Kingdom of Cooks: Marcus McGuinness, Auberge du Lac, Brocket Hall Estate, Hertfordshire, U.K.
Andy Lynes - June 16th, 2014
Reading the intriguingly inventive menu at Auberge du Lac, you could easily imagine Marcus McGuinness as the tortured artist type. Surely, dishes such as scallop carpaccio with leek, licorice, and pear, or halibut with blood orange, pearl barley, ginger, and winkle casserole must be the result of a fevered wrestling with the creative muse? But the winningly down-to-earth chef is having none of it.
“Some of it just pops into your head. Some of it’s just years of experience. There’s no one route to creating something. It can come from anywhere really,” says the boyish 33 year old, whose closely cropped hair style wouldn’t look out of place on the football terraces. “Maybe why I don’t think any of the dishes are that crazy is because I know the basics of them and the thought processes behind them, which are simple.”
It might also have something to do with McGuinness’ exceptional CV. Before he took over the kitchens of Auberge du Lac (the fine dining restaurant that’s set on a lake among the 543 acres of beautifully maintained parkland that makes up the Brocket Hall Estate in Hertfordshire) in October 2013, McGuinness spent the best part of a decade working for two of the United Kindgom’s most cutting-edge chefs. From 2004 to 2006, he was part of the small brigade at David Everitt Matthias’s Michelin two-starred Le Champignon Sauvage in Cheltenham, rising to the position of sous chef, then went on to rise through the ranks to become head chef of Claude Bosi’s kitchen at Hibiscus, another two-star restaurant.
“I remember eating at Le Champignon and being blown away and thinking, ‘I want to be part of this.’ It was the same with Claude, I ate at Hibiscus and thought, ‘I want to know.’ David thinks about things differently. He’s more analytical. Working with David teaches you how to break things down a bit more—this is going to go with this because of that. Claude is just a perfectionist. There’s his way and that’s it, there’s no gray. No nonsense. The consistency of that kitchen, I’ve never seen anything like it. Claude is the best cook I’ve ever worked for. He’s a machine. He’s a big feller with fingers like sausages, but he’s so gentle. He’s a joy to watch, he really is.”
In early 2013, Bosi installed McGuinness as head chef of The Malt House gastropub in Fulham, but despite critical approval (in her Evening Standard review, Fay Maschler described poached Cornish cod with black grapes and verjuice as “sublime”), it was not a happy experience. “The way I approached the food was to take a lot of what I’d learnt and tried to simplify it. It was well received by some people but not as well by others. A lot of people who go to a pub just want fish and chips, and that’s it. I didn’t enjoy cooking fish and chips.”
In any case, Oxford born McGuinness had spent three times as long as he and his wife had planned to working in the big city, and with a child on the way, a move to the countryside was the perfect fit. “It’s just a wonderful place to come and work. Driving here in the morning definitely beats walking down Maddox Street in Mayfair.”
Although McGuinness says he’s still tracking down Hertfordshire-based suppliers, he’s already making the most of his immediate surroundings. “I’m getting some things off the estate. David at Le Champignon does a lot of foraging. I didn’t do a lot while I was there, but since I left, I’ve really gotten into it. There’s wild mushrooms, including parasols, hen of the woods, ox tongue, and Jew’s ears, which I’ve served with beef shin ravioli. There’s chick weed, water mint, nettles, ground elder, elderflowers, and bittercress growing in the car park.”
A cultivated kitchen garden is the next logical step. “When I lived in Acton, I had a third floor flat with a massive balcony where I grew carrots, beetroots, tomatoes, and cucumbers in pots. So if I can grow stuff on a balcony in West London, I’m sure we can do something in 500 acres. I just love the ethos of it. It’s something I really enjoy and want to pass on to the guys in the kitchen.”
Auberge is McGuinness’ first opportunity to showcase his own style, which he admits is a work in progress and something he’s reluctant to put a label on. “I don’t even know where to start. Modern British? Modern European? I really don’t know what to call it. Chefs of my generation get to pick and choose between different cuisines. I like using a bit of dashi here and there and I love ras el hanout, so does that make it a bit Japanese, a bit Middle Eastern? It’s not fusion I hate that word. It reminds me of the late ‘90s doing some horrible things. My grounding is French, I cook in the French style, but after that…”
One thing that does help define McGuinness’ cooking is his policy of zero waste. “Another thing I leaned from David at Le Champignon is good housekeeping. If something tastes good, why would you throw it away? I try to use every part of an ingredient-if there’s something left over, I think about what I can I do with it and put it back into the dish and reinforce the flavors all the time.”
McGuinness’ adherence to his waste-not-want-not ethos is so assiduous that even fish scales end up not in the bin but as garnish for a ravioli of langoustine. “We bring them to the boil, discard the water once, then bring them back up to the boil and let them tick over for a couple of hours. We dehydrate them in a Rationale oven for about six hours on a really low fan and then deep-fry them—they’re wicked.”
Although there are plenty of progressive aspects to the food at Auberge du Lac—an iced duck liver parfait made in a Pacojet or filleted skate wing cooked sous-vide in brown butter and served with its dehydrated and deep-fried cartilage—McGuinness’ favorite dish is far more traditional. “I really like the savarin of English rhubarb with Chantilly cream. I’ve got a fondness at the moment for a bit of classicism, but with a modern touch. The older you get, the more you think about what is actually delicious.”
In 2012, Auberge du Lac lost its Michelin star rating. With the appointment of McGuinness, alongside consultant chef Anthony Demetre of Michelin-starred London restaurants Arbutus and Wild Honey, it may not be long before the accolade is restored. “The owners would love to get it back, and I’m not going to say no to it, but we’ll see what happens,” says McGuinness. “There’s nothing Anthony doesn’t know, so it’s really really good to have him on my side. If I need anything, I just give him a call. But on a day-to-day basis here, it’s just me. When people ask, “Are you chasing a star?” I don’t know what the fuck that means. There’s so many different styles of food and styles of restaurant, you can’t define how to get it. You can just do what you believe in, and for me that’s the most important thing.”