Kuba Winkowski


Kuba Winkowski

From moving to England at twenty-four to attend catering college to being named National Chef of The Year 2019, Kuba Winkowski has rocketed to the top in record time. His cooking is refined, peppered with Polish influences and – most importantly – delicious.

Most chefs have pretty similar origin stories. They tend to grow up either knowing they want to be a chef from a very young age – perhaps due to a grandmother getting them to help with something in the kitchen – or happen upon it after not getting on with academic teaching at school. They enter a kitchen or join a catering college at sixteen and spend the vast majority of their formative years over a stove, sacrificing a social life for the thrill and heat of the kitchen. That wasn’t how it happened for Kuba Winkowski, however. Growing up in Gdansk, Poland, he was expected to go to university and go into something like engineering or finance. He eventually discovered his true passion – cooking – later than most.

‘I came to England when I was twenty-four, which is when I really started cooking,’ he explains. ‘I’d studied mechanics at university back in Poland for just over a year, but I didn’t get on with it and knew I wouldn’t survive the second year. I decided to go to Sydney to learn English – or at least that was the excuse I told my parents – and got a job at an Italian restaurant. I still remember the smell coming from these massive buckets of pesto they made every day – I’d never experienced anything like that before. My parents would have gone crazy if they’d known they were paying for me to learn English just so I could wash dishes, but that’s when I fell in love with the kitchen.’

When Kuba returned to Poland, his parents were still keen for him to complete a university degree, so he studied financial management (‘I only really did it to make them happy’). The plan was to head back to Australia, but after meeting his wife Magda he decided to go somewhere a little less far away. The UK ticked all the boxes.

‘I had quite a few friends in England already and I knew the language, so it was kind of a no-brainer,’ he says. ‘When I got there my friend told me about Thanet College (now called East Kent College) and how it was a great place to learn how to cook. So I applied and completed a three-year course there. I was amazed at the facilities they had – there was nothing comparable in Poland – and became quite frustrated that the younger people on the course didn’t appreciate what was on offer. I suppose I was older, but I used those years very wisely, working incredibly hard to learn all I could. I worked in places like Buckingham Palace and the British Embassy in Paris, did stages at Le Gavroche and Rhodes 24, and even won a few competitions.’

By the time Kuba left college he was twenty-seven – a good few years ahead of most of his classmates. But his mature outlook meant he was in a much better position than the rest of them, and he set about applying to every two- and three-starred restaurant in the UK in the hopes of becoming the best he could be. Not wanting to dive into the bustle of London, he hoped for a job somewhere quite rural; so when he received a job offer from Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons in Oxfordshire, he couldn’t have asked for anything better.

‘When you go to work at Le Manoir they ask you for two-and-a-half years, which is enough time to work on all the different sections,’ says Kuba. ‘The sheer amount of butchery, prep, mise en place – you don’t see that at many other restaurants. I wanted to be the best chef I could possibly be and Le Manoir was the perfect place to develop my skills. It was like being in the army, and I needed that regime and discipline – I think every chef does.’

Kuba honed his skills at Le Manoir until 2009, when he decided to leave in search of a better work-life balance (his son was eight months old at the time). That brought him to The Feathered Nest Country Inn – not too far from Le Manoir – where he joined as sous chef. A year later he was given the head chef job, and over the next nine years he set about turning the eighteenth century malthouse into one of the finest gastropubs in the country.

Today, Kuba’s cooking can best be described as rooted in French cooking, but with plenty of other influences. He sticks to classic flavour combinations – there aren’t any white chocolate sauces served with fish or anything like that – but the ingenuity comes in his presentation and his dedication to making everything in-house, including the charcuterie. On top of that, Kuba calls upon his native Poland to add little eastern European twists to his dishes.

‘At the end of the day I am Polish as well as British, so when I was thinking about how to make the menu here stand out it made sense to explore Polish cuisine. So many gastropubs end up serving the same sorts of dishes, but there aren’t many places serving modern British food with eastern European elements. Sturgeon, for example, is hugely popular in Poland, but it’s rarely seen in the UK. Sauerkraut is also a fantastic ingredient to cook with. I taught myself about more traditional Polish cooking by going through cookbooks and asking chef friends back in Poland for tips, and it’s been really well received.’

Kuba’s dedication and training at an institution such as Le Manoir turned him into a very talented chef, but cooking in a rural inn in the Cotswolds meant he found it difficult to get people to take notice. He entered the National Chef of The Year 2019 competition to remedy this, and ended up coming in first place. This cemented his reputation for impeccable cooking, and The Feathered Nest soon became one of the region’s top dining destinations.

‘It’s not easy being from Poland and getting into cooking a little later in life – you just don’t have that network of friends in the industry that a lot of people make when they start at sixteen,’ he explains. ‘I wanted to see how my cooking compared to others, so I entered the competition hoping to win. I would’ve been happy if I’d just networked a little bit, so to win it was fantastic.’

Armed with the best classical training you could ask for and a repertoire of eastern European recipes most other chefs don’t dabble with makes Kuba one of the UK’s most exciting chefs. He left The Feathered Nest in August 2019 to focus on his own project called Kubarn, an intimate custom-built shed in his garden perfect for supper clubs (and eventually opening his own restaurant once he finds the right site and location in The Cotswolds). At Kubarn, he cooks small plates using a wood-fired oven and live fire cooking for just five people at a time, using ingredients exclusively from local farmers with plenty of homemade charcuterie, smoked fish, butter, bread, liqueurs and ferments.