A passion for Wyken
PUBLISHED: 11:45 08 December 2015 | UPDATED: 11:46 08 December 2015
Linda Duffin finds out what makes The Leaping Hare the 2015 winner of the EADT Suffolk Food and Drink Awards
Simon Woodrow, head chef at the award-winning Leaping Hare, doesn’t have far to look for inspiration. Sheep graze in the field outside the restaurant, there are fresh herbs to be gathered in the Wyken kitchen garden, fruit from the orchard, eggs and potatoes from the estate farm, the gamekeepers deliver roe deer, pheasants and partridge in season, and wild rabbits and muntjac all year round. Lady Carlisle’s llamas, though, are not on the menu.
Sir Kenneth and Lady Carla Carlisle’s 1000 acre estate near Stanton, Bury St Edmunds, centres on the Elizabethan manor with its formal gardens. But there are also seven acres of vineyards, an ancient woodland, a Saturday farmers’ market, a country store and the café and restaurant for visitors to explore.
Lady Carlisle set up the Leaping Hare and in its early days she did the cooking herself. It must give her enormous satisfaction that her latest head chef is as home-grown as his ingredients. Simon was born and bred, he says, a few minutes down the road.
“My family’s always been friends with Carla and Kenneth, we’ve always had ties with Wyken Vineyards. My grandmother was housekeeper here for a long time, 40 years or more. I started here straight from school as a kitchen porter, washing up. The chefs would give me little jobs, I just kept going and eventually I worked my way up.” His dedication paid off because 14 years later Simon is head chef.
He describes his food modestly as “honest - I try not to mess with things too much and let the flavours speak for themselves.” Customers and restaurant critics wax more lyrical. Depending on the time of year diners can expect salmon smoked over vine prunings, or perhaps venison fillet served with a savoury tarte tatin made from beetroot grown in the kitchen garden. Vegetarians don’t get palmed off with the ubiquitous mushroom risotto either – the veggie options were described by one chef and food writer as “notably imaginative”. That was Rosie Sykes, who chose the Leaping Hare when the Guardian newspaper asked 40 chefs to nominate their favourite restaurants. She likened the food to that of Petersham Nurseries in its heyday under Skye Gingell (high praise) and described Wyken as a calming place where all your cares go on the back burner, at least for the duration of lunch. Restaurant manager Francis Guildea agrees.
“The venue itself is very much a destination. We sit in the middle of archetypal Suffolk. You drive through the hedgerows to get here and you’re surrounded by a real farm, real fields, the llamas, the sheep, you’ve got the vineyards to visit, the shop, so it’s not a one-dimensional business, and I think people see it as an opportunity to go on a day trip. We quite often get guests who will arrive here at 10.30 or 11 and have a coffee, then they’ll walk across to the vineyard, come back and have lunch, visit the garden, have another coffee, go round the shop and then maybe come in and have a scone. They will spend perhaps five or six hours here. So it’s more than just a restaurant, I think it epitomises a lifestyle.”
And it is not just the customers who fall for Wyken’s charms. Francis says the turnover of staff is almost non-existent, a rare thing in the transient restaurant industry.
“It gives you an opportunity to have great stability, both front and back of house, and people only stay if they really like what they’re doing and really like the environment. It’s not just people who have a passion for food and wine, they also have a passion for Wyken, the estate and everything it stands for. You can’t buy that.”
The restaurant has had a good year. It has been listed in Square Meal’s Top 100 Restaurants and picked up the Good Food East of England Restaurant of the Year award. The icing on the famous Wyken carrot cake came two weeks after Simon became head chef, when the Leaping Hare won the Best Restaurant prize in the EADT Food and Drink Awards. Francis says credit is due to former head chef Jon Ellis, to Simon, who had already become a driving force in the kitchen, to the entire kitchen brigade and to the front of house staff. And to its regular customers too.
“We get people coming from London, from anywhere up to a two hour drive away, but our local guests are the heart and soul and the backbone of the business. That’s why the award is important to us and we feel privileged to have been able to be involved.”