New Chef in Town
Some job offers you simply can’t turn down. They come around once in a lifetime, if at all. They cause you to uproot everything, move across the world and completely change your way of life. But some sacrifices are totally worth it.
One such offer has brought super-talented, international chef Paul Macnish to Liverpool for a role like no other. In May 2015 Paul accepted the position of ‘Executive Chef to Knowsley Estate’. The title, although fancy, doesn’t quite do the job justice.
“We didn’t know what constitutes the life of a Lord and Lady, our reference point was Downton Abbey!”
Paul is in charge of creating extraordinary dishes for two of Britain’s largest estates. One in the Peak District, and the other, in his primary residence, Knowsley Estates, Liverpool City region.
So how does it feel to go from running high-end kitchens across the world in Australia to working exclusively in one of Britain’s most traditional and beautiful stately homes?
It’s Liverpool met with Paul on the Knowsley Estate to find out. (Over lunch of course, we’re not soft)
So Paul, how did you land this incredible job?
“My Fiancée, Lauren and I were running a luxury chalet at Purple Ski in France. I designed the menus, cooked all the meals and Lauren ran the chalet. The chalet attracted pretty influential guests.
“We were lucky enough to be serving the Lord and Lady Derby and they were blown away with the food. They must have been happy, because they offered us both summer jobs, which wasn’t unusual for us. But this offer was pretty special. After an estate reorganisation vacancies emerged for us. We decided to go for it and returned from Australia to accept permanent positions”.
What’s Lauren’s role?
“Lauren’s the Hall Steward, she looks after the fabric of Knowsley Hall, helping to make it run smoothly. She was instrumental in the job offer. It was her service that really put Lord and Lady of Derby at ease and I think the fact that they became so comfortable around us on their holiday, played a huge part in us getting the job”.
Was it an instant ‘yes’?
“We had to think it over a bit, we were considering super-yacht work. At first, we didn’t even know what constitutes the life of a Lord and Lady. Our reference point was Downton Abbey. We actually popped the DVD on to get a sense of what life would be like. And the funny thing is, it wasn’t that far off!”
What made you a good candidate for this role?
“It seems like everything has been building up to this. I’ve always loved food. I moved from Britain to Australia when I was 13, and I was lucky enough to start my career in a top class restaurant at 16. I’ve only ever worked in five star establishments.
“I started to make a name for myself in ski resorts, that’s where I first started to get accolades and awards such as ‘Best Modern Australian Restaurant’. This recognition associated my name with the best modern Australian cuisine and changed my love of food to true passion.
“From there I was flown out to Fernie, BC Canada to open a new hotel. Then I became a restaurant owner, with my first restaurant, Piccolo, which won many awards and accolades. Now that was a tough job, a true labour of love. I have such respect for the men and women who run their own restaurant. Then I started my first catering company called ‘mortar and pestle’.
“But I’ve always kept moving, kept travelling to new places, learning and absorbing more. I’ve travelled and cooked in 26 countries in the last three years alone. You get so much out of every country you live in. Even if a restaurant is rubbish, you learn from that and you can still find something you like, the style of the plates, even the font used on the menu. I pinch so many ideas. It’s all about getting the right mix of ingredients”.
How would you describe your latest role? What does it actually entail?
“It’s really varied. No two days are the same. There’s things like grouse season, cocktail parties, I’m cooking for the great and good, the real who’s who of Britain. There’s weddings and grand balls, but also smaller, more intimate dinners and functions.
“I’m in charge of many facets of the business and work extremely closely with suppliers, farmers, gardeners and many other chefs. There’s a real family atmosphere here and I have a great team”.
Was the team established before you arrived? How have they reacted to the change?
“The team was long established. Lord and Lady Derby already had an amazing chef, Wendy, who works in their private residences. I work really closely with her. Steven Owen, the head chef of Knowsley Hall has been a huge help to me too. Without people like this, it wouldn’t be possible to do what I do. Any chef is only ever as good as the team standing beside him.”
“My food is really different. In Australia, we’re not so stuck in tradition…”
“The reaction has been really positive. My food is really different. In Australia, we’re not so stuck in tradition, because we don’t have any! Chefs can get stuck in their ways. Rosemary must go with lamb, horseradish must go with beef, and so on. In a way, what I’ve been doing is freeing the team up and they’re enjoying it. It’s renewed their passion”.
“But don’t get me wrong, I’m not a hipster chef. You won’t find my food on an old piece of slate! For me, everything has to have some substance and not be wacky or over the top.”
Tell me more about your ethos, as a chef. What do you believe in?
“Local produce. A lot of chefs claim to only use local produce from local people, but they’re usually full of it. I do actually mean it though. I’ve met with the best local farmers. I’ve planted herb gardens, but really trying to use only local produce gets harder and harder.
“But we really do make everything from scratch. And I do mean everything. I believe in making it all in house, not buying it. When you do that, something really magical happens. It’s almost like you don’t have to put the same effort in. The dish just has this integrity and that’s more important than gimmicks”.
How have you found Liverpool?
“Lauren and I have just fell in love with Liverpool. The people are so supportive. Paul Askew, who I admire greatly, caught up with us when we first arrived to see if we needed any help. He was great, he told us where the best places were and where we could find the best suppliers and that kind of natural, thoughtful, generosity resonates all over the city.
“The people are proper friendly, so different to London, My Dad is Scottish and my Mum is Irish and Liverpool also has this great Celtic humour as well. But it’s all natural and Scousers are not backwards in coming forwards, which I love. People are the same in Australia. There’s a lot of similarities actually, so I feel right at home”.
How would you describe Liverpool’s food culture? Was it different to what you expected?
“Before we came here, people would say to me, oh Liverpool won’t be ready for your food, It’s all roast dinners and gravy, but I haven’t found that to be the case at all. This city is so open to new ideas and trying new things and there’s so many exceptional restaurants here. I’m being inspired by new places all the time.
“My impression of Liverpool, before I came here were so wrong. I’ve always been a LFC fan and I visited the city when I was a child and the place just seemed huge to me then. But now it feels really connected and it has everything you could want, right where you want it, and I love the way it comes alive at night. It really is word-class city, but it’s unique, it has a kind of quirkiness that’s hard to describe.
“I love Bold Street, all of it, and Duke Street and Bacaro. We had cocktails at The Alchemist the other day that were amazing. Love the Art School Restaurant, London Carriage Works, of course, Simon Rimmer’s ‘The Elephant’ and ‘The Viking’. But it’s not just about restaurants. East Avenue Bakehouse does cracking breakfasts, they’re a bit different, but one of the best I’ve ever had, and that’s saying something.
“Independent Liverpool’s food festivals are really special too. They’re always in my calendar. When we first went to one we thought, ah, these are our kind of people”.
“We have a brigade of good Scouse housekeepers, all with a wicked sense of humour…”
Any guilty pleasures?
“Have you been to Almost Famous? That’s a guilty pleasure of mine. It’s like Willy Wonka for burgers. They have popping candy and all kinds of stuff, but it really works, the burgers eat really well. They’re not too clever.”
Now you probably get asked this all the time, but what’s your signature dish?
“It’s always the last dish I created. Seriously, I’m always infatuated with my latest creation for a bit, then I move on. It’s better to be that way, to keep things fresh and reinvent and not be afraid to experiment”.
What’s it like living here on Knowlsey Estates? It’s quite a place.
“Life here is good. We have our own house, away from the hall. We wake up in the morning and look down and the courtyard will be dressed for someone’s wedding. It gives the place a kind of magical atmosphere.
“Knowsley Estate is such a beautiful place; the gardens are pristine. The art collection is one of the best around. I live close to the safari park. Life here has this kind of country house feel. We have a brigade of good Scouse housekeepers, all with a really wicked sense of humour. They’re like the mummies of the place. That sounds awfully sexist, but it’s true!
“We’ve just adopted a Springer spaniel, Mika and she’s literally the happiest dog in the world. Running all over the place, getting massive bones from the kitchen, being secretly passed tasty morsels on the sly, from just about everyone. For her, it’s kind of like winning the dog lottery. But it’s been quite a challenge keeping her away from the pheasants!”
What’s next for you? What are your plans for Knowlsey Estates?
“I’m looking forward to all my food coming through. People don’t’ realise, but it takes a while for a change like this to pan out, as menus can be planned months or even years in advance, with things like weddings. An overhaul on this scale takes time. And I’m adding new members to the team. We’ve just taken Ainsley Corrigan, a local girl as an apprentice and she’s showing real promise, along with a new sous chef called Gareth Boulton, who’s starting any day now.
“I’m open minded about the future. I think it would be great to open up the Hall a little bit. There’s even talk of a cookery school. I would love more people to experience the place without having to be part of a wedding party. We want to open the doors, just a little. Because Knowlsey Estates, like Liverpool, is such a welcoming place.