Meet the Chef: Colin McGurran

Life//People

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It was Theodore Roosevelt who once said that 'nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain or difficulty'. Given the nature of the industry any successful chef will relate to this, and Colin McGurran is no exception. Whilst he now enjoys what many will see as a near-perfect lifestyle, it wasn't handed to him on a plate.

Upon deciding that he wanted to pursue a career as a chef he had to learn the hard way. With no experience and no understanding of the French language you could say it was a baptism of fire for McGurran when, aged seventeen, he landed an unpaid position at the two Michelin star French restaurant Domaines Haut de Loire. Cast into a 'sink or swim' situation it took him a few miserable weeks to realise unless he made an effort to speak French he was going to sink. Looking back it was one of those defining moments, as with every bit of French he learnt he became more and more a part of the team and thus began what has become a highly successful career.

It was the early experiences he had in what was a very traditional hierarchy-lead kitchen that lay the foundations for his own philosophy at the award-winning Winteringham Fields. What started as a restaurant has now become a way of life for McGurran, one that he wouldn't swap for anything. The Essential Cyclist caught with with the man himself to talk all things food, the importance of creating a sustainable lifestyle and his plans to open a pub.

Marcus Leach: How did you get into food, what was the spark?

Colin McGurran: For me it is the old cliche but I have always be into food. I used to sit and shell peas with my grandmother, it was that kind of thing that started it. My grandmother was a great cook and I would sit and watch her in the kitchen and I got hooked. From there I used to do my own Sunday lunches as a boy and I always had a love for cooking and was always encouraged to do it.

ML: And how did you then turn that love of food into what has become a very successful career?

CM: Originally my father, who was an engineer, wanted me to become an engineer as well. At the time we lived in the Middle East in Abu Dhabi and he said 'if you do well at collage you can come and work with me'. So with that in mind I went to do this collage interview and I have to be honest I hated everything about it, which is when my Mum said we needed to find something else for me to do. I went to a careers open day and this guy walked in and he was a hotel manager and he was trying to sell the hospitality industry to us, and it sounded fantastic. I went home and said 'Mum I want to be a chef', and she said 'excellent' as she knew I was passionate about it and that it was good for me. From there I went to Bournemouth College to study cooking.

ML: Was your Dad a little disappointed that you didn't follow in his footsteps?

CM: No, not at all to be fair. I think he also knew that the cookery side of things was more my thing than sitting down and getting to grips with engineering issues, so he was completely on board with what I wanted to do. So I did two years in Bournemouth and then headed abroad to work. I printed out my CV a hundred times and sent them away to the top hundred places that I knew of around the world, be it Hong Kong, the Caribbean, wherever, saying I would work for three months for free providing they would cover my food and accommodation.

ML: Did you get many offers back?

CM: Five out of a hundred, so not the best return, but then I had no experience apart from working in college. I chose this place in the Loire Valley that had two michelin stars, called Domaine Haut de Loire.

ML: That must have been quite a steep learning curve for you straight from college?

CM: Very much so, everything about it was a learning experience. It was one of these kitchens where you would get beaten up, they would throw things at you and it was very traditional French cooking. It didn't help that I couldn't speak much French, and they couldn't speak much English. Well, they could but not to me, so it was a an old school bullying way of how they used to run kitchens, and some still run like that now. I used to get home from the restaurant and cry, seventeen years old and calling me Mum saying 'what was I doing?'

ML: What made you stick at it then if it was so bad?

CM: Well I couldn't come home because I had to wait three months to get my return ticket on the ferry. I mean I could have come home had I been super desperate, but I decided to start applying myself and learn to speak French. So I would wake up and start talking French as much as possible, starting off with simple questions and ordering things, and before I knew it I could speak a decent level of basic French.

ML: That must have helped in the kitchen?

CM: Yeah, absolutely. Suddenly I started to become part of the team and felt like I belonged there a bit more. Once I was a part of the team I started speaking more French and then really began to enjoy it and get better at it, and they started giving me more and more responsibility which encouraged me to work harder at French and in the kitchen.

ML: Do you still speak French now?

CM: I do, but not a great deal as it's been fifteen years since I was speaking it properly. We go to France on holidays every year, and skiing, so I still know enough to get by. But that was the start of my career, learning French and becoming a part of that team. And I always promised myself that if I ever set up my own restaurant I would never have a kitchen like that, it was a very bullying atmosphere.

ML: How do you run your kitchen now?

CM: We spend 98% of our energy on staff. It's all about looking after the staff, making sure they have what they need and that they are properly coached and trained. We do some form of rehearsal and training everyday, as it's about making sure they enjoy doing what they're doing. We are based in the middle of nowhere so we need to keep hold of good, well trained staff. Looking after the staff means that they are with me for years. Normally in this industry chefs move on pretty quickly, within a year sometimes, and I have had mine for about six years now. We have ten chefs and the minimum is two years, my youngest one at the moment has been with me for two years.

ML: Why do you think that chefs move on so quickly?

CM: It's a case of them thinking that the grass is greener on the other side, and they want to get as many places on their CV as possible in a quest to always be at the next big place. I have started to notice a trend when I look at CVs where every six months chefs are on the move, whereas I want something more than that from my staff. We put so much effort in to them that we expect some loyalty in return, and more than that for them to enjoy working for us. I want them to enjoy the culture and experience we have created, and that in return comes through in the experience that they give the customer.

ML: With that in mind, you wanting your staff to learn from their experiences with you, where would you say you learnt the most before you opened your own restaurant?

CM: Probably the first place I worked in France, the first is always the biggest experience. The standard of detail there was incredible, as you would expect from a two Michelin star restaurant. The standards were unbelievably unfair at times, but that was their standard and we had to maintain it. The second place would be when I worked in the Middle East where I learnt more organisational and management skills, as well as understanding my job. The first place was a case of 'do this because I have told you to do it, and don't ask why'. It's always nice to ask the question 'why am I doing this, and why am I doing that'. I was working for a hotel chain in the Middle East and they were very good at documenting why you were doing certain things, making sure you understood them and ultimately making sure you perfected them. I enjoyed that process of understanding it all.

ML: Do you think the influences of working around the world reflect in your cooking now?

CM: Yes I do, and the fact that I like all manner of foods and different cuisines. I like Asian food, Indian food, European food and I don't think I am afraid to use any of those influences in my cooking. If I like ingredients and it tastes good in certain dishes I will use it, no matter where it's from. It's all about the taste and I'm not afraid to use all manner of ingredients.

ML: Has your approach to cooking changed over the years? Is it now a case of less is more?

CM: I think it's a trend with chefs to get to that stage as they get older. We don't have a menu at Winteringham Fields. You come, you sit down and we feed you. It's a ten course tasting menu and all of the vegetables are home-grown by us. We have all of our lamb, pigs, chicken, eggs, ducks. and there is a big emphasis on our own produce.

So what we do is say that this lamb is fantastic at the moment and it will go great with our courgettes, so that will be our main for the day. Then we will see we have some great fish and again pair it with something tasty and simple. We are not afraid to hardly put anything on the plate, and I don't mean that in portion size, but in terms of ingredients. We focus on cooking those ingredients really well, and looking at different textures of the same ingredient. If you're going to be brave and put two things on the plate they have to be amazing, and you as a chef have to be quite creative in the way that you are doing it.

ML: So how far ahead do you plan then if you don't have a menu?

CM: We plan it over the year, so we know roughly what we are going to have at certain times, but the one thing we can't guarantee is the weather. This year it has been quite slow because winter and spring were both quite wet, so if we need to buy stuff in we do, but only when we have to. We are only in the fifth year of doing this and we are learning a lot as we go along. I never thought I would be growing vegetables and rearing animals when I started this project.

ML: With all those responsibilities how often are you in the kitchen?

CM: I'm still in the kitchen everyday, but not necessarily cooking everyday. We have ten guys in the kitchen who run things on a day-to-day basis, but we all spend an hour together everyday on the farm, be it picking produce, or just looking at what we have coming up for the next week or so. I have some help on the farm side as well with a really good old boy who helps plant everything and keep on top of it so everything doesn't get overrun. It's great for the team to be out and see everything, especially for the younger chefs who are new to it all. I think it is great to see things growing, and not just in a shop or at a market, as you understand it better, and when you understand it better you know how to cook it better.

ML: And I am guessing not every one of your carrots looks like those people have come to expect in the supermarkets?

CM: Exactly. Half of the stuff I pick a supermarket wouldn't look at, but everything is packed full of flavour. There simply isn't a comparison between what we grow and what you can get in the shops. It goes for everything we have, and it is all fresh. When you come here for dinner, whilst you're getting ready, the produce is being picked for service. We pick everyday at 9am and 6pm, for lunch and dinner respectively, and then it is prepped straight away for service, so it is as fresh as you can possibly get.

ML: Is it something you pictured doing when you started out all those years ago, not just running a restaurant but being almost self-sufficient and in such an all-encompassing role?

CM: No, it's amazing, I could never have seen myself in this position in a million years. Obviously I always wanted my own restaurant, but I never thought it would be like this. It has just evolved as we have gone along really. It all started off with our full English breakfast and me wanting to have grown and produced every element of it; the sausages, the bacon, the black pudding, the tomatoes, the mushrooms, everything.

We eventually did that and we could say it was 100% ours, even the butter we churn every morning. So then I thought 'ok, if we can do an English breakfast, let's see how far we can stretch it'. So we did, and we would then start producing all of the vegetables, and it kind of just snowballed and evolved from there. Now we don't just have the restaurant, we have fifteen bedrooms as well so we have guest coming from, on average, up to around about hundred miles away to eat and stay with us.

ML: Being so far out do you find you have quieter periods, as to say compared to a restaurant in London where there will be a lot more walk-in trade?

CM: We do get peaks and troughs and we definitely have our quiet periods, but the beauty of it is we don't panic. If it is quiet one month it is ok, as I enjoy those quiet periods as much as the busy times. We are not here to try and turn over millions, it's there as a lifestyle for me. I've got my three daughters and my wife and then this beautiful restaurant, and for me I enjoy this lifestyle, I enjoy my animals, I enjoy my vegetables, I enjoy creating food and dishes and seeing the customers. But conversely I enjoy going home and my days off. I'm not a fanatic like some of these guys in London where it's god knows how many hours, seven days a week and often working for someone else. After three years they move ship and do it all over again working for someone else, and then by the time they are forty they are knackered.

ML: That's the key though isn't, it being a lifestyle. There is more to life than making millions.

CM: As long as the business does well, it can pay for a few pints here and three, take the family on holiday and enjoy what we need, which it does, then it's great. Because of that I have learnt over the last couple of years to sit back a bit more, look after myself a bit more. I eat the vegetables that I grow, I eat a healthily diet, I don't drink a great deal and enjoy a balanced lifestyle with my family. I feel very lucky to have this situation in the rural countryside, but I don't look at what I do as work, I look at it as a hobby.

ML: I guess that's the holy grail isn't it, never viewing what you do as a job. Monday morning is the worst part of the week for most people in a job, but if you don't view what you do as a job. and love doing it, then it never really feels like you're going to work and it isn't a hardship.

CM: If you can honestly say there is no difference between fun and work then you're truly laughing. Obviously it isn't as beautiful as that and it all sounds so romantic and perfect and it isn't always the case, but when you've put the hard work in to establish this position you can enjoy the fruits of your labours a little more.

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ML: There has, over recent years, been an increased limelight on chefs, yourself included. Have you enjoyed that and the various opportunities it has presented you with?

CM: For business it has been fantastic. The amount of exposure, where we are in the rural country we need to pedal faster to get the business in, has been fantastic for us. So the Great British Menu has helped do that for me, it has booked me out and done really well.

ML: And what was the Great British Menu like this year, especially with it being for such a poignant celebration?

CM: This one was a bit more real, it was D-Day and it was honouring people who had fought for this country. To be involved in that I did feel very lucky, because when am I ever going to get a situation where I can honour past veterans who have fought for this country. To get to the banquet and see all of the veterans was such an honour, it meant so much to me.

ML: Was there added pressure because of who you were cooking for?

CM: There was that extra pressure, first and foremost because I really wanted to get to the banquet and meet all of the veterans. Last year was Comic Relief, I didn't get it and didn't really understand the brief, before that it was the Olympic year and I made the banquet then, but this one was a bit more real, it meant that bit extra, not just to me but all of the chefs taking part. I really appreciated being there and being a part of such a special occasion.

ML: If you look at where you are in your career now as a chef what do you think your food says about you as a person?

CM: (laughs) Simple and lazy as I only put two ingredients on the plate. No, I think brave would be the word because the less you put on the plater the braver you have to be. You have to trust your ingredients, you have to trust that you're cooking food that is tasty enough because you will get people who say it's boring and uninteresting to look at. But then when you eat it and close your eyes that is when the experience starts, and to say that is quite difficult as a lot of chefs spend time on making the plate look magnificent.

ML: Well they do say you eat first with your eyes.

CM: Yes, but by the time you have taken a mouthful all of that is gone, all that presentation is ruined. So if you spend a lot of time on making your plate look beautiful it counts for five percent of your eating experience. We concentrate on flavour, and that if you cook the ingredients right with finesse and refinement in your mise en place and cooking process it's always going to look beautiful and sophisticated.

ML: What about the future, what does that hold in store for you?

CM: In the restaurant we want to increase the percentage of our homegrown produce and self-sufficiency. I want to improve, it's always a case of wanting to better yourself. We are also opening a new pub not far from us, which had been hit by the floods last year and is derelict. There is no pub around here for miles so that is a project we wanted to take on. It's going to be very much an old-school traditional pub with hand-pulled ales, good beer and a good pie. Where we are is very much a shooting community, so we want to have good game on offer as well.

ML: You mention community there, and it's about being a part of the wider community with what you do isn't it?

CM: Absolutely. This pub has been sat there dying and to get it back up and running is creating a community hub. If you look at pubs that is what they were for, and that is why they existed, for the community, so to be involved in that is going to be really exciting and rewarding.

ML: Not to mention you will have a local for yourself when you do fancy a few pints. What about away from cooking, what keeps you interested?

CM: You know I am pretty happy with life and everything I have. As I said it's about having that lifestyle and a balance with what I do and enjoying it with my family. One thing I do know I will be doing is Saturday Kitchen in January, so I will be doing a bit more television work there, and aside from that it is enjoying life and keeping an eye out for any opportunities that might come up along the way.

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