Mark Kempson


Mark Kempson

After a decade at the helm of Michelin-starred London restaurant Kitchen W8, Mark Kempson continues to encapsulate everything great about modern, seasonal British cookery.

For a restaurant to last over a decade in central London, it has to be doing something right. For it to hold onto a Michelin star for ten years, it has to be very special. Kitchen W8 in Kensington is just such a place, quietly producing seasonal, simple, approachable dishes in serene surroundings under the watchful eye of head chef Mark Kempson, who has been at the helm of the kitchen since it was opened by Phil Howard in 2009.

Mark’s first taste of kitchen life was at thirteen, when he got a job collecting glasses at his local restaurant. When a chef called in sick, he was asked to help out with the food side of things and became instantly hooked, going on to do a course at Basingstoke College of Technology once he’d finished school. ‘I had great lecturers who were just as passionate about food as the chefs I’ve met in the industry,’ he says. ‘The standard was really high, and while you learn so much more once you get into a kitchen they gave me a great understanding and grounding. About two years into the course I got a job at Pennyhill Park Hotel, originally on the banqueting side of things, at evenings and weekends. That was my first real insight into high-end cooking.’

Realising quite quickly that he wanted to be the best possible chef he could be, Mark worked incredibly hard to learn everything he could, eventually moving over to the hotel’s main restaurant, The Latymer, staying there for two years after he graduated. After that, he went to The Vineyard at Stockcross in 2004. ‘The setup was completely different – even though it was a hotel, everything was run from one kitchen and there was a team of about twenty chefs, which was really inspiring to be a part of. The style of cooking was a lot more modern, too, using the likes of water baths and agar agar and the odd molecular influence creeping in. There was some serious talent in the kitchen and I was really glad to be a part of it.’

Over the course of three years, Mark moved up the ranks at The Vineyard, from demi-chef to sous chef. After a four-day stage at The Fat Duck – a restaurant he’d had his heart set on – he realised the super-regimented, rarely changing menus weren’t for him, and it wasn’t until he met Phil Howard during a guest chef event at The Vineyard that he knew where he wanted to go next. ‘I really liked his food – it was so seasonal and full of flavour,’ says Mark. ‘I’d never thought about working in London before as the city never really appealed, but when I did a trial at [Phil’s restaurant] The Square and got offered a job, I couldn’t miss the opportunity.’

Mark’s first three months at The Square were tough. ‘I absolutely hated it,’ he says. ‘It was always so busy every single service and I felt like I’d walked into a bit of a madhouse, but then something clicked. I understood how the kitchen worked, the cooking style and what was expected. That’s when I really started to learn and enjoy myself. When I joined the team my CV was good – I could certainly cook – but for me The Square was like a finishing school, teaching you how to get the most out of every single ingredient.’

After three years at The Square, working his way up through the ranks once again, Mark felt he couldn’t progress anymore and had a chat with Phil. Rather than seeing him go, Phil offered him the head chef role at another restaurant he was launching: Kitchen W8 in Kensington. It opened in 2009, and Mark has been there ever since (winning a Michelin star in his own right in 2011) – a seriously long stint in the world of hospitality.

‘I’ve stayed here because I was given the opportunity to treat the restaurant like my own,’ explains Mark. ‘There’s no need to go anywhere else – I really like the team, the food and the customers. Holding the Michelin star for so long is a testament to what we do here, so I’ve got no desire to change anything. That time might come in the future, perhaps when I want to change my lifestyle, but at the moment I’m really happy.’

Retaining a Michelin star for so long means you can’t rest on your laurels – and while the core focus of what Mark does has remained the same since opening, the food has evolved massively since that first service. ‘I think as you get older as a chef, your approach to cooking changes – it’s all about the ingredients you’re using. I think diners expect different things now too; it’s all about the whole package, not just the food on the plate. We have so many regulars which is a good sign that we’re doing the right thing – people come back again and again.’

There are always certain assumptions when it comes to Michelin-starred establishments, but Kitchen W8 has always retained its neighbourhood restaurant feel (albeit a neighbourhood restaurant in Kensington). The food has always been approachable, relaxed and simple on the plate, making the most of whatever is in peak season at any moment in time. And that’s how Mark plans to continue – nothing’s broken, so it doesn’t need fixing. ‘We’re a destination restaurant for some people because of the star, and a neighbourhood restaurant for our regulars, so it’s a nice formula. I see no reason why we’d need to change anything.’