If you saw a distressed and rain-soaked journalist running along Kensington High Street last week, barging past fur-clad ladies and gouging the eyes of innocent shoppers with the spokes of his umbrella; that was me. I was late for an interview and I detest being late for anything. It’s rude and there really is no excuse; in this case, every traffic light in London conspired against me and my Sat-Nav tried to send me to Belgium. To make matters worse, I was meeting a chef on his precious day off, and if there’s anyone you don’t want to be late for it’s a person whose world revolves around punctual timing.
The chef in question was Mark Kempson, the man at the helm at Philip Howard’s new restaurant, Kitchen W8. Expecting to be given a Ramsay-style dressing down for being late and made to stand in a corner facing the wall á la Marco Pierre White’s School of Management, I was pleasantly surprised to find that Mark is a relaxed young man with a gentleman’s demeanour. I shouldn’t have found this surprising though, because Mark’s mentors – John Campbell and Phil Howard most notably – are known for their composed conduct and this has clearly rubbed off on him. “I’ve been quite lucky in my career,” he told me, “All the chefs I’ve worked for have been calm and civil in their approach. It just shows that you don’t have to scream and shout at people to run a professional kitchen.” I agreed, thankful that I had not been made to do the washing up as punishment for my lateness.
Chefs these days are increasingly exposed to the limelight of television appearances and media publicity, which is a great way to promote their restaurants and the industry in general, depending on how they go about it. Mark is an obvious ambassadorial candidate – he has an affable personality and he makes a good role model – but he isn’t chasing publicity. In fact, this was his very first press interview.
Mark’s curiosity in the restaurant industry was first sparked at the age of thirteen when he took a part-time job as a glass collector in a large restaurant, and after a year he began to help out in the kitchen too. “It was really interesting going into the kitchen and seeing the buzz. When you enter into that world and see it all coming together in the background, it really is quite impressive and I found it fascinating.”
At the age of fifteen and seeking more experience at the stove, Mark found himself in chef’s whites at a local hotel restaurant. “There was only one chef there and I used to cover some evenings.” By this time his desire to cook was becoming a focussed undertaking. Most teenagers don’t have a clue what they want to do in life, but Mark had a goal. “I then moved to Blubeckers in a part-time job for three years, and that’s where I started to take a serious interest in cooking and devoted all of my spare time to it. While my friends were out having fun after school, I was in the kitchen learning to be a chef.”
During college, where he studied hospitality and catering, Mark continued to work extra-curricular hours at Pennyhill Park Hotel and upon graduation he secured a full time job there under the experienced hand of Marc Wilkinson, who now runs the Michelin-starred Restaurant Fraiche. This was Mark’s first experience of high-end cooking. “We used very fine ingredients and a lot of produce I’d never worked with before; pigeon, wild mushrooms, foie gras. It was a small team so I was running a section from the outset, and that was a fantastic learning experience.”
Two years later and with a solid foundation, John Campbell took the young chef into his domain at the celebrated Vineyard at Stockcross, and Mark gradually worked his way up to junior sous chef. “John Campbell has so much to offer, it’s not just about cooking. You learn about organisation, how to run a kitchen and deal with suppliers. I worked on all the sections including the pastry. It was a great time in my career and I feel privileged to have worked there.”
After three years at The Vineyard and having been a part of the team that earned its second Michelin star, Mark had the urge to experience high-end London cheffing and secured himself a place at one of London’s most celebrated restaurants, The Square. “I’d heard a lot about Phil, his food and the respect he’s got, and I wanted to be a part of that. I knew it was going to be extremely hard work but I wanted the challenge. I’ve always strived to learn and to push myself, and this was an incredible opportunity.”
Phil’s kitchen was a very different experience to The Vineyard and notably intense. “I learnt so much at The Square about depth of flavour, using seasonal ingredients, how to really exploit the finest produce that money can buy. We learnt to utilize ingredients and to use everything with no waste at all. You have to be intelligent in your approach; if an ingredient isn’t used on a particular dish because it’s the wrong size or shape for the presentation, then it will go into a sauce or onto another dish on the lunch menu.”
Phil Howard is a good talent spotter. He launched Brett Graham into the fore, who’s recently achieved two Michelin stars of his own at The Ledbury, and having met with Mark it’s no surprise that Phil saw fit to entrust this new venture to him. At a mere 27 years old, Mark shows maturity, enthusiasm and dedication, and having learnt from some of the best names in the culinary world this quality teaching has obviously inspired him. “I have a great respect for Phil, as a chef, as a businessman and a gentleman, he’s the complete package; a perfect example of what you can achieve by getting your head down and focussing on the job.”
Now overseeing the operation at Kitchen W8 and already earning much praise from both the press and the public, Mark certainly has his hands full but he has a strong team behind him. Three chefs in his brigade have previously worked at The Square and two have worked at The Vineyard, so it’s no wonder that the food emerging from the kitchen here is cooked and presented to high standards, even if they are not seeking Michelin acclaim. “We’re not chasing a Michelin star; that’s not what we’re trying to do here. We’re offering great food at a good price, in a relaxed atmosphere and with an informative, friendly service. If we get recognised by Michelin then that’s an added bonus, but we’re not going down the traditional fine dining route.”
Nevertheless, that classical training and a high-end approach to running a restaurant means that Kitchen W8 is still a cut above what you might call a local neighbourhood haunt. Employing a philosophy similar to Galvin’s Bistrot De Luxe, it’s all about supplying superior cooking at an affordable price. “We’ve got the luxury of tapping into good suppliers who are passionate about their produce, which means we get top quality ingredients for every dish. Even if we’re doing steak and chips, it’s still a great quality product you’re getting.” Having sampled their food, I’d have to agree.
Mark and his team at Kitchen W8 are an inspiration. Running a great restaurant is not about shouting in the kitchen, appearing on television or hanging out with supermodels. It’s all about hard work, dedication and a passion for learning; and of course, a love of food. The residents of Kensington who are fortunate enough to call Kitchen W8 their local restaurant are a lucky bunch indeed. Mark Kempson is a name that we can expect to see around for a long time to come and what an asset he is to the London dining scene. After all, he doesn’t even shout at tardy journalists. He must be a good chap.