell

Harriet Mansell

Harriet Mansell

Following years spent working on yachts as a private chef, Harriet Mansell returned to South West England, where she grew up, to open her debut restaurant Robin Wylde. Both there and at her second restaurant Lilac, she imaginatively showcases her love of wild food, which has developed over the course of her career.

Chefs whose cookery revolves around wild foods are arguably some of the most instinctive. Following the seasons may seem like a given these days in professional kitchens, but having an awareness of what’s growing around you at any given time and, even more importantly, knowing how to use those things, is a true skill. Throughout her career, Harriet Mansell has developed an obsession for using wild ingredients as much as possible in her cookery, and this is now her focus at her Lyme Regis restaurant Robin Wylde and its sister restaurant and wine bar Lilac, where her intriguing, ever-changing menus are shaped by what she can find in the surrounding Dorset countryside.

Harriet’s love of wild ingredients isn’t a recent discovery though; it’s a passion that has been nurtured right the way through her life, even while growing up in Devon. ‘I had somewhat of an alternative education, so there was always quite a lot of time spent running around in the fields at school’, she recalls, ‘it meant that we’d forage quite a lot and although I didn’t realise it at the time, it just gave us all a bigger awareness of what was growing around us.’ Whilst this didn’t immediately trigger a desire to become a chef, by the age of just thirteen Harriet had her mind set on having a restaurant of her own one day and she began working in kitchens throughout her teens.

It wasn’t until she graduated from university and spent a summer working on a yacht, however, that Harriet realised she had a flare for cookery and started to consider a career as a chef, ‘I was basically cooking on board for the owner of the boat,’ she explains, ‘and that also meant I was buying in all the ingredients too, from various markets in Croatia and places like that. I was untrained at the time but I developed such an interest in flavours and was fascinated in trying new things. It was a bit of an epiphany for me; I knew I wanted to have this restaurant one day but only then did I realise that I wanted be the chef too.’ Harriet returned to the UK and, after a brief stint working with Mark Hix at his Selfridges restaurant and Champagne bar, took the plunge and went to culinary school in Woking.

Her first big break in the industry came after leaving culinary school when, having persistently applied, she was offered a stage at the illustrious Noma (at the time, the second-best restaurant in the world) in Copenhagen. Having always had an interest in wild foods, it was eye-opening for Harriet to work under a chef as forward-thinking as René Redzepi and it made her realise the endless possibilities when it comes to working with certain ingredients.

‘It was such a game-changing experience for me,’ says Harriet, ‘I’d wanted to go there because of wild foods and the cool ways they were using them, but when I got there, I learnt that with things like fermentation, so much of it is about time and process. I spent my first month cleaning ingredients I’d never heard of before and then we did two weeks of solid foraging, and you weren’t just foraging for fun – you had to get your quota! It ended up being the foundation of my training because I was just absorbing like a sponge.’

On returning to the UK, Harriet spent time at both Dinner by Heston and Hedone in Chiswick but soon found herself getting restless, ‘at that point I think I just wanted to be constantly travelling around,’ laughs Harriet. ‘I started to feel a bit stagnant staying in kitchens where there wasn’t much change happening. That’s why my food now is so reactive to the seasons, as it allows me to constantly change the menu.’ This restlessness eventually led to Harriet leaving London and spending a year cooking on a super yacht, before she joined The Wild Beer Co. as head chef. It was there she first really began to hone in on the style of food she’d ultimately want to serve at a restaurant of her own, cooking a hyper-seasonal beer pairing menu centered around wild foods (‘looking back at those menus, they’re quite similar to what I’m now doing at Robin Wylde’).

It took another few years for Harriet to get to the point where she felt ready to think about opening a restaurant of her own, but after spending more time working on yachts (cooking for high-profile clients including the Murdoch family), she eventually decided to settle down in Lyme Regis, near where she grew up. In 2019, the opportunity arose for her to temporarily take over the seaside town’s Pop-up Kitchen and within a matter of months the concept for Robin Wylde was born, ‘I just felt like there was a gap in the market around here for a tasting menu,’ explains Harriet, ‘and at the same time, I also realised that I was in one of the best places for foraging and finding seasonal ingredients. The quality of produce that farms produce around Lyme Regis is also insane.’

Harriet’s pop-up proved a huge success and led to her appearing on BBC’s Great British Menu the following spring. By the middle of 2020, she’d found a permanent space in Lyme Regis for her restaurant, and in October of that year Robin Wylde opened its doors, serving a set menu which captures Harriet’s passion for wild foods and seasonal cooking. ‘It’s not that wild foods are essential to my cookery,’ she says, ‘it’s more that it just seems logical to follow the flavours you get as you move through the year. When you look around and see flowers growing everywhere, for me it’s just obvious I need to play around with them whether that’s by making a syrup from flowering quince or a sorbet from lavender.’

This nature-guided approach employed by Harriet at Robin Wylde led to the restaurant being added to the Michelin Guide just a year after opening, and in 2021 Harriet opened Lilac, a sister restaurant and wine bar in Lyme Regis. Lilac shares Robin Wylde's ethos of following the seasons and showcasing Dorset's exceptional produce, but offers small plates rather than a tasting menu and serves them alongside wines chosen carefully by Harriet and her team.

She may have moved around a lot early on in her career, but so many of Harriet’s positions prior to opening Robin Wylde and Lilac, from her time spent at Noma to her work with the Wild Beer Co, were connected by her attraction to wild foods. It comes as no surprise therefore, that her own restaurants so clearly reflect this love of seasonality and locality. It’s Harriet’s immense skill at using these ingredients creatively in the kitchen though, that makes her food truly stand out.