Executive Chef of Knowsley Estate Paul Macnish reveals the challenges of cooking in a stately home and why he launched the Exquisite Evenings.
PAUL Macnish and his fiancée Lauren, along with their pet dog, Mika, live in a tower. Not just any old tower but one with a gym on top and connected to Knowsley Hall. It’s the stuff of dreams. Paul’s lucky break came when the Earl and Countess of Derby holidayed at the luxury Purple Ski chalet in France, where the couple were working.
Their hospitality must have been good as the Earl and Countess invited the couple to visit their private country retreat and shooting lodge, Crag Hall, in the Peak District, to attend a grouse shoot, rubbing shoulders with the guarded attendee list of England’s gentry.
Paul is now in charge of creating extraordinary dishes for two of Britain’s largest estates – Crag Hall and in his primary residence, Knowsley Estates in the Liverpool City region, whilst Lauren takes care of the fabric of Knowsley Hall.
But cooking at Knowsley Hall outside of the traditional wedding gig is not always as rosy as living in a tower.
“We currently produce food in the kitchen – then have to run upstairs to plate it,” says Paul. “Any other chef in the world would probably look at it and say I am not doing that for this number of people.”
Paul offsets the kitchen challenges with well, living in a tower, and the excitement of the depth and breadth of seasonal produce within a 50 mile radius of the estate.
He has access to the likes of shiitake mushrooms, organic vegetables, Asian vegetables (including pak choi), and meat via the estate’s tenanted farmers.
“People think using local produce means going out on my scooter in the morning and collecting the goods – a bit like a Jamie Oliver TV show,” says Paul. “But nothing could be further from the truth.
“Of course the farmers are more accommodating when you just need the odd bag of potatoes. After all, I am the executive chef of the tenanted farmers’ landlord but it isn’t practical. I don’t have the time to drive around to get stuff. So, I find out who they supply to (North West wholesaler Oliver Kaye for instance), and make sure they sell me the produce from the tenants.”
For weddings it’s not always possible to cook in season as menus are often signed off a year in advance, but the new Exquisite Evenings are a seasonal delight.
Stuff around the land also gets Paul jumping for joy: “We have wonderful herb gardens, plums, raspberries and the oldest fig trees in England. The fruit will provide us with jam for the cheese boards for the whole year. What’s more, I even have my own game keeper. Yes, really! His name is Andy. He provided the pigeons for the Exquisite dinner held in March.”
Paul’s main mission is to make Knowsley Hall a foodie destination. “Most people are aware of the Safari Park but they either don’t think about the hall or see it as a wedding venue, he says.
The Exquisite Evenings are part of a grander plan to change that perception. Previous chefs ran gourmet clubs at the hall but Paul says they fizzled out because members almost had to attend every event to make it worthwhile.
Three five-course Exquisite evenings are due to take place this year. The first was held in February. Around 80 people booked a seat on a round table – dining on the likes of seared green tea tuna with wasabi ice-cream; Knowsley Wood pigeon (hung for two-three days) with burnt onion sauce smoked pumpkin, crisp onion rings and celery; an upmarket twist on the classic English dish of ham, egg and chips using Cumbrian dried ham, cured egg yolk, 60c egg yolk, potato textures and foie gras and a dish called chicken of the sea with whitening Jerusalem artichoke consommé crisp red quinoa, chicken floss and Baeri caviar all matched with wines chosen by wines from Boutinot wine distributor’s resident sommelier.
Paul admits dining on roundtables may be off putting for some but actually in March, two different tables got on so well they met again for lunch. “My cross to bear is how I can rise to the challenge of doing smaller more intimate events such as afternoon tea with this set-up,” he says.
A new orangery, currently undergoing the planning process, seems to be the answer to his prayers. It will hopefully include a much-needed kitchen and allow for more intimate seating arrangements.
Paul tells of the trials and tribulations of putting a set menu together to satisfy 80 different people. The menu for the five-course Exquisite Evening on 19 May 2017 included the summer flavours of textured watermelon & horseradish; Cornish crab, crispy squid with cardamom emulsion and pomegranate; Knowsley lamb, and chocolate custard tuille sandwich with avocado ice cream, aerated pistachio sponge and kaffir lime syrup.
“There is a big difference between doing a dinner for six people and pleasing 80 odd,” he says. “For instance, I really wanted to put black pudding on one of the fish dishes but I know that if I did, it would have alientated a lot of people.
“For me, the dish doesn’t look as sexy without it. But there you go, it’s always a constant battle between what the chef wants to cook and what the customer is happy eating.”
Paul is also a big believer in catering for vegan and vegetarians: “Lauren and I recently went out for dinner and she always orders the vegan or vegetarian menu, so we can taste extra dishes.
“But this place did not have a vegan menu and the waiter joked that he hoped nobody vegan comes in as they wouldn’t find much here. We felt uncomfortable.”
“I try to drill into my chefs that it’s really important that we don’t just say you can have the vegetarian option, which, is just the meat taken off the plate or offer a stuffed pepper. We need to give customers the respect they deserve and for me it’s such a challenge to make amazing vegetarian or vegan food, so why would any chef not want to rise to that challenge?”
He also has honest opinions about wine and food matching: “If you have really good food it doesn’t need anything to make it better and that is the same with wine,” says Paul who is British born but grew up in Australia.
“I have done so many food and wine matching events over the years, persuaded by wineries to do them but I think sometimes people just go too far with it making it the perfect blend for that dish. But if you don’t like white wine then it can’t be the perfect blend.”
But he acknowledges that people like food and wine pairing and even hinted that he may head down the road of beverage pairing using a tea sommelier or evena look at mocktails. He hasn’t ruled out beer and food tastings either. The latter would definitely include the Knowsley beer made on the estate.
Overall he is deeply honoured to be part of Knowsley and ultimately wants to be part of the food and drink history of the historic estates. He is currently studying old recipe books and will hopefully do a recipe book that matches the old and new.
“I have found recipes from 200 years ago that people cooked for the Earls of Derby. I am just another chef cooking for the Earl and that’s brilliant.”
Paul joined as executive chef to the Knowsley Estate in May 2015. He has owned a catering company, Mortar and Pestle, and his first owned restaurant, Piccolo, won many awards and accolades.
The next fine-dining event takes place on 29 September 2017.
Tickets cost just £95 each for the Exquisite Evening five course tasting menu and include a perfectly matched wine selection by a sommelier from wine merchant Boutinot. To view the menu and make a reservation please click here:
For those who would like to extend the experience further there’s an added opportunity to stay overnight in one of the Hall’s 15 bedrooms that were awarded a 5* Gold award from Visit Britain. Call 0151 489 4827.
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