Jan Ostle

Jan Ostle

Jan Ostle

After spending the early part of his career darting around from one Michelin-starred kitchen to another, Jan Ostle settled down in Bristol with his wife Mary, where the couple have since made a name for themselves at their hyper-seasonal farm-to-table restaurant Wilsons.

Whether he knew it or not, the seeds were being for sewn for Jan Ostle’s route into the world of sustainable cookery from an early age. Growing up in Oxford, his parents would often take him to their allotment as a child and it was there he first discovered his fascination with food. ‘We spent every spare minute there growing vegetables, picking fruit and cooking outside,’ Jan explains, ‘It was always a happy place for me, and I think it meant that as I grew up, I often associated good times with food.’

Although from of a family of academics, Jan admits that he never quite found his place at school but when he started working as a pot wash as a teenager, he soon discovered that the professional kitchen was somewhere he felt more comfortable. ‘I was working in this small fish restaurant on Walton Street and the manager said that I wouldn’t last washing dishes,’ he smiles, ‘so I began running dishes to and from the kitchen and chatting to all the chefs. I realised that I had a lot more in common with the chefs than everyone else.’ Before long, Jan was helping out in the kitchen and, whilst studying for his A-levels, took up a part-time position as a commis chef at Clinton Pugh’s restaurant The Lemon Tree.

When it came to the point where he needed to decide what to do after school, Jan took the plunge and moved to London. Having written letters to many of the top chefs in the industry, he soon ended up working as a commis chef at Restaurant Gordon Ramsay. ‘When you work somewhere like that early on in your career, you learn through osmosis,’ Jan says. ‘Looking back on it though, I probably didn’t make the best use of my time there as I wasn’t a good team player at that point in time. I just don’t think I really knew what I was doing. In hindsight, I wonder whether some kind of foundation in cookery would’ve been useful.’ From there, he went to work at The Square working under Phil Howard, who had a lasting impression on Jan. ‘The Square was where it really opened up for me. Phil was such a great teacher and also an inspirational figure in terms of the way he manages a kitchen. In him, there was someone who I felt I could relate to but also aspired to be like.’

Stints at some of the most prestigious restaurants in the country, including The Hand and Flowers, Midsummer House and L’Enclume, followed but although Jan was unquestionably growing in skill, struggles in his personal life were hampering his progression. ‘I was a fucking liability around that time, truth be told,’ he exclaims. ‘I was drinking way too much and taking a lot of drugs and it was becoming really problematic. I struggled with it for a long time and it meant that I couldn’t hold a job down. I was definitely talented and was good at getting into places by impressing people, but my life was chaos, so I couldn’t keep it up day to day.’

The catalyst for change proved be meeting his now-wife and business partner Mary Wilson, while working at The Shed in Notting Hill. Jan and Mary (who had background in biodynamic agriculture) quickly bonded over their shared thoughts on what was right and wrong with the food and restaurant industry at the time and within a few months had decided to up sticks and move to Spain. There they spent time working on a farm until they found out that they were having a baby and returned to the UK to live in Bristol. And it was at that point that the couple started to dream up plans for their own restaurant Wilsons, a farm-to-table restaurant named after Mary’s family’s former London restaurant.

‘I didn’t go into it thinking ‘I want to have a farm-to-table restaurant’, it was Mary who drove that side of things. She was determined that we had to be grounded in something that was sustainable, and the most sustainable way of being part of the food system is growing it yourself. We took six months to build the restaurant and while we did that Mary took over a couple of local allotments. She’d work the land with the baby strapped to her back - it was amazing. And the business has grown slowly and organically since then, a bit like our vegetables,’ Jan laughs.

Wilsons opened in 2016 and quickly developed a loyal following, with Bristolians wowed by the ultra-seasonal menu. By 2018, Jan and Mary were looking to grow the business further and become even more self sufficient, so took on a larger plot of land twenty minutes away from the restaurant in Barrow Gurney, which they turned into a market garden. ‘It allows us to serve stuff that no-one else can,’ explains Jan, ‘but it’s the freshness that’s so special. The simple fact is that when you pick a vegetable from the land, the sugars immediately start turning to starch. At Wilsons we’ll take a delivery of vegetables from the farm each morning and they’ll be on the menu by the afternoon. There are very few places out there doing that, particularly in an urban environment, and that’s what makes Wilsons unique. It does mean that we need to plan a year ahead in terms of what we’re planting, based on what has worked for us in the past and what hasn’t, but that’s just part of running a farm-to-table restaurant.’

This commitment to sustainability hasn’t gone unrecognised. Wilsons won a Michelin green star in the 2022 guide, cementing Jan and Mary’s place as some of the most progressive restaurant owners in the South West. It isn’t the accolades that drive Jan these days though. ‘The green star was obviously nice as I’d always aspired to that kind of stuff,’ he reflects, ‘but my genuine ambition with Wilsons is to be happy. This restaurant saved my life and I’m now enjoying being in the kitchen more than ever before.’