Halo effect: How Michael Wignall breathed new life into the UK’s first gastropub

By Joe Lutrario contact

- Last updated on GMT

Chef Michael Wignall on his The Angel at Hetton gastropub and restaurant in North Yorkshire

Related tags: Michael wignall, The Angel at Hetton, Johanna Wignall, Gastropub, Chefs, Restaurant, Pub, Fine dining, Tasting menu, National restaurant awards

Yorkshire’s The Angel at Hetton is ascending once again thanks to its chef patron’s (relatively) down-to-earth approach and unquestionable skill in the kitchen.

Eyebrows were raised when Michael Wignall announced he and his wife Johanna were to take on The Angel at Hetton. Known for his technically flawless food and uncanny ability to bring a Michelin star - in some cases two of them - to expensively upholstered country house hotel dining rooms, he was not an obvious candidate to revive a once renowned Yorkshire Dales gastropub that had found itself ‘on its arse’ (his words).

When the pub reopened in 2018 the Lancashire-born chef surprised many by seemingly embracing his new, more humble surrounds with a relatively inexpensive menu of elevated pub classics. “Going straight in with a tasting menu would have been suicide. We’d have scared people off,” the 55-year-old rightly points out.

The approach worked a treat. People loved The Angel’s finely-tuned pub grub – Wignall’s chips were apparently transcendent – and the dining room was busy once again. The only problem was that Wignall found cooking hearty pub food close to unbearable. “I absolutely hated it,” he says, clearly still shaken by the episode. “It just wasn’t what I do. It was tough too. We were running around like idiots.”

Wignall reached his breaking point about a year in when he found out one of the world’s most famous chefs was coming for dinner. “I wasn’t cooking Thomas Keller a chicken burger. That was the turning point. Johanna and I just thought 'why are we doing this?’. We launched the tasting menu the day he came in, and we haven’t looked back really.”

But the pair still showed restraint, pricing The Angel’s inaugural tasting menu at under £70, an absolute bargain given Wignall’s pedigree and his uncompromising approach to his ingredients.

“We did it the right way, even if it was torturous for me,” he says. “I didn’t want to be seen as some fancy-pants chef coming crashing in and telling people they’re eating my food now. We also needed to work out who are guests were.”

Fast forward to today and The Angel’s tasting menu is priced at around £100, a figure that frankly makes many of Wignall’s peers look pricey, especially considering his double-starred background. To the surprise of absolutely nobody The Angel now has a Michelin star and is hotly tipped for a second. It has attracted a string of other awards too, including being named Gastropub of the Year twice in a row at our own Estrella Damm National Restaurant Awards.

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Food fit for the angels

The current tasting menu runs to seven courses not including the succession of snacks served at the beginning. Wignall has a rare talent for being able to include multiple elements on the plate without things getting muddled, in terms of both the eating and aesthetics. A deft blend of classical and contemporary, his plating style is neat as a pin and extremely pretty with the chef favouring white plates in order to make his colourful dishes pop.

Dishes include the likes of Shetland white crab with razor clams, buttermilk, oscietra caviar and green strawberries; Anjou pigeon with popcorn, endive, burnt orange and brioche; and Gariguette strawberries partnered with Mexican marigold, coconut and citrus.

Wignall says he avoids defining his food style when possible. "It's modernish European, I suppose. It’s very seasonal, but really that should go without saying at this level. I don't like to bang on about local either, but we do have a lot of good growers around here.”

While Wignall has no problem getting ingredients in from further afield when necessary - his A5 wagyu is flown in from Japan, for example - he says that The Angel and other top-flight restaurants now have no choice but to focus on local, seasonal produce due to how difficult and expensive it has to become to secure a steady supply of quality fresh ingredients from further afield.

“Prime ingredients have always been my focus. Our menu may not be that expensive, but it is packed with the very best. It's not a case of using cheaper or more cost-effective produce.

"On average we achieve a 71% GP. Some might argue that we could do fewer covers and make the same amount of revenue, but I'd rather be doing 30 to 50 covers at around £100 than 20 or so covers at a higher price point. Plus offering good value is great for repeat business. People don't just come once a year."

With demand now softening as the UK restaurant market lurches from post-pandemic boom to an historic cost-of-living crisis, the Wignall's restrained pricing strategy is paying off. 

"People are watching their money more. We're getting back to normal levels of business following the craziness of Covid, when it felt like every week was Christmas week. We should probably be a bit more expensive but we're making money now and that's enough for me. Plus being full makes the business easier to run.”

This pricing strategy would not be possible were it not for the accommodation side of the business. The Angel has 15 high-specification bedrooms which enjoy high occupancy rates all year round.

“Since Covid we’re finding that lots of people are coming for multiple nights, so having nice rooms is really important. We offer various packages and can create bespoke menus for people staying multiple nights, so guests don’t have to eat the same meal twice. The rooms are where the money is really, investing in them properly was certainly the right thing to do.”

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Returning to The North

The Angel is a homecoming of sorts for Wignall, who grew up an hour’s drive away on the other side of the Pennines in Preston. After a brief stint riding BMX – latterly at a professional level - he started his cooking career working under Paul Heathcote at Broughton Park in Preston.

Since his late 20s onwards, he has won (or retained) Michelin stars for every kitchen he has headed, with posts including Waldo’s restaurant at Cliveden Hotel; The Devonshire Arms; and Michael's Nook Country House.

In 2007, he got his name above the door at Surrey’s Penny Hill Park hotel and – five or so years later – won the restaurant two stars. A few years later he repeated the feat at Devon’s Gidleigh Park having taken over from Michael Caines, cementing his reputation as one of the UK’s most consistent and dedicated chefs.

Wignall would be the first to admit that he is more comfortable behind the stove than in front of the cameras and – save a single appearance on Great British Menu back in 2008 – has chosen to keep a relatively low profile for a chef of his stature.

Wignall left Gidleigh Park in 2017 to set up his first solo venture with Johanna, whom he had met while working at Penny Hill Park. A hospitality management graduate that has held senior roles in some of the UK’s best-known hotels, Johanna plays an integral but largely behind the scenes at The Angel. The couple co-own The Angel with friends James and Jo Wellock. The former is well-known in the industry having been at the helm of high-quality catering ingredients supplier Wellocks for the last 20 years or so. 

Made famous by the late chef Denis Watkins and his wife Juliet in the 1980s, The Angel is considered by many to be the original gastropub but had fallen on hard times when the pair took it on.

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A blessing in disguise

Part of the reason The Angel launched with such a basic menu was that it was originally supposed to be two venues in one. The Wignalls had planned to run The Angel as an upscale yet accessible pub in tandem with a smaller and far more ambitious restaurant across the road called Cove in reference to the nearby Malham Cove, an extraordinary limestone formation that draws visitors from all over the world.

Wrought of steel and glass and designed to embrace the rugged beauty of the Yorkshire Dales, the space would have presented a striking counterpoint to The Angel’s (then) trad pub aesthetic. While it was planned to take a relatively informal approach to modern cuisine, it billed itself as a restaurant that would pull no gastronomic punches, with an intention to deliver ‘modern, technical and meaningful’ cuisine from the off.

But Cove wasn’t to be. Some of the locals didn’t like the idea of an additional place to eat in their village, resulting in a costly two-year planning battle from which the Wignalls eventually walked away. While it wasn't a great start to their tenure at The Angel, it was probably for the best.

"It was frustrating at the time but following Covid and the staffing problems it has caused we're glad we aren't running two different places,” says Wignall. “We've also been able to spend more money turning The Angel into something we think is quite special". 

Relations with some of the locals remain tense, but Wignall says he and Johanna now have a lot of supporters in Hetton and its surrounds. “You’re always going to get that in a village,” he continues. “Some people don’t like change. But The Angel wasn’t making any money. The locals are important, but they aren’t enough to keep the business afloat. It was essential that we created something that pulls people in from further afield.”

It is this latter point that was the principal bone of contention for some of the locals. In its heyday under Watkins the pub regularly served more than 250 guests during a single service, which saw cars parked haphazardly all over the tiny village. But as Wignall points out, even with Cove The Angel would only have done a fraction of that volume (not to mention that – with drink driving now far less 'fashionable' than it once was - people are now much more likely to arrive to destination restaurants by taxi).  

The Wignalls recently submitted plans to open an additional five letting bedrooms within the site that would have been home to Cove. 

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Somewhere between a pub and a restaurant

So, The Angel has ended up as an amalgam of the two ventures the Wignalls initially planned to create. What in less experienced hands could have easily felt like an uneasy compromise has worked out rather well, with the duo now running a business that has one foot in the pub world and one in the restaurant world.

With no bar menu and a dining room that’s more World’s 50 Best Restaurants than The Fighting Cocks, whether The Angel can still be considered a ‘proper pub’ is up for debate. But that’s a criticism that can be levelled at most of – if not all – Michelin-starred gastropubs. “The Angel is a pub because you can come in and have a drink. But it's not a muddy boots affair. And we certainly don’t do pub food,” says Wignall, recoiling at the memory of that first year serving pub classics.

With 80% to 90% of customers now opting for the tasting menu, it looks likely that The Angel will soon drop its a la carte menu, which is currently priced at £85 for three courses. "With labour and food costs going the way they are going it makes sense to streamline things,” says Wignall, who plans to switch over to offering two tasting menus of differing lengths.

“It's going to be a long process because we have packages that include a la carte meals. We also want to take our time with the decision. We don’t want to end up having to bring it back a few months later as a few restaurants have had to do recently.”

Though he doesn’t come across as a chef that’s unhealthily preoccupied with the little red book, Wignall is certainly out for another star. And while he discusses Michelin with a striking lack of arrogance given his impeccable track record, one does get the sense that he believes The Angel is where it needs to be, or at the very least close to where it needs to be, to bag a second star.

“I'd be kidding myself if I said I'd be happy sticking with just one star here. We are pushing for two.

"It’s good for the team and to be totally honest it’s something that I want for me too. We've got a special place here. But I want it to be even more of a destination, and that's what two stars brings.

Kitchen heaven

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Designed from the ground up by Wignall, the kitchen at The Angel is very much in line with its chef’s gastronomic ambitions. The modestly proportioned rectangular space is notably sleek and clutter-free and designed to look more like a home kitchen – albeit a very high-end one – than a professional kitchen.

“We knocked it all down and started again,” Wignall explains. “We wanted it to be pleasing to the eye. We have some wooden touches to soften things up. All the kitchens I’ve worked in previously have been largely stainless steel. I didn’t want anything industrial looking here.”

The Angel’s kitchen is also one of the most environmentally friendly in the UK. Wignall has switched the pub over from LPG to electric, which meant buying a substation. But even with a whole substation at its disposal, the kitchen’s power usage must be carefully managed.

“The kitchen is 300 kilowatts but only pulls about 60 kilowatts at any one time. We have a very high-tech computer system that manages it that’s run from Germany. It’s predominantly used on super yachts. As far as I know we’re the only kitchen in the UK that uses it.”

Though the substation and associated technology were eye-wateringly expensive, the investment has turned out to be worthwhile, especially against the background of rapidly rising electricity costs. The Angel’s energy-efficient credentials are further boasted by a biomass heater that supplies the hotel and warms the kitchen floor when necessary (a seldom reported issue with induction is that chefs must endure freezing feet on cold days).

Related topics: Business Profile, Restaurant

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