Niall Keating is executive chef of Whatley Manor in the Cotswolds, where he gained a Michelin star in 2017, less than a year after arriving at the country house hotel. In 2018 he was named Michelin Young European Chef of the Year, and earlier this year he shot to fame after his squid ink tortellini won the fish course in the 2020 edition of the Great British Menu. Fusing classic French cooking techniques with Asian influences, prior to Whatley Manor Niall trained under the wing of Sat Bains.
Describe to me your earliest food memory….
My mum’s Sunday roasts, and banana sandwiches with salty butter and white bread – if you haven’t tried one, you don’t know what you’re missing!
Did you always dream of becoming a chef or did you fall into it?
I fell into it after working in a pub as a teenager. I probably would have pursued rugby if I hadn’t become a chef.
What is the dish that you have created that you’re most proud of and why?
The squid ink tortellini that we serve at the Dining Room at Whatley Manor. It’s original, but also a nod to all the places I’ve worked and travelled, so it’s quite special.
What is your ultimate food and wine match?
Sat Bains introduced me to an amazing Australian wine – Leeuwin Estate Art Series Chardonnay. It’s perfect with a simple piece of white fish poached in butter. I recently created a gin called Restless, with Salcombe Distillery, and that pairs perfectly with oysters.
What is the most memorable meal you’ve ever had in your life?
Without a doubt, it’s the dinner I had at Benu in San Francisco. I had paired drinks (a mix of wine, beer and saké) and I was dining by myself, because I like my own company. Benu made such an impression on me that six months later I moved to San Francisco to work there.
What’s the weirdest thing you’ve eaten while on your travels?
I ate scorpion in Mexico. It tasted like dry dog food, but washing it down with Tequila definitely helped!
Who is your culinary hero and why?
It would be impossible to pick only one. Michael Caines gave me such a well-rounded foundation of cooking knowledge. Working with Sat Bains showed me a totally different way of looking at food. Sue William, the general manager at Whatley Manor, is my industry mum, and Sat’s my industry dad. And Corey Lee has always been such a support to me – I still speak to him regularly.
What’s the biggest blunder you’ve made while on the job?
When I worked at Benu, Corey and the team went to cook at an event in Korea. We prepped the baby gem lettuce for one of the courses which was flown over on ice. I hadn’t checked them before we left and when we arrived Corey said the lettuces were far too small and couldn’t be used. I’d been in Korea for six hours and had to go out looking for more in the markets!
What is your favourite season for food?
Summer, when British produce is at its most fresh and abundant. We’re very lucky at Whatley to have greenhouses filled with our own ingredients.
What single ingredient do you rely on most in the kitchen?
It’s a tie between butter and soy sauce, which I use like salt as a seasoning.
What is the best bottle of wine you’ve ever drunk and why?
I know I’m repeating myself, but it’s the Leeuwin Estate Art Series Chardonnay. It’s just as much about the memories of drinking it as it is about the wine itself. I wouldn’t call myself a wine expert, but it just blew me away.
What is your guilty pleasure food and why?
Poppadums – I’ll order ten and devour them on the sofa. They’re addictive.
If you had to only eat one country’s cuisine for the rest of your life, what would it be and why?
I love Danish food – there’s something simple and earthy about it that reminds me of home, but it would have to be Japanese food. I couldn’t live without ramen or sushi.