Kenny Atkinson started off washing pots, but two decades on he's picked up two Michelin stars, numerous cooking accolades and is now a TV regular. KATHARINE CAPOCCI meets up with the Newcastle-born boy working his magic at Rockliffe Hall
KENNY Atkinson is at the top of his game – the busiest but most relaxed I’ve seen him, as if he’s really found his groove at Rockliffe Hall Hotel.
We meet on his day off in The Brasserie by Atkinson, one of two restaurants bearing his name, the other being the hotel’s flagship, fine-dining Kenny Atkinson at The Orangery.
He is fresh-faced and full of energy as he pours milk into our coffees and settles down for a chat.
He may be on a day off, but he has all his electronic gadgetry to hand and has already been checking things out in The Brasserie kitchen.
The 35-year-old, who was raised in Fenham, Newcastle, started out washing pots in his uncle’s hotel in Gateshead. Today, he is director of food at the swish five-star hotel at Hurworth-on-Tees, just outside of Darlington.
He’s been with the hotel for more than two years, but the beefed-up title is a role he’s held since September – and which he says accounts for his receding red hairline.
Not that I can discern, and it’s not something I’d have noticed if he hadn’t pointed it out! Kenny is media savvy, eloquent and always upbeat.
His trademark cheerful countenance was once again seen on BBC1 cooking show Saturday Kitchen Live a matter of a few weeks ago, when he served up soused mackerel and salt cod balls, a version of one of The Orangery’s newest menu additions.
He’s appeared about five times on the show in recent years and is mates with host chef James Martin. “He’s a Yorkshireman, he’s a good one. He keeps the conversation going, it’s just a laugh all morning,” says Kenny, who is friendly with lots of fellow big-name chefs.
“I see them and we chat on Twitter. It’s not like the old days. It’s about development.”
Mackerel is, of course, close to Kenny’s heart as it was the key ingredient in one of his winning dishes on BBC series Great British Menu – a series he won two years running. His line-caught mackerel with gooseberries won the fish course in 2010 and in 2009 he was a winner with his starter dish of beef salad.
“It began as a dessert,” says Kenny. “I practised it and changed it. Mackerel with gooseberries is our signature dish now. Not many chefs wrap the mackerel in bread.”
But he’s most famous, of course, for his two Michelin stars. The first was acquired, aged 30, at Tean’s restaurant on St Martin’s in the Isles of Scilly, and the second at Seaham Hall’s White Room restaurant in County Durham where he worked prior to joining Rockliffe.
Unfortunately, after Kenny left Seaham Hall the restaurant lost the star – leaving the North East bereft of any Michelin stars, which are seen as the ultimate cooking accolade.
A star is something he’d love to bring to the 3AA rosette The Orangery, which also features his exciting tasting menu – a culinary journey to be savoured.
“Obviously I want to have a star for the hotel. That’s the main priority. I left Seaham and got a star and the Scilly Isles had a star. So I need to now prove that we have consistency and we really are getting there.
“For the future it’s an important thing, but it’s not the be all and end all. Now I’m getting older it has to be the restaurant, the menus, my produce – food that’s right for Rockliffe. I’ve got four kitchens, four dining experiences.”
As director of food, he keeps 30 chefs on their toes. As well as The Orangery, showcasing Kenny’s food at its most imaginative, there’s The Brasserie, the golf Clubhouse and banqueting to look after.
It’s a demanding role and one he relishes getting his teeth into. And who wouldn’t.
The luxury 18th Century hall, owned by Middlesbrough FC chairman Steve Gibson, has been tastefully restored to its former glory and also has an 18-hole championship golf course and a stunning 50,000-square foot spa with thermal bathing suite, 20-metre pool and sound-wave therapy beds.
It also recently won Large Hotel of the Year at the Visit England Awards for Excellence 2012.
It’s a pretty special place to work, although Kenny says his wife Abbie is yet to try out the spa – something she needs to put right pronto!
Mrs A does have her hands full, though, with their two boys, Aaron, six, and Aidan, two, and they have recently moved from a house in the hotel grounds to Hurworth village.
Where The Orangery is fine dining all the way, the Clubhouse is casual, the place to get a great bacon butty or fish and chips, and by evening a grill menu offering good value for quality, local produce.
The Brasserie is “chic and funky”. Modern dishes are given a Kenny twist and include baked sea bass with pineapple, red onion and chilli salsa, grilled pave of salmon with ratatouille of Med veg and 6oz Grand Reserve minced steak burger with all the fancy trimmings.
“The Brasserie is now the busy one,” says Kenny. “It allows us to do 40 in the Orangery rather than 60 and be rushed.
“We’re starting to really run in the Orangery, the food’s consistent. It’s more a case of when we get the star not if we get it. Then you know you have got it on merit. If it’s not this year, it’s going to be next year. I want it not just for me, but for the boys, Steve Gibson and for the region.”
He adds: “I have got some great guys and I have promoted them.
“The key thing is I have got great backing from Steve and managing director Nick Holmes and great support from my head chefs in the two main restaurants. I can now spend time in the Clubhouse and on banqueting.”
The Orangery serves dinner only from Tuesday to Saturday.
“I’m still on the pass at the Orangery in the evenings so I’m there and I still do all the menu development and the training dishes,” Kenny explains.
“I leave the preparation and day-to-day running to head chef Dan Shotton, who has been with me since it opened.”
The first-floor Brasserie, located next to the spa, reopened in November with Kenny’s name above it. It’s run by head chef Steve Lawford, who worked for Kenny in the Orangery.
“We spent a lot of money redesigning it. Where Fridays and Saturdays it used to be 20 when it was the old bistro, it’s now 60 and 70 and we’re turning away customers.”
Kenny’s winning stints on the BBC’s Great British Menu undoubtedly brought him fame. It’s still the cooking competition to beat all contests, according to Kenny, and helped put him on the culinary map.
He, like many of us, was disappointed not to see anyone from the region representing the North East category this time around, which took in Yorkshire.
“It’s a great show with chefs at the top of their game.
“For me to win it for the armed forces and the following year, it’s been massive for my career. It’s put me on the map.
“It also raises the profile of the industry.”
Would he be tempted a third time? To go back again and lose, he says, would be difficult.
“I’m one of the few chefs to win twice. You never know, I never say never.”
Kenny’s always been a big champion of local produce, but he’s also looking further afield, though still British, for his stand-out food in the Orangery.
“I still use local produce, but I’m sourcing some new produce, like rose veal from Cumbria and Cumbrian hill-fed lamb,” he tells me.
“For the Orangery I need to take it to a different level and don’t always want the same cuts of meat as other restaurants in the area.
“I’ve always used wild rabbits, but for the Orangery I’m using milk-fed rabbits. I’m using better produce in the Orangery even if that means using beef from elsewhere. It’s still British though.”
Looking ahead, Kenny has plans to start work on a cookbook.
“I’d like to start a book next year. The signature dishes – with a twist – behind each restaurant. I want to make it into a story.”
He has no plans to set up on his own as yet, but if he did then a gastropub would appeal.
He admits he looked at the Fisherman’s Lodge in Jesmond before joining Rockliffe from Seaham Hall.
“I had the opportunity to take it on, but there’s always this inkling if it doesn’t work.”
He adds: “If I went into my own business it would probably be a gastropub, but for me there’s no need to move on. I have got a great operation. The hotel’s going from strength to strength.”