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North West know-how: Craig Sherrington of Virginia House

Ones to watch: Craig Sherrington

by Great British Chefs 16 April 2018

Cumbria certainly isn’t short of fantastic restaurants, and chef Craig Sherrington’s Virginia House is set to become the latest addition to the list. We caught up with him to learn about his career to date and what sets his cooking apart from the others.

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With a restaurant like L’Enclume on its books, Cumbria could contain no other restaurants at all and still be a world-class culinary destination. But the county is home to a plethora of other fantastic restaurants – Gilpin Lodge, The Samling, The Punch Bowl Inn and Forest Side to name a few. The list keeps growing, too, and it looks like Virginia House in Ulverston, headed up by chef Craig Sherrington and his wife Louise, is quickly becoming an attraction in its own right. And that’s thanks to Craig’s classical training, his love for the North West and a passion for local produce – which he’s held since childhood.

‘I used to cook with my mum in the kitchen when I was young, pulling out a recipe book on dark winter nights to work through,’ says Craig. ‘High school never did anything for me – I even got an F in my Home Economics GCSE – but when I went to Lancaster and Morecambe College I found my calling. I had a lecturer called Robert Marshall Slater who really instilled the passion for cooking in me and helped me find some placements, including a week at Le Champignon Sauvage under David Everitt-Matthias. When I stepped out into the big wide world I moved down to the Cotswolds and took a job at the Lygon Arms in Broadway, before going onto Lords of the Manor at Upper Slaughter and eventually back to Le Champignon Sauvage in 1996.’

After eighteen months at the two-starred Le Champignon Sauvage, Craig had risen to the rank of sous chef. However, he decided it was time to get some experience in London to see how the food scene was evolving there. He joined Eric Chavot’s team at The Capital Hotel, helping to gain the restaurant its second Michelin star. ‘I started as chef de partie and eventually became a junior sous, which was a fantastic experience. My heart was still in the north of England, though, so I moved back up there to the Lakeside Hotel at Newby Bridge, where I was senior sous and helped take the restaurant to 2 AA rosettes.’

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It was at this point that Craig decided it was time he spread his wings and take on his first head chef role. He landed the job at Storrs Hall in Bowness, where he spent two years, before realising he wanted to get more experience in managing a restaurant instead of just the kitchen, which saw him move to the Duke of Edinburgh Hotel in Barrow. ‘It was a great insight into running a business and set me up well for the future, but I missed the kitchen too much and felt the food wasn’t up to scratch so I became head chef.’

Craig and his wife Louise had always wanted to run their own business, and soon enough an opportunity came up to take over The General Burgoyne in Ulverston. They jumped at the chance, and finally had a restaurant to call their own. ‘Louise was a biomedical scientist at the time and had no experience in hospitality but it didn’t stop us,’ he says. ‘We took over the tenancy from a brewery as it was less of a risk, and we won multiple awards from Cumbria Life and Lancashire Life as well as getting a mention in lots of the big national guides. From the beginning we had always said if we could keep it going successfully for four years then we would move on to something that was truly our own.’

After four years The General Burgoyne was still going strong, so Craig and Louise decided to go the whole hog and buy their own restaurant outright. That place was Virginia House, which opened in 2015. When Craig and Louise took it over it was a bed and breakfast without a restaurant or bar, so they had their work cut out for them. ‘We put every penny we had into buying the place and did as much of the refurbishment as we could ourselves,’ says Craig. ‘It was a real hands-on effort to get the doors open, but it was worth it – doing everything yourself rather than paying other people to do it means you get to know how everything works. Now when something goes wrong I know how to fix it.’

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Two and a half years after opening, Virginia House is now a well-established restaurant with rooms (plus a gin parlour) in the North West. It has 2 AA rosettes, an entry in the Good Food Guide, and Craig is aiming for a star in the future. ‘Our food has really evolved from when we first opened,’ he says. ‘I've learnt that by focusing on what is true to my heart we can produce dishes that blow people away. People have really embraced that and we’ve started to get compared to legendary places like L’Enclume and Gilpin Lodge, which just blows me away.’

It’s clear Craig is a very hands-on chef – he’s in the dining room every night bringing some of the dishes out himself, saucing a main course or explaining where the produce has come from, and his main aim is to ensure his customers are happy when they leave. His cooking style is rooted in the classics but with quirky modern twists – for example, his soufflé with jam and custard is in fact a Westmorland Cheese soufflé with a Parmesan crust and tomato jam. ‘I like it when the menu doesn’t give everything away,’ he explains. ‘I want my imagination to be showcased on the plate and include things that people wouldn’t necessarily expect.’

Working under chefs such as David Everitt-Matthias has certainly influenced Craig’s approach to cooking, especially when it comes to things like foraging. ‘When I was at Le Champignon Sauvage it was a tiny kitchen with just a few of us working, which made it feel like one-on-one training. We’d go out foraging – before it was trendy – on our days off in the Forest of Dean, and I still like doing that today. We’ll go out with the children and find things like wild garlic and sweet cicely, then put it on the menu for that week. Because we serve a tasting menu we can change dishes from week to week, which allows us to be super seasonal and use whatever we’ve got at its best.’

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Being based in Cumbria means the ingredients Craig uses are often some of the best in the UK, particularly the meat and fish. While a lot of it gets sent down to London, Craig has a great network of suppliers that give his access to the finest the county has to offer. ‘I’m a firm believer in provenance and Cumbria is so good for produce. I work with a local fishmonger who gets everything from a day boat – things like lobster, turbot, sea bass and mackerel – and my lamb comes from a lady in the Lake District. I think it’s important to support the little guys who are trying their hardest to get the best products they can onto the market.’

Virginia House has been going for several years already, but it looks like 2018 is when it will finally come into its own. With dishes like smoked duck with rhubarb, kale and hazelnuts, or scorched mackerel with peanut and grapefruit, Craig has combined his classical training with the best of Cumbrian produce and a flair for contemporary cooking. It looks like the county has yet another fantastic restaurant to add to its roster.

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