Hrishikesh Desai career has been a journey which has taken him and his cooking around the world. Now he’s Chef Patron at Farlam Hall in Cumbria – which recently featured in the Michelin Guide. Savour’s Dave MacKay chats with the chef-turned-business owner.
Born and raised in Pune in India, a young Hrishikesh worked in the Baker’s Basket which was famous for its “posh” cakes. It was here Hrishikesh learned about hard work and precision. He would start at 5am and his job was to line the trays for the cake.
“We used to use newspapers and putting in the paper was one of the most hated jobs in the world. But that gave you discipline because it’s just not putting the paper into the tin, you have to cut the perfect corners so that when the cake is baked you turn it upside down it has got the perfect corners, and you can slice it perfectly. Now I’m using the word ‘perfect’ quite a lot but that was the discipline,” explained Hrishikesh.
The bakery was related to a five-star hotel called Blue Diamond and that’s where Hrishikesh fell in love with hospitality and seemed destined for a career in hotel management. During his earlier studies, his mum suggested that he should learn French.
She had worked as a homoeopathy teacher and part of that involved French and from speaking to people in her class it was clear that many hospitality basics were based on French techniques.
Proving that mums always know best he took her advice and says, “it was one of the best decisions.”
“It changed my world. When I went to do my diploma the college itself introduced a special French course just for hospitality students and because I had some knowledge about the French language, I was good in that course. That helped me to win the scholarship to go to Institut Paul Bocuse in France.”
This had been a dream come true for Hirshikesh who, in addition to the guides by Dennis Liilicrap and John Cousins, had become absorbed in the Caterer magazine and stories about Paul Bocuse and the Roux family.
“It makes me quite emotional because as we move the clock forward I was actually shaking hands with every one of them and I never knew that this was going to happen. When I saw Paul Bocuse he signed my degree.”
Hrishikesh went on to work with the two Michelin-starred Olivier Roellinger in Brittany but problems with his paperwork meant that he had to go back to India. He found work in a hotel but was frustrated that there was none of the discipline that had been instilled into him in France.
Back in the UK in 2003, his first steps did not take him in the direction he had imagined and he worked at a chain hotel in Surrey. “When I went in there, everything was deep fried. They said, ‘roast potatoes? Let’s deep-fry them. Nothing made sense but you always learn from somebody and it helped me understand speed, and the urgency that you need.”
After a year he secured a job at Lucknam Park under Hywel Jones and was there in 2006 when the hotel gained its Michelin star. It was also at Lucknam Park that he met his future wife and where he entered, and won, the Roux Scholarship in 2009.
Following the win, he staged at Thomas Keller’s three Michelin-starred The French Laundry, in California. Instead of a sauce recipe, or how to make the perfect sorbet, the biggest thing that he took away from his time with Keller was the art of ‘detail’.
“He was the man of details, the way the tablecloth should fall, the way the glassware should be, the colours, the folding of the napkin, the cleanliness in the kitchen, who does what, service style.”
Hirishikesh carried on rising in the culinary circles and in 2009 he won National Chef Of The Year. He went on to become a judge for the Craft Guild’s “Young National Chef Of The Year” and stayed at Lucknam Park running the cookery school for two years from 2011.
“I wanted to understand how you open a business, what you really need and how you go about finding equipment, ingredients, barter, negotiate prices and how to write a cookery course.”
It was the Managing Director at Lucknam Park who told him that the Cunliffe family, owners of the Gilpin Hotel on Windermere, were looking for a new head chef.
He decided to apply but found out that the application process was to be featured on the Alex Polizzi show “Chefs On Trial”. He was initially put off but decided to treat it as just another cookery competition. The decision came down to him and Ben Murphy, a young chef who he had judged in the Young National Chef Of The Year competition. Hirishikesh won and Ben went on to become head chef at Launceston Place.
As Head Chef, Hrishikesh was able to start putting into practice all the things that he had learned over the years, and his attitude towards precision led to him and some others spending a week in India sourcing ingredients and researching cooking techniques and dishes.
As well as the main restaurant, Hrishi, the hotel featured a second venue, Gilpin Spice, and Hirishikesh oversaw them both. In 2016, he won his first Michelin star as a chef in his own right.
In addition to retaining his star, he kept pushing on, appearing on Great British Menu twice, becoming a member of the Royal Academy of Culinary Arts and winning a host of other awards. He also carried on with his love of cricket but, being a touch injury-prone, also turned to umpiring and gained a level 2 qualification.
Despite his success, he left the Gilpin Hotel in December 2022. “I think 2022 was a turning point in a way. The potential to push to the second start was huge but at the same time, I wanted to be on a direct level. So, I can make the decisions. Crockery, glass, style of service, style of food. The Gilpin was a family business and they made some of those decisions.”
He left with no plan in place and felt he might have worked in Singapore or Dubai after being contacted by a recruitment agency that specialised in finding chefs to work abroad. Instead, he was offered the role of Executive Chef at Farlam Hall, a newly renovated luxury hotel in Cumbria.
He was open to new ideas so visited the venue and met with the owners. That led to the role evolving into Chef Patron and he started in February this year. He was joined by Karen Baybutt, former Managing Director at the Gilpin, who took on the role of Finance Director.
One of the draws was the large kitchen garden and the prospect of being far more self-sufficient, something that harked back to his days in California. Being able to grow all their own herbs, an array of berries and most of all, their own vegetables – which is very important to him.
Hrishikesh also sources his lamb from the field next door and has become an avid apiarist with his beloved bees producing kilos of quality honey. He’s not a fan of offal though and black is his Marmite. He has a very spiritual philosophy on ingredients too, “I wouldn’t use things like brain, tongue, heart, ears, trotters. They all feel the forces of nature. You hear, you taste, you analyse, you feel the heat on your feet when you walk. It is feeling everything.”
Having been at Farlam Hall – which has just been recognised in the Michelin Guide – for eight months, Hrishikesh says it’s all about progression.
“There are no shortcuts to success. You have to put yourself fully into it. I’m still learning how to run a hotel but the support from the industry is absolutely amazing. It just keeps pouring in. It is hard work and I’ve sacrificed so much to be here. My kids [he has two girls] are in Kendall. I’m here and I go and see them on a weekly basis. It’s quite tough. Eleanor has just gone into high school and Erin will be six years old this month [October]and I’m going to miss that.”
“I left my country, and I sacrificed my family and friends, for a reason. What I am doing is for my daughters, so they can stay where they are born and be proud to be British. They can work for a future for themselves without breaking with friends and relations. I’m creating a future for them.”
Talking about whether he’d want them to follow in his footsteps and into the hospitality industry, Hrishikesh said: “Why not? There is absolutely nothing wrong with this industry. It teaches you patience, tolerance, and being a nice person. So yeah, why not? In fact, it would be nice to eventually work with my daughter as a partner in business; to have the fresh eyes of a younger generation with stronger ideas look at how we can make this industry even better.”