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Foraging and fortitude: Chris Harrod at The Whitebrook

Foraging and fortitude: Chris Harrod at The Whitebrook

by Tom Shingler 19 June 2018

Tom Shingler talks to the Michelin-starred chef-owner of The Whitebrook in Monmouthshire to see how focusing on the foraged flavours of the Wye Valley has turned the remote restaurant with rooms into a dining destination.

Few of us are fortunate enough to grow up and become what we said we wanted to be when we were a child. Saying that, my heart was set on becoming either a pirate or a dog, so sometimes it works out for the best. But when Chris Harrod saw Raymond Blanc on the television when he was seven years old, he made it his mission to work for him. It might have taken longer than he’d have liked (after all, Le Manoir isn’t the sort of place to use child labour) but Chris made it happen, and this determination has stayed with him well into his adult life, helping him turn a remote Welsh restaurant into a Michelin-starred dining destination.

‘I wrote so many letters to Le Manoir and they always said they weren’t taking on apprentices, so I did what everyone told me to which was to go to catering college,’ he explains. ‘But when I got there it didn’t inspire me at all – it was all very traditional with lots of veal jus and things like that. However, I stuck it out and eventually it was time for me to go and get some experience in London. I didn’t want to work at a five-star hotel like everyone was suggesting, so I compromised and went to The Lanesborough because Paul Gayler was there doing vegetarian cuisine, which was something a bit different.’

Chris says The Lanesborough gave him a good grounding, but his commitment to work with Raymond Blanc never left. Eventually, he went for dinner at Le Manoir and asked if he could do a week-long stage. ‘They said yes, and at the end of it they said I could stay on. I spent the next five years there and it was everything I hoped it would be. Everything was so good – the produce, the way I learnt to recognise my own palate, the flavours on the plate – but I didn’t realise how much work it would be! It gave me the foundations for everything I do now though, and I can’t thank the team there enough for that.’

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The Whitebrook is in a quiet part of Monmouthshire in Wales, which means Chris can't rely on passing trade
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Instead, he has created a menu which offers something you can't find anywhere else, turning The Whitebrook into a destination restaurant

Five years at Le Manoir is an education any chef would dream of, but when Chris was asked if he wanted to move up the ranks to junior sous, he declined. ‘I never wanted to work my way up to sous or head chef – I was there to absorb as much information as possible and then move on,’ he says. ‘When I eventually left I headed straight to New York and was offered a job at Daniel Boulud’s restaurant, but as I was waiting for my visa to be approved 9/11 happened and they were all cancelled.’

This setback resulted in Chris helping out Alan Murchison with the opening of L’Ortolan in Reading, a job which he said he’d do for a week or two but ended up lasting for a year and a half. Chris loved picking up books like The Good Food Guide and see them talk about dishes he’d put on the menu, so he decided to move on and find his first head chef job, with the end goal of opening his own restaurant. This led him to Colette’s at The Grove in Hertfordshire, where over four years he learnt the ins and outs of running a kitchen.

Chris eventually decided it was time to find funding for his own place, and left Colette’s to find investment. Little did he know it would take another seven years before his dream was finally realised. After one site in Buckinghamshire burnt down and another fell through, the recession hit and money was nearly impossible to find. Eventually Chris secured some investors, but couldn’t find a suitable site, and after years of trying to make something happen he decided to give in and find a head chef job. But that’s when a friend rang him and told him to check out The Crown at Whitebrook (as it was known then), which had just closed after falling into financial difficulty.

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Asparagus from the Wye Valley can come with three different foraged ingredients and represents the area perfectly
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Every dish on the menu has some sort of foraged item in it, whether it's used for smoking, infusing or to garnish

‘I thought ‘really’? It was in the middle of nowhere,’ he says. ‘But then I started looking into the history of the place. James Sommerin obviously made his name there more recently, but it had been a fine dining restaurant since the 1970s. The more I researched the more I realised there was a nice little food scene around there, and at the time I had nothing to lose so I just went for it. Eleven months later we won a Michelin star.’

From writing letters to Le Manoir as a boy, Chris had achieved his goal of owning his own place. But despite all his time at some fantastic restaurants, it was only when he came to The Whitebrook that he found his groove and honed his cooking style.

‘What’s been great about moving here is how much my cooking has changed and become dictated by our location,’ he explains. ‘At first I was doing the same sort of things as I did at Colette’s – but I soon realised people weren’t going to make the journey out here to eat something they can find in every other town and village in the country. One day a forager knocked on the door and gave me a bag of mixed foraged leaves to try – I took it apart and starting tasting the individual varieties, and realised they weren’t only delicious; they were the perfect way to give my food a sense of place.’

Initially thinking foraging was a bit of a fad, Chris soon discovered a world of new flavours growing in the hedgerows, estuaries and woodland of the Wye Valley. Today, every single dish served at The Whitebrook has some sort of locally foraged ingredient in it, and Chris lets what’s available dictate his cooking. ‘Take our Wye Valley asparagus dish, for example – we roast the spears on a bed of maritime pine needles, then serve it with hogweed, pennywort and hedge bedstraw, bringing everything together with a sauce made with mead made in Tinton five miles away. The whole plate is produced within eight miles of the restaurant, so it’s a real taste of where we are.

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Chris uses a local forager to source herbs from the further reaches of the Wye Valley, but goes out himself before every service to harvest what's needed from the immediate area
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The Whitebrook received a Michelin star in 2014, eleven months after Chris bought it

‘In summer we can have up to thirty different herbs on the menu at one time, whereas winter has less on offer but what we can get has bags of flavour,’ continues Chris. ‘Mugwort is one of my favourites. It’s inedible because it’s so fibrous, which means you need to infuse the flavour into sauces or use it for smoking, but it has this incredible earthy flavour, a little like thyme and sage with a medicinal note.’

Chris is proof that foraging – when done right – can contribute an incredible amount to cooking. But it’s not just about the flavour of the herbs; it’s about creating dishes that are unique to The Whitebrook and the local area, making the long journey to the remote restaurant worth it. Diners love it so much that Chris is adding a few more bedrooms over the coming months, and continues to seek out unusual herbs, strike up relationships with local producers and tend to his small (but growing) kitchen garden. Le Manoir might be the bastion of fine dining that ignited that first spark in Chris, but rather than replicate it in a new location he’s evolved into something quite different. And while many restaurants play on the locality of their produce, Chris takes it to the extreme, with up to ninety percent of his ingredients coming from the Wye Valley at certain times of the year. It might’ve taken seven years to go from being head chef at Colette’s to owning his own place, but the wait was certainly worth it.

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