Tuesday, 13 March 2012
Robert Wright on a plate
Untitled by Robert Wright has been raising Penzance's epicurean bar for just over a year. Based in Jean Shrimpton's charming Abbey Hotel, holding a coveted 'Bib Gourmand' Michelin Award, and a recommendation in this year's Michelin Guide, it is a shining example of how to relax fine dining just enough to create something that is aspirational yet comfortable.
For those of you who haven't been to Untitled – go. Have à la carte upstairs in the art-filled dining room, or opt for deep red sofas, cosy cave-like corners and serious tapas downstairs. In either room, the wine list is comprehensive, both in terms of choice and price range. And they have green wine – delicious, spritzy, hangover-friendly green wine. If you needed another reason, the Michelin Guide only awards a 'Bib Gourmand' to restaurants that offer excellence with good value for money, and Untitled is now one of only four in Cornwall to have achieved this balance.
We wanted to know more about the man and the philosophy behind this welcome addition to the PZ social scene, and Chef Owner, Robert Wright, kindly gave us some of his precious time in the short break between lunch and dinner service.
Rob's geographical journey started in Tavistock, Devon. Next stop was Plymouth, where, after a stint as a vegetarian shopkeeper, he took a professional vegetarian cooking course at Plymouth catering college. On graduation, his tutors advised him to go for a job at iconic exponent of vegetarianism, Cranks, in Dartington, Totnes. He got the job, and crafted his art there for two years before answering the siren call of a pork pie.
As a fallen vegetarian, he decided to move into the scene that we now call gastropub, and then on to Dartington Hall as second chef. From there, Rob moved over to Bristol's multi award-winning riverstation. This was where he cut his teeth – where he learnt and really understood the philosophy that he now still maintains; modern European food that is rustic, hearty, intelligent, created using traditional Escoffier skills, but less structured than Michelin food, with composition on the plate a lot freer and using only fresh, local, seasonal ingredients.
Promising as his culinary career was, Rob decided to pursue another of his passions and went to college in Bristol to study Spatial Design (interior design without the soft furnishings). He then went to London and got a place at The Bartlett, UCL – one of the meccas for architecture at that time. On completion of his UCL studies he had an important decision to make – should he follow his love for food or his love for structure and form? Food won out, and he successfully sought work with Alastair Little in is eponymous Soho restaurant. His time spent working there was a time of inspiration and discovery, Rob still admires and refers to his mentor as 'the great Alastair Little'.
Senior trainer at Jamie Oliver's Fifteen near Old Street was his next role, then Head Chef at Amanda Pritchett's three high-end gastropubs: The Lansdowne, The Lord Stanley and The Fox. His final stint in London was a year at Spring Studios, where an early morning argument about ordering cocoa butter for Keira Knightley saw him throw a tray of organic bagels at the Head Chef, quit and fly to Paris, all before 11 am. He didn't have long to think about his next move because his friend and former Head Chef at The Gurnard's Head, Zennor got in touch asking if Rob fancied taking his place. So, in 2008, back from Paris and with nothing tying him to London, he jumped into his 1959 Volvo Amazon and pointed South West. As he drove over the brow of the hill onto Zennor moor, with a gnarly sea hitting the cliffs, he knew that Cornwall was where he needed to be.
He stayed there as Head Chef for three years – winning a César Award from the Good Food Guide (one of only ten) for 'Dining pub of the year UK 2010', and furthering the work of those before him to put The Gurnard's Head on the gastronomic map. Finally, in 2011, he opened Untitled by Robert Wright. A place with his own name above the door. Here, he maintains his exacting standards, only working with the freshest, local seasonal produce, and only with suppliers that hold the same regard for quality that he does. His partner, Helen Venning, creator of the excellent Newlyn Cheese and Charcuterie, is one of his suppliers, making a cheese board at Untitled, a cheese board unrivalled.
He showed us the cod that he would be serving that evening, explaining that it should not be white, but rather almost green and translucent with a sharp edge that sits proud and is super firm – this being the ultimate sign of freshness. On the subject of sustainable fishing, he trusts Newlyn fisheries, who believe that you can catch and eat cod with a clear conscience, and who have, in fact, increased the quota for cod in this area. He tries to use wholly sustainable fish such as gurnard, and he only uses fish that is locally landed. He won't buy anything that has come from the north sea, only shopping from the Atlantic. He tries to use each and every part of the fish he buys. Belly fat from cod, which is removed from the fillet because it will cook too fast compared to the rest of the fillet, is reserved and salted because salt cod makes great brandade, a tapas favourite. Heads and skin are used to make stock for soups and bases for sauces. Untitled is gaining a reputation as a fish restaurant, but this is a result of Rob's commitment to working with local produce and his creativity with fish rather than a purposeful specialisation. It's not something that worries him though – his only concern is that people come and have a great experience in his restaurant.
We asked Rob to design a dish to represent PZ. He gave us two: Brawn or Pigs Head Terrine, in reference to patron saint of Penzance, St John the Baptist, who's head famously ended up on a plate. And, St Anthony's Fishcake, an original recipe of his that is dedicated to the patron saint of fishermen, comprising mackerel, Cornish earlies (a variety of sweet, soft skinned new potato) and the three cornered leek which is a wild garlic indigenous to the area.
Rob has chosen Penzance as the location for his first restaurant because, he says, it is real and there is no pretense here. There is a simple love and appreciation of food, but no snobbery. He is not sure if PZ could ever be a food destination, although he does believe that there is potential for the town to be something very special if more entrepreneurs brought newness and quality to the mix. And he believes that good things attract other good things. He likes to think that by creating somewhere nice to go and eat he is making the town more desirable, and without nice things it doesn't matter what the sea looks like, it will just feel like a dreary town. We asked Rob where he would dine on a Saturday night off. His answer was Curry Corner on Chapel Street, because not only is the food delicious, but sitting in the window to eat has a street food feel. And for the record, Pellows is his pasty maker of choice.
It is worth noting and appreciating that Rob wears a butcher's apron, the uniform of commis chefs, because, he says, chefs who wear them are the ones who believe that they never stop learning. This is wholly indicative of his attitude and entrepreneurial energy. Something tells us that this is only the beginning for Rob, and we look forward to the next chapter in his story.