Chef Richard Wilkins is championing classic French cuisine in the suburbs of Essex, reports Neil Gerrard
The main shopping parade, Buckhurst Hill in Essex, on the tail end of the Central Line, has so many Range Rovers parked along it that it looks like one extended luxury car dealership.
You can see why Richard Wilkins, director and chef of his eponymous restaurant, thought it might be a good place to set up shop. Opening late last year with the help of three shareholders, he has invested £100,000 to convert what was once a clothes shop to a miniature upscale eaterie with 26 seats and an ambition to turn the local population on to the delights of fine dining, making few concessions to the current trend towards more casual dining environments.
At just 29, Wilkins already has experience working in some of Britain and France’s top kitchens, including for Gordon Ramsay at Pétrus, London and Trianon Palace in Versailles, the three-Michelin-starred Waterside Inn, Bray, Berkshire, and Maison Pic in Valence, France.
Restaurant Richard Wilkins is painted bright white, with few adornments other than some brightly coloured artwork. There is a compact open kitchen, but Wilkins has some nifty kit at his disposal, including the smallest type of Rational oven you can get, a custom-made range of induction hobs, a plancha, a Thermomix and a salamander grill.
“I am not trendy,” Wilkins admits, unapologetically. “I like classical French food. I was trained classically French and I like eating in one-, two- and three-Michelin-starred restaurants. It’s good to be able to sit down and have a bit of comfort and luxury, and I think chefs have forgotten about that a bit to be honest.”
It’s a compact menu (£35 for three courses at lunch, £45 for three courses at dinner), as befits the small kitchen run by Wilkins and just one other chef, but the quality of what it turns out is as high as you would expect from a chef with his CV. A simple starter of pan-fried Chalosse foie gras, Waldorf salad and banyuls vinaigrette relies on the quality of the produce, with the salad offering up a touch of acidity to cut through the fat.
Wilkins’ enthusiasm for high-end cooking can be seen in the tagliatelle carbonara. He has been playing around with agnolotti with the carbonara sauce inside, taking inspiration from Heinz Beck’s dish at La Pergola in Italy and Apsleys in London. “I haven’t perfected it yet,” explains Wilkins. “It’s all a progression – how can we tweak it and make it better without it being a gimmick? Everything on the plate needs to please the palate and be like an explosion in your mouth.”
The Caterer visits just before Christmas and Wilkins’ venison loin cleverly works in a reference to the festive season, thanks to a roasted celeriac purée and creamed Brussels sprouts. “It sounds like something your mum would make, but the leaves of the sprouts are cooked really delicately in boiling water, still al dente, and added to reduced cream. We also have some chopped chestnuts and some chopped chestnut mushrooms going through there. It is creamed, but it still tastes fresh because of how lightly we have cooked the sprouts.” To accompany the venison is an indulgent huntsman’s sauce with dark chocolate.
He’s also proud of the monkfish dish, which is cooked on the plancha before being finished in the oven and left to rest until it is “à la nacre”. “When all the proteins are starting to set you get that real slick colour throughout the fish,” he says.
The challenge now is to get the word out. When The Caterer visits, he is bringing in about 80 covers a week, but hopes to get to 150. Friday and Saturday dinners sort themselves out, but weekend lunchtimes and midweek dinners have been more of a struggle. Wilkins doesn’t have the PR budget of some other operators, but has been personally handing out flyers at train stations and has already received the attention of notable bloggers, including Bitten & Written’s Zeren Wilson. He also has the advantage of Matthew Hough, former maitre d’ of Michelin-starred Hedone in Chiswick, working front of house.
The next step is to expand the kitchen further into the restaurant, moving the pass and the bar forwards without significantly reducing the number of covers that can be accommodated. In the meantime, Wilkins is pleased with the feedback he has been receiving from diners: “It has been brilliant. Some don’t get it but most of those people haven’t actually been in. They see the menu and are a bit stand-offish because they are used to having the DJ and all the flashing bells and whistles.
“They aren’t used to this. But the people who are used to going to central London come in and go, bloody hell, I can’t believe I have this on my doorstep and I don’t have to go on the tube into central London for this style of food.”
75 Queens Road, Buckhurst Hill, Essex IG9 5BW