It’s fair to say that Harriet Mansell doesn’t like to let the grass grow. Since gracing our television screens on The Great British Menu, she’s been busy opening the doors to two of Lyme Regis’s most popular eateries: Robin Wylde and Lilac. Both restaurants are a fitting tribute to her love of wild food and seasonal fare and have earned her some serious recognition as one of the West Country’s rising stars. We sat down with Harriet to find out more about her foodie ethos and her journey to date…
Can you recall your earliest memory of cooking in a professional kitchen?
I didn’t really cook in a professional kitchen properly until I was in my 20s, as a commis chef at Mark Hix’s oyster bar in Selfridges. In my teens I spent a lot of time in professional kitchens around chefs, but I was mostly KP-ing (kitchen porter) and prepping the occasional salad. I still got that buzz for cooking watching the chefs at work. I also cooked in chalets and on yachts before embarking on my professional career.
You’ve graced our television screens and opened two popular restaurants – so what would you say have been your career highlights to date?
Opening Robin Wylde has to be my biggest achievement. Having my own restaurant has always been my goal and despite doubts as to whether I was ready and if I had enough experience, I thought to myself it’s now or never and I’m so glad I went for it. Now we have this little corner of complete culinary creativity with a wonderful little team. It’s the gift that keeps on giving.
Can you tell us why you chose Lyme Regis as the base for your two restaurants?
I grew up in this part of the world in Sidmouth. I found out about this place called The Pop-Up Kitchen in Lyme and managed to hire it for four nights a week to start testing out my very early concept of what the restaurant might be. Then I discovered that Lyme Regis is this really vibrant seaside town with great people and a strong creative undercurrent. I put out word that I wanted to open a permanent restaurant and not long after I found the perfect place for Robin Wylde.
Is there a common thread that ties Robin Wylde and LILAC together? In what ways do their ‘vibes’ differ?
They are both very seasonal and very local, so they have that ethos running through them. Robin Wylde is the fine dining arm of the two and is a lot more foraging led because I’m the head chef and it’s my passion to be able to connect with the local area and allow my guests to do the same through their dining experience. We don’t have a kitchen garden or a plot of land, so we look to wild ingredients to guide our menu. At Lilac, the focus is more on produce from local producers and farms. We’re big on sustainability and limiting our waste, so much so that waste food from the Robin Wylde kitchen is incorporated into the Lilac menu, so the two restaurants work symbiotically in that way.
When I first heard about Robin Wylde, I (wrongly) assumed that Robin was the Head Chef! What’s the story behind the name?
I needed a name for the business and I was chatting with a friend who asked me what best described the restaurant. She said ‘think of something English’ and the first thing that popped into my head was a robin. I must say, I regretted the name initially as you can’t imagine how many punters have asked to see the chef Robin at the end of the meal! Now it’s taken on a life of its own and I like that it’s not only a gender-neutral name but also that it sounds like a fictional character. A restaurant shouldn’t just be about one person, it’s about the whole team.
What 3 words best summarize your approach to cooking?
Intuitive, spontaneous & fresh.
Can you share some of your favourite foraged ingredients that are in season right now? How are you utilising these on your current menu?
Rowanberries, meadowsweet & ground ivy (wild mint). Supposedly ground ivy is a great treatment for tinnitus – another reason I love wild ingredients, it’s not just unique flavours but their medicinal properties that make them so valuable.
What’s an unexpected – but surprisingly great – flavour combination that we might find on your menu?
Oyster, woodruff (vanilla notes), black mustard (wasabi notes) and herb Robert (super savoury flavour).
If we opened your fridge at home, what would we find inside?
I live with my parents at the moment so whatever they’re eating. I always have a big block of feta in my fridge. My go to dinner is roasted veggies with feta crumbled on top. Also, a random assortment of things I’ve foraged on my way home that are in the fridge waiting until I figure out what to do with them.
Are there any foodie fads or current trends that you won’t be trying yourself?
Salt Bae’s gold leaf on a steak. Although I heard the other day that they’ve had to stop due to supply chain issues…unsurprisingly!
Who else – in your opinion – is killing it right now in the southwest restaurant scene?
Ellie Wentworth at The Angel. I took my mum there for Mother’s Day and Ellie invited us into the kitchen for a chat. Her food is executed to perfection in a beautiful setting.
Which restaurants are at the top of your bucket list (anywhere in the world)?
Garima Aurora’s Restaurant Gaa
I’d also love to go back to Ikoyi – Jeremy Chan and I were together at both Noma and Dinner by Heston, and it’s been amazing to see his career progress.
It’s no secret that thriving in the hospitality industry can be hard and it takes its toll on your mental health. I’m curious to know how you try to maintain a positive working environment for yourself and for your team?
It can be really difficult so I have really tried to create a safe little pocket of this industry, an environment where my team can thrive. When I first got into the industry, I really viewed chefs as rockstars and believed in the idea that to make it you had to have grit and pay your dues. But then I started questioning that, at the end of the day it’s just food so why can’t we make something amazing in a serene environment instead of a stressful one? So, then I started to pay attention to and look up to chefs who were doing just that. We have a very open and supportive environment for people to discuss mental health and personal growth. We also make the time to get out and forage, which is so beneficial to creativity and moral.
What’s the biggest challenge you see facing the industry at this moment in time?
The ongoing staffing crisis and the recession. We’re in an ever-evolving landscape with a culture of fear when it comes to financial stability. In a cost-of-living crisis, one of the first things to go for many is eating out. We have very slim margins when it comes to turning a profit and the future is uncertain. But I’m passionate about my restaurants and will do everything I can to keep the doors open.
Do you have any exciting collaborations or projects on the horizon?
I have a series of foraging walks coming up. Some more food focused, others focused on reiki and connecting to the natural world.
At Lilac, we have our Sunday Sessions series. Every week, we invite local musicians into the restaurant for an evening of music, wine and great food!
Find out more:
Robin Wylde Silver Street, Lyme Regis DT7 3HR; www.robinwylde.com
Lilac, 57-58 Broad Street, Lyme Regis DT7 3QF; www.lilacwine.co.uk
Images by Matt Austin Photography