This is Harriet Mansell, head chef at the the new Wild Beer at Wapping Wharf, who we chat to in the new issue of Crumbs Bath and Bristol. Here, you can read the full interview, and get to know her properly…
Talk to us about your fondest foodie memories from childhood.
In the town where I am from, Sidmouth, there is an International School for children from across the world. My family acted as a host family, so I grew up having lots of children from all over the world share my home. Some would bring rice and sugar treats, and others would bring herbs and spices. I realised there was a unifying force of taste and transcendence of language and culture found in cooking and eating together. An Italian girl once cooked her Nonna’s tomato and basil sauce; the simplicity and taste of that sauce had me reeling as a child – why didn’t all tomato sauce taste like that?
When did you begin cooking?
Domestically, as a child, messing about in the kitchen with my mother. She rarely bought sweet treats for the house, so the only way to get a tasty snack was to make it. I think that really propagated a desire to make flapjacks and cake most evenings after school.
What made you take it up professionally?
I went through school with the belief instilled in me that a wholesome profession such as law would be the correct route. I remember saying to my family when I was 12 or so that I’d like to have my own restaurant, but was later told that I would never earn any money, work stupidly long hours and regret my decision. It was only after university that I pieced it together; I didn’t have to do what I was expected to, I could do what I was truly passionate about, because I had a choice. Henceforth I moved into cooking full time, and not once have I looked back. I’m lucky to know that what I do is more than a job, it’s who I am.
How did you get into the industry?
When I was younger I was always in part-time hospitality jobs, and after that I worked a winter ski season surrounded by amazing chefs, then moved on to a superyacht for a summer where I was able to source food and cook. All the pieces of experience – from a teenage KP to sandwich maker, being on coleslaw duty and making grilled cheese scones – came into play (who knew?). So then I went and commenced my professional training.
What experience have you found most invaluable in your career so far?
I worked for a few months as a stagier in Copenhagen at Noma. It opened my eyes.
What’s the toughest thing about working in the industry?
Hours are long, and it can be very stressful at times. This however, is coupled with the fact that I absolutely love what I do, so it’s all a balance.
What attracted you to Wild Beer Co?
When I first spoke to Andrew from Wild Beer, I realised that we had a very similar outlook and ethos when it came to products and flavours. It seemed an incredibly friendly, people-orientated company, with ideas on food and drink that very much lined up with my own.
What do you like best about your job here?
The company are incredibly concerned with quality, taste and produce; they have a real interest in seeking new flavours. People are open and excited – I love that. The brewery is making a beer from mushrooms, and another from wild sea herbs that I have sourced for them. It’s exciting!
And how has your role here helped you develop as a chef?
Constantly thinking of new things, thinking of the beer pairings. Restaurants around the world aren’t just offering wine flights anymore, they’re offering drink flights; anything from wine, miscellaneous fermented beverages, to beer. It’s about taste, enjoyment and being challenged. And that’s what pushes you.
So, you’ve collaborated on the menu with London restauant, Hook. How have you found that?
It’s certainly been interesting! The core part of the menu comes from Hook, which is a forward thinking fish and chip restaurant, and we have built the rest of the menu around this so that it complements the brand. There has, therefore, been a tremendous focus on fish, which has been wonderful as we speak to our fish supplier based down in Brixham every, which means we often have varying and less commonplace species.
How would you describe your personal style of cooking?
Intuitive. Ever-changing. Natural. Nothing too prescribed.
Do customers get to see examples of that at Wild Beer?
I think so – if they come to one of our events. That’s where I have had the most opportunity to run free, so to speak. We have had two main ones so far since we opened – one for a Norwegian Brewer called Nogne O, and one for the Rainbow Project. These have been great for showcasing the kind of food that I really like to cook, in terms of working with seasonal local ingredients, and lots of wild ones too. Both tasting menus were paired to the beers so both were incredibly considered events, in terms of flavour compatability, but also remained spontaneous for the very undetermined reason that you don’t know exactly what will come through the door since there are always a few surprises from the forager and the veg supplier.
How do you hope to develop the restaurant, going forward?
I think that the restaurant is really doing well – it’s buzzing on a Thursday, Friday and Saturday. If we keep the quality of the food exceptionally high and vary it where it’s appropriate, then we can keep customers interested, but also supply the food that they will come to know us for. And that’s not mentioning the ridiculous range of beers that are on offer to accompany the food as well. Wild Beer has absolutely nailed it with their beer offering, with a constantly changing range on tap.
What are your favourite ingredients to use at the minute?
Right now, there are amazing coloured vegetables around, including end-of-season heritage tomato, squash, beetroot, purple kale, damson… There are still lots of sea herbs working wonderfully in food too, especially with fish, such as arrow grass and purslane. Three-cornered leek seems to be flourishing, along with other wild garlics such as crow garlic and wild leek seeds. Mushrooms are incredible right now.
Are there any particular suppliers for the restaurant that you’d like to shout out?
Total Produce have been incredible for us; Jay has helped us out no end in sourcing local and in-season food. Also Chris Hope, our unbelievable forager; he’s a bonafide wild foods aficionado, qualified up to the nines and with enough passion to encourage any chef.
What’s your favourite autumnal comfort food to make at home?
I’m highly changeable and spontaneous with what I like to eat. Half the time I don’t even know, and then I see or think of an ingredient, and go from there. I would say that right now, if I think about what I’d like to eat tomorrow when I cook at home on my day off, it’s probably a risotto. Something earthy and hearty and bolstered by cheese. But that could all change; what if the sun comes out?
Favourite current flavour combination?
There’s just too many good things out there right now; I’m fascinated by flavour combinations, and there’s just not that one ultimate pairing. That said, I like sour flavours right now, so beets with tang – earthy and tangy. We had a golden beetroot soup on the menu today, with buttermilk and Westcombe Cheddar croutons. Try that with a Sourdough Beer and some sourdough bread and butter.