Wined and Dined: Chris Bailey at the Rathfinny Estate

by Great British Chefs 22 August 2022

The Rathfinny Estate may be predominantly known for its famous sparkling wine but since 2018, chef Chris Bailey has ensured that the food at the estate’s Tasting Room restaurant has been getting plenty of attention of its own. We chat to Chris about how he ended up at Rathfinny, his cookery style, and what to expect from the food at The Tasting Room.

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When visiting a vineyard, the wine is, of course, naturally going to be the focus of your trip but there’s no reason why amazing food can’t also play an important part in your day. Stretching over six-hundred acres in Sussex’s beautiful South Downs, the Rathfinny estate is renowned for producing some of the finest English sparkling wine in existence but it also now has a reputation for serving exquisite food on-site to enjoy alongside the wine.

This is largely down to estate head chef Chris Bailey and his talented team. Their carefully thought-out menu at The Tasting Room restaurant draws on Chris’ many years of experience and has also been created to pair perfectly with Rathfinny’s sparkling wines. Chris joined Rathfinny back in 2018, having previously done a pop-up at the estate, and has since gone on to earn The Tasting Room a place in the Michelin Guide. On top of this, as estate head chef, he oversees everything from on-site picnics to the pop-up Flint Barns Harvest restaurant. But Rathfinny is just his most recent chapter in a career that’s taken Chris all over the world as a chef.

Despite having always loved cookery whilst growing up, Chris initially flirted with the idea of becoming an artist as a teenager but soon decided to follow the route of a career in the kitchen, and went off to train at Westminster Kingsway College. Coming out of college buoyed by the experience, he walked straight into a job at Brown’s Hotel where he worked under Andrew Turner; however, it was his next position at London institution Chez Bruce, which ended up having a big influence on Chris’s style.

‘I think Chez Bruce was the place where I realised that for a restaurant to last, you have to cook food that just tastes really great,’ he explains, ‘It sounds obvious to say, but they cook food there that people just really want to eat and that’s what I now try and do as the basis of everything; I never want my dishes to be faddy or anything.’

Up to this point in Chris’s career, the food that he had been cooking was largely rooted in classical French technique, so to both challenge himself and expand his repertoire, he eventually took the decision to leave Chez Bruce and move to Spain, ‘it was around the point when molecular gastronomy was everywhere and El Bulli was at its height,’ says Chris, who initially moved to the Spanish countryside before settling in Madrid, ‘I had the chance to stage at loads of different restaurants and learnt so many different things. It was particularly great having the chance to work at Zaranda at the same time it got its star.’

After three years in Madrid, Chris returned to the UK to become the head chef of a brand-new restaurant in Winchester, called The Black Rat. There, he served a modern British menu using lots of foraged and home-grown ingredients, which also had an emphasis on nose-to-tail cookery, and in 2011 Chris was awarded a Michelin star for his inventive food, ‘it was obviously a big career highlight but also a total surprise,’ he laughs, ‘I actually got told by a shellfish supplier because I hadn’t checked!’ After a year and a half, Chris took the decision to leave The Black Rat and moved to Brighton hoping to open a restaurant of his own; however, he in fact ended up becoming a private chef, cooking both in people’s homes in the UK and also on boats around Europe.

By 2017, Chris was starting to miss working in restaurant kitchens and it was at that point the opportunity came around to start working with Rathfinny, ‘I’d done a pop-up at the estate where I cooked a tasting menu for about thirty people,’ he explains, ‘it was just such a stunning location, so I told them to let me know if they ever did fancy opening a restaurant and after a bit they got in touch.’ The Tasting Room opened its doors in 2018 with Chris as head chef and within just a year had been awarded a Michelin plate, proving just how talented a chef he really is.

Located in the winery where Rathfinny’s award-winning wines are produced, overlooking the rolling vineyards, there’s a very distinct connection between The Tasting Room and everything that goes on around it at the estate. This extends to food menu, which not only features dishes that pair perfectly with the wines but occasionally even sees Chris using them in the dishes, ‘there are always bits left over from tastings,’ he says, ‘so we try and use those as much as possible, as reducing waste is something we’re very serious about. I’ll often put them through the bases of sauces and in breads, but I’ve also done things like a rosé jelly too.’ This ethos extends beyond the wines though; Chris has even been known to cook over the old vines once they’ve been taken down, as well as broken barrels.

Chris’s main mission at The Tasting Room however, is to serve food that matches up to the quality of the wine produced on site, which he does by making use of the bounty of amazing local produce and allowing himself to be guided by the seasons, ‘the fact that you can see the vines right of the windows and see them change means that sense of seasonality is unescapable,’ he explains, ‘the menu really plays into that, in the sense that we’ll often use wild ingredients that we can find on site depending on the time of year, like elderflowers. There are also loads of beautiful natural spaces nearby, where we often forage.’

Rathfinny have made a name for themselves for their Sussex sparkling wines but with Chris at the helm of The Tasting Room, they’re also fast becoming known for their food. He insists that happy customers are his main priority over and above awards, but with the wealth of experience he has, it would be no surprise to see Chris’s cookery earn further recognition in the coming years and The Tasting Room becoming a destination in itself.