One of Britain’s most exciting chefs, Ricki Weston reveals what’s next for his immersive dining experience at Whatley Manor Hotel & Spa’s Michelin star restaurant The Dining Room and how he likes to keep diners guessing.
Ricki Weston stands at the pass of the expansive and gleaming kitchen of The Dining Room, casting a masterful eye over his showstopping dishes. His kitchen is a flurry of hushed activity –there is no shouting nor clamouring – just a confident, quick-footed buzz honed by the cool, calm executive chef. “I don’t like combative kitchens. You don’t need to shout and holler. I like my team to be focused and creative,” Ricki says.
A rising star of modern British gastronomy, Ricki was appointed executive chef of Whatley Manor Hotel & Spa’s Michelin-star restaurant The Dining Room in 2022, having been part of the team at Whatley Manor for over three years prior to that. Young, ambitious, and experimental, Ricki continues to elevate Whatley Manor’s multicourse menu at The Dining Room – and while tasting menus can sometimes overpromise and underperform, Ricki’s creation is undoubtedly one of the finest culinary experiences across the British Isles.
“Tasting menus are so much more than just putting a menu on a piece of paper. These days, guests are looking for that immersive experience, something that is different to what other people do,” says Ricki.
Ensconced behind buttery Cotswold-stone walls, the hotel’s immaculate lawns, tinkling waterlily ponds and Grade-II-listed manor house trailed in ivy, climbing roses and wisteria is picture-book perfect – a decadent hideaway one would send an out-of-towner to if you wanted to epitomise English country-hotel elegance in a snapshot. Add to this, Ricki’s dining tour de force and guests are left wanting for nothing.
Diners embarking on the tasting menu at Whatley Manor begin with drinks served overlooking the gardens or in the flower-festooned drawing room. Guests are delivered a brief menu hinting at what is to come… ‘scallop, cucumber, trout roe’, and ‘lamb, asparagus, black olive’ pique interest on our visit.
Ricki and his team create a unique sense of occasion from the very first morsels – with the amuse bouche served in the gleaming kitchen itself. An exhilarating peek behind the curtain, it’s an experience where diners can talk to the chefs as they walk you through the small bites – in our case, a delectable array of nibbles including lobster, potato and turbot skirt, and a fantastic beetroot suet tart served on smoking, aromatic pine needles.
“Guests start their journey with us in the kitchen having a few little bites. It’s an exciting part of what we can offer, as guests get the chance to come into the kitchen and see the chefs and ask questions about the food and the concept of the menu. I think it’s a memorable start, as it adds to the occasion and helps to deliver an unforgettable evening.”
Tasting style and seasons
Ricki describes his style at Whatley as British-influenced with classical cooking techniques. “We try to source as much as we can from the UK, utilising the seasons as a benchmark for the menu. We are lucky enough to have a beautiful stateof-the-art kitchen that runs completely on electric power situated just outside of the restaurant, and we use as much as we can from our garden.”
The kitchen gardens, particularly during summer, are joyful and open for guests to wander. On our visit we were greeted by a canopy of delicate trailing sweet peas in bloom alongside beds brimming with rainbows of chard, plumes of lettuce and bright, plentiful courgettes.
“When guests sit down, they can look out on to the gardens and see different produce that appears throughout the evening,” Ricki adds.
“A couple of dishes that I really like currently are the Jacob’s ladder with smoked eel, and the plum dessert that we finish with. The Jacob’s ladder course uses the short rib of the cow and incorporates a couple of classical techniques to bring out the richness of the beef and contrast this with the smokiness of the eel. When we did the first illustration of the menu it was important for me to celebrate real local ingredients.
The cows are farmed next to the hotel by a farmer called Tom Wakefield who we have a great relationship with. It’s a small herd of cattle which are 100 per cent grassfed organic Aberdeen Angus and the meat is phenomenal and really showcases the local aspect of the menu we have created.”
“The plum course is the one dish that we have kept on the menu since the first week. For me it’s a perfect way to end the experience, combining sweet, salty and acidity all in one. We preserve plums throughout the year to be able to have it on year round. This is another part of the ethos here – to reduce as much waste as possible. Whether that’s through fermentation or vinegars using the stones of the plum – everything is looked at as a possible product that we can use in one form or another.”
This mindful approach saw The Dining Room’s sustainable practices rewarded the new Green Michelin star in January 2021 – an accolade it retained in 2022 alongside just 23 restaurants in the UK.
Inspiration and precision
Prior to Whatley Manor, Ricki spent three years at the two-star Michelin restaurant Sat Bains in Nottingham – an experience that is etched in his memory.
“Sat Bains will always be one of my biggest inspirations. The intensity and understanding of flavours and ethos in that restaurant is a massive part of the chef I am today. Such forward-thinking and uniqueness makes it one of the best restaurants in the country.
“I have always remembered how Sat [Bains] used to compare aspects of a tasting menu to a theatre production – meaning you have to consider how to keep viewers engaged for two or three hours and moderate the tempo of the service and keep the experience entertaining and surprising.
“That’s why sometimes it’s very quick between courses and at some points we slow things right down and tie in a more elaborate wine service. Or, we dress and reveal a dish in a certain way, utilising not just taste but scent, sight, and sound.”
Thus, every course at The Dining Room is skillfully presented and impeccably designed – whether unveiled with a dramatic puff of aromatic smokiness, or with intricate placement of cerise pink singular petals from the garden – no dish is without a level of drama, intrigue, thought and excitement to make it stand out.
Flavours, textures and tempo all play integral parts to Ricki’s cooking. “Quite a few of the dishes are inspired by nostalgic memories of my childhood and favourite dishes,” Ricki says. “I love food that evokes memories. Take our mussel tart, for example. A big part of my childhood was going to the coast and walking past the fish markets and smelling all the produce and sitting on the seafront tasting cockles, mussels and having all those salty sea days. I think this dish imparts those kind of memories for diners, too.”
New for 2023
Spring 2023 sees the launch of the new tasting menu at The Dining Room, including tweaks to muchloved dishes and some newcomers. “The new menu is massively inspired by my own perceptions and what food means to me. We are continuously looking at new dishes and ingredients that fit within the menu style that we have created. Everyone in my kitchen has fantastic experience and knowledge that is brought to the table when we develop a new menu. We are also looking more closely at evolving the guest journey throughout the evening and thinking about how we can make their experience even more personal for each guest that walks through the door.”
“We are using brill as our new fish course, which is such a great product. The freshness and sweetness of the fish is cooked with an English sparkling wine and scallop mousse and works beautifully. We wrap the whole fillet of the fish with truffles from Zak at Wiltshire Truffles, which gives the dish great contrast and earthiness. It’s a dish that showcases brilliant English ingredients.
“Field to plate and seasonal produce will always be a focus. As a chef, inspiration comes from all over. I think the chef Poul Andrias Ziska in the Faroe Islands is amazing when it comes to produce. Using ingredients from around the island, techniques that are passed down through generations and having achieved two Michelin stars in such a remote place with limited supply is a testament I think to his understanding of ingredients and habitat of the islands.”
Amid the grounds and luxuriously appointed bedrooms of Whatley Manor, things are going from strength to strength.
The hotel has become the first countryside luxury hotel in the UK to achieve Silver accreditation through EarthCheck, a leading business advisory group specialising in sustainability for the travel and tourism industry. Whatley has also a host of other awards to its name from ‘Best Sustainable Achievement’ at the 2022 Boutique Hotelier Awards to a recent Condé Nast Johansens Sustainability Award.
Much more work was required than simply replacing the odd single-use plastic (though this has also been done in every guest room). General manager Sue Williams says the Earthcheck accreditation is the fruit of several years of diligent work across the hotel, including overhauling the waste management, utilities and supplier relationships.
“We are proof that you can be a five-star luxurious destination but also be environmentally positive,” Sue adds.
The proof, they say, is in the pudding and every inch of Whatley feels individual and sumptuous. Its award-winning eco-conscious Aquarias Spa features a large hydro pool; thermal experiences, including a tepidarium and steam grotto; plus an outdoor pool space and a plethora of bespoke and high-end treatments. The spa also offers a floatation pod and is set in blissful surrounds.
The hotel has deluxe bedrooms and suites overlooking the gardens and courtyards, meaning guests are spoilt for choice. Welcome touches – such as the home-baked shortbread awaiting you in your room, walking maps to explore the grounds, and seasonal flowers – make a stay all the more ’boutique’ in feel. Ricki also oversees the afternoon tea offering and the hotel’s more informal Grey’s Brasserie, but be sure to save room for the menu experience at The Dining Room – it will not disappoint.
Ricki Weston’s top local spots…
▶ Stroud Farmers Market takes place every Saturday and is a multi-award winning market that offers a rich variety of local produce from farmers, growers and producers in the Five Valleys in Gloucestershire.
▶ Malmesbury has its own farmers and local artisan market every Friday from 9am to 3pm, so you can always stop off to take a stroll and enjoy the range of stalls ahead of checking into Whatley Manor.
▶ Whatley Manor is located next door to Tracklements, where you will be able to see where they make the world-renowned condiments, as well as taste and buy them to enjoy at home.
Words | Chantal Haines