Niall Keating is executive chef of Whatley Manor in Wiltshire where he is credited with reinvigorating the hotel’s dining offering. Since being recruited to Whatley Manor by general manager Sue Williams in early 2017, 28-year-old Keating has made an impressive mark on the business, helping one of the hotel’s three restaurants – The Dining Room – win a Michelin star in October 2017 and a second just two years later.
The Staffordshire-born chef started out as a commis chef at the Bath Priory Hotel in 2010, moving to two Michelin starred Restaurant Sat Bains in 2013 where he worked as chef de partie for two years. He then worked abroad – at Corey Lee’s three Michelin starred Benu in San Francisco and with chef Mark Lundgaard Nielsen at Restaurant Kong Hans Kaelder in Copenhagen – before returning to the UK and taking up his current role at Whatley Manor.
It’s been a bit of a whirlwind since I joined Whatley Manor. In three years we’ve won two Michelin stars, four AA rosettes and installed a new kitchen. We’ve had a lot of support from the owners which has helped and are just constantly moving forward with what we offer.
I oversee a team of 16 chefs for three different restaurant outlets. We all work from one kitchen, but the restaurants are all different. The Dining Room serves one menu that consists of 14 courses, while we do small plates inspired by different ingredients from around the world in the Green Room (the hotel’s events space) and in Grey’s Brasserie we offer more relaxed English-style food.
Accolades ultimately do help with the business like this. We are a 23-bedroom hotel in the middle of the countryside, not a city. The closest places are Bristol and Bath, and they are several miles away, so we need to be able to draw people in. Because we strive to create the right atmosphere and deliver what our guests want to get these accolades, that pushes everything our way really.
Getting the food right, consistency, a strong team and not making any drastic changes. That’s how we make things a success. We have to get it right from the offset, then it’s all about natural progression and not about trying to run before we can walk.
I don’t feel pressure to retain Michelin stars. I don’t think Michelin would have awarded us the second star if they didn’t think we were ready for it. We were already working at the same standard before we won the second star, so it’s not something we really think about.
Bookings increased in The Dining Room when we got our second Michelin star. We also got a lot more attention on social media, but nothing changed in the kitchen.
The chefs I’ve worked with have all shaped me and my cuisine in different ways. They are chefs with very different restaurants and very different ways of working, but I’ve learnt something from each of them. I started off with a classic French background, then went modern European with Sat [Bains] and then went to Corey Lee at Benu in San Francisco – a three Michelin star Asian restaurant. I took things from each one and have put things together to create my own style.
I keep in touch with everyone I’ve ever worked with. The most important thing as a chef is not to burn bridges with your former chefs or employers because the industry’s too small. Sat [Bains of Restaurant Sat Bains]and Sam Moody [previously of Bath Priory] have been here to eat at Whatley Manor, but Corey Lee’s over in California, so he hasn’t been yet.
I think it’s paramount as a young chef to get experience in a variety of restaurants. Everyone wants to move around, learn and gather as much information as they can. Working in different places with different types of cuisines and accolades helps you decide what it is you want to pursue personally.
Everything we do here is non-stop. It’s a hotel, not a single restaurant and we don’t look at it as a single entity because we have guests coming for different reasons. We have to accommodate all of them.
It’s great to have a kitchen garden here. We can’t use it in the way that I’d really like to because we haven’t got the space, so we do what we can with it. We try and utilise it as much as possible and use a small amount in Grey’s Brasserie. There’s scope to make it bigger, but it all comes down to money and what we can invest in, plus there’s so much going on right now. We need to wait and see for that one.
We’ve just started using 100% Aberdeen Angus organic beef reared by our next-door neighbour. The cows are kept a fence away from the hotel. That’s really exciting. We take a whole beast and use different cuts in The Dining Room and in Grey’s Brasserie. We change it up all the time, The Dining Room will have the prime cuts and we’ll use up anything else in the Brasserie. We have a hot pot on in the Brasserie at the moment using the scrag of the beef.
We have very high staff retention in the kitchen. I’ve had 50% of my team now for over two and a half years. We’re very respectful of each other. I want my guys to be happy here. They don’t work under some kind of crazy regime where they can’t speak to anyone or do anything. They all respect the way I like it to be run. They like the quiet atmosphere.
Training is so important. We have a certain way of working here and as soon as a new chef comes in they quickly become part of the brigade. We have an open kitchen, so there’s guest interaction, which means they have to adapt quickly to the way we work and understand the dos and don’ts of front-of-house. There’s a lot to think about every day, but they are supported.
I don’t know what’s next for me. It’s early days with us gaining the second star in October and I’m responsible for 16 chefs who look up to me. If I left, what are they going to do? I have some personal goals I’d like to achieve in the future, but I’m happy where I am. There are so many aspects to this role and ultimately, it’s not just about me anymore.
H&C News would like to thank Niall for his insight and his time, much appreciated chef. We would also like to thank Deb Porter for her sublime photography.