Food Stories with Michael Wignall: ‘If you have hard work and dedication from all of your team, accolades will follow’

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Set amongst a backdrop of rolling fields, The Angel looked right at home, nestled on the edge of the picturesque village of Hetton in Yorkshire. After being welcomed into the restaurant for a late lunch, I sat down to enjoy my first experience of Michael Wignall’s culinary talents. The four-course set lunch experimented with many textures and flavours that showcased Michael’s unique style of cooking and the fantastic local produce on offer in the area. After lunch, I met Michael for a coffee and a chat. He spoke excitedly about his future plans for The Angel and shared his thoughts on some of the best changes he’s seen in the catering industry throughout his extensive career as a Michelin starred chef. Here is Michael’s Food Story.

How would you describe yourself in three words?

Obsessive, driven and reserved. 

Where was the first Kitchen that you ever worked in?

I haven’t been asked that for ages! I attended college for three years and I completed all of my exams before moving out to Spain and working in a Kitchen over there for two years. After coming back, I worked at The Highmore in Wrightington and then moved on to work with Paul Heathcoate at Broadpark and then went with him to Longridge for two years. I carried on from there really. 

What made you buy The Angel at Hetton?

A really good friend of mine James Wellock and I have always spoken jokingly about getting a place of our own one day. We met when I was working at The Devonshire Arms and we’ve grown together as a team because as I moved up and down the country, he followed with his business and was supplying me. We heard that The Angel at Hetton might be coming up for sale and it was his local pub. We went and had a look round and we thought that it was great so we made an offer.

And you bought The Angel only last year, how is it going so far?

It’s going well so far. We’ve only given it a lick of paint really at the moment, but we’ve just got some planning permission approved so we are going start changing things around a bit which is really exciting. We are also going to do a high-end restaurant across the road as soon as planning permission is passed so we’ve just got to wait now.

Congratulations on your place in the top 100 UK restaurants! Any ideas where you are hoping to be placed?

It will probably be lower down the list, but the most important thing is that we are on there! Anything in the top 100 is great and we don’t expect to be placed towards the top as we’ve only been open for seven months.

Who inspires you in the catering industry?

For me, it’s anyone that works hard, whether it is an apprentice chef or a Head chef with lots of accolades behind him. It’s someone that puts in the graft and leads by example.

What do you have in mind for the new high-end restaurant?

We have decided to name it ‘The Cove’ after Malham Cove which is just up the road and it’s going to be a tasting menu restaurant. It’s all about taking off from everywhere else that I have worked so far. When you go and work somewhere that is already a hotel or a restaurant, it is your food and your style of service, but you can’t really change too much as the foundations are already there. The beauty of here is that we are building what we want from the ground up so we can do everything to our taste, and it has got our own personality with it. 

How did you develop your own style of cooking? 

I was a head chef when I was around 23 or 24, and it was too young really. I got my first star when I was 25, and it’s got its benefits but it has also got its drawbacks as you only have experience on a selective number of dishes. When you have experience in only a few different places you can really feel a particular chef’s style of cooking influencing certain dishes. As I was a young head chef, I feel like I developed my own style of cooking very early on.

Where were you working when you got your first star? You’ve had some amazing achievements!

Probably Michael’s Nook. I think I’ve had a star in every place for the last 16 years or something!

So are you aiming for a star at The Angel then?

To be honest I’m not really a chef who is cooking just to achieve a Michelin award and we haven’t been aiming for a star. If people are coming to The Angel to try my style of food, they will feel that it’s a bit dumbed down here at the moment because we’ve had a few setbacks, but if do get a star it would be amazing. 

At the end of the day, we want to be good value for money and be a nice place. If you have hard work and dedication from all your team, accolades will follow, sometimes people can want stars and rosettes too much and it just feels forced.

The Yorkshire food scene just keeps getting better. Have you noticed a big difference in recent years?

Yorkshire has changed a lot since I was last here working at The Devonshire Arms, even Skipton has changed quite a lot. It is a great county and even when I’ve been working down south, I have always used produce from up here because there are so many great producers. It is only right that there are more and more places opening up north.

What has been one the biggest challenges the team has faced so far at The Angel?

It doesn’t matter where you are, staff is always a big issue. People’s work ethic has changed quite a lot, not just in catering but in general. Everyone’s on phones all the time and everything is accessible which makes it easy. People don’t necessarily need to work as hard to get things now, and it can be quite challenging but you’ve just got to adapt and change with the times. 

What is one of the best changes that you’ve seen in the industry throughout your career?

I think the increase in wages is one of the best things. When I was young you would be doing an 80-hour week and get paid less than a pound an hour, but you just did it. Back then you looked at the bigger picture and the future, but now people want a big wage but without the knowledge or experience. People rightly deserve to get paid more as they do work really hard, but sometimes they miss looking at the bigger picture. 

We pay the best in the area and are comparative to wages down south, and that’s what you’ve got to do to attract people with a better skill level now. It’s an incredible improvement in addition to cutting down the hours, but places now can’t afford as many staff and trying to strike a happy balance between skill level, wages and learning can be really tough. 

Do you think catering college is the best route into the Kitchen?

Definitely not. If I had my time again, I wouldn’t go to college, but saying that it does teach you the raw basics. If you went straight from school into a kitchen the dropout rate would be massive because it is such an intense environment. However, the colleges need a system where they are not telling people that they are CDP level when they have finished because it just isn’t realistic, and they need to get first-hand kitchen experience.

Where do you see yourself this time next year?

Hopefully with planning passed across the road so we can start cracking on. In the next few weeks  we are going to start developing and refurnishing all the rooms. We will be involving loads of textiles from the area into the rooms such as rope and copper that used to be produced locally, and each room with have a theme throughout and be produced to a really high level. We are going to create private showers for cyclists and walkers that they can use before coming to lunch. We really want to make The Angel a true destination so we are also going to get a couple of Range Rovers branded up so we can then ferry people about when they come to stay with us.

Michael Wignall 6.5.19

York Talks would like to thank Michael Wignall for sharing his incredible Food Story, and The Angel at Hetton for an amazing lunch. Best of luck with all the future plans!

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