Culinary wizardry is being cast over Wynyard Hall. We chat to chef Mehdi Amiri about the multi-million-pound food operation and the opening of The Glasshouse – a stunning new building that will host a range of culinary experiences, including cookery workshops and pop-up dining events.
Photographs: Sean Elliott Photography
Watching Mehdi Amiri at work is like watching a spectacle at the theatre.
He’s placing the finishing touches to his ‘Essence of Granny Smith’ dish with his chef’s tweezers, and he does it with such finesse that we’re completely captivated.
It’s photoshoot day at Wynyard Hall, in Tees Valley, and we’re there to capture the executive chef’s new tasting menu and find out more about a stunning new space that will host cookery classes and interactive new dining experiences.
It promises to be a dramatic affair and although the focus is farm-to-fork style dining, with ingredients from the estate’s Edible Garden, the elements of molecular gastronomy will leave you mesmerised.
“I got to cook with Heston [Blumenthal],” reminisces Amiri. “His passion and the excitement he gets from creating new dishes is just incredible. It gave me an insight into the technology and the science behind cooking,” says the chef about his three-month stage at Blumenthal’s The Fat Duck, in Berkshire.
“I learnt techniques that would only be used in certain circumstances, such as how to make sardine-on-toast sorbet. Jesus, it tasted exactly like sardines on toast!”
Born in Oxfordshire, to a Persian father and English mother, Amiri lived on a diverse diet.
“We’d have a typical English roast on a Sunday and ghormeh sabzi the day after. It’s a Persian bean stew which sounds terrible but is delicious,” says the 31-year- old.
“It gave me a taste of different cultures and instilled a passion for travelling. At 17, I was packing my bags to go on an adventure. My mum said: “Just make sure you don’t lose your Oxford accent’,” laughs Amiri.
He found himself in the French Alps working as a commis chef at Hotel Saint- Louis.
“It was a five-star resort and a painful learning curve. I realised that being able to cook a steak wasn’t going to be enough to get me through a professional kitchen. From shovelling snow off the driveway each morning for the delivery vans to drop off produce to baking fresh bread and making petit fours, the experience was more of a wake-up call.”
After two seasons, he moved to the company’s sister hotel in Austria. “It was super eco-friendly. There were nine bins in the kitchen and everything had to be separated to keep the environment clean and tidy. I thought, ‘I’m going to end up spending half the day sorting out rubbish’ but it taught me to respect my environment and produce.
“You learn to have an eye for detail which can become quite obsessive – it eventually starts to peel off into your personality,” says Amiri, who now manages a team of 20 chefs and 15 kitchen porters.
“When I first came here, the staff thought I was crazy because of the level of detail I expected, but they also wanted to progress and improve. It’s about conditioning over
a period. Once you’ve worked in so many different operations you think, ‘how can I streamline this?’ Then you put belief into what you can produce and create.”
TAKING THE REINS AT WYNYARD
It took him three months to ‘condition’ the staff that their appearance was essential when he took the reins a year-and-a-half ago.
“I’d send them home if they turned up for duty with a creased uniform. Some days there would only be two of us in the kitchen. It may sound like self-sabotage but you have to stick with your beliefs,” says Amiri, who admits to having a specific management style.
Next, he got to work getting to know his brigade. “It’s important to understand people, what motivates them. It’s a male-dominated kitchen, boundaries are tested, and you must be quite tough.
“When we’re firing on all cylinders, we’ll serve 10,000 guests in one day. Every cog, every chef, has to be turning and functioning at their best. I’m paid a wage to do a job here, when I step outside the door I’m a different person. I sound like I have a split personality, don’t I?” he laughs.
Running the food operation on the Wynyard Estate means Amiri must oversee: The Wellington Restaurant – which offers brasserie style dining and fine dining – Afternoon Tea; plus weddings in the Hall and the Grand Marquee, which can cater for up to 650 guests, and the pop-up dining events.
Anyone would think it’s an arduous task, but Amiri takes it in his stride. He’s composed, he never cracks under the pressure.
“We’re constantly evolving at Wynyard but that’s what I love. I get to be creative, I’d
be lost if I couldn’t be. It’s a huge operation and course I get nervous sometimes, but I recognise those nerves and I tend to operate more effectively,” says Amiri.
ESTATE TO PLATE
It’s not just about his own creativity, Amiri also works closely with Wynyard’s gardeners to ensure 90 per cent of what he puts on the plate is harvested on the estate.
Head chef, Adam Hegarty, even forages seaweed from the beach in his hometown of Whitley Bay to make the seaweed butter for the fresh bread.
“From beetroot and micro herbs to rainbow cabbage, chard, white strawberries, chives, carrots and coriander, we’re focusing on edible produce.”
Talking about the pop-up dining events in The Glasshouse, he says: “It overlooks the Edible Gardens. It’s a beautiful setting. I’m excited about it, it’s really intimate and we want it to be an interactive experience.
“There’s an open pass to get guests talking about the dishes. If they come early enough, they’ll be able to see us pulling the produce out the ground. We even have our own chickens. It’s very much farm-to-fork style dining and hopefully, we’ll have our own livestock in the future,” says Amiri, who studied International Culinary Arts at Stratford University.
PUTTING ON THE RITZ
Having worked at Raymond Blanc’s Le Manoir as a commis chef in his early days – and under the tutelage of John Williams, executive chef
at The Ritz – Amiri is combining his wealth of experience with his love of food, and stirring up something spectacular here in the North East.
“I prefer Le Manoir’s more natural techniques with organic, natural produce,” says Amiri, who spent a year in Blanc’s kitchen, in Oxford.
“The word ‘no’ is not in the vocabulary at Le Manoir. The work ethic is phenomenal. They’re a different breed.
“At the Ritz, I gained an insight into how a multi- faceted operation is run with military precision.”
During the time off that he has, Amiri loves nothing more than jetting off to experience the food and produce of different cultures.
“I recently learnt how to make naan bread in Morocco at the foot of a mountain. A family that lived there built something similar to a tandoor. The bread tasted amazing.
“At a market in Burma, I was shown how to make curry paste. It was fascinating. The spices in South East Asia have a different approach to sweet, sour and umami. It’s completely different to English tastes and flavours.”
Now Amiri is bringing these ideas to the table at Wynyard.
“We’re infusing and using a crossover in flavours. It’s a very eclectic mix. We use the produce from the grounds of the estate but our interpretation is very different. The chefs here have worked in kitchens around the world and we use this to our strength.”