Beside a forest in the Lake District

The Forest Side hotel in Cumbria

A version of this article, about an impressive hotel restaurant in a beautiful setting, is published by the Financial Times

Ask any top chef for a list of essential qualities to do their job successfully and there will inevitably be one that has nothing at all to do with culinary finesse. This one has everything to do with their ability to motivate and hold on to staff and to build a successful and happy team.

These attributes grow with the size and location of the business. A hotel is more difficult than a restaurant, for example, as finding staff to cook and prepare breakfast from 7 am is never easy. And the more isolated the hotel is might make the kitchen more peaceful but it does not make staff hiring any the easier.

The Forest Side Hotel in Ambleside, close to Grasmere in the Lake District, is an early 19th-century stone building, originally built as a hunting lodge, that was converted by the privately owned Wildsmith Hotel group eight years ago – so there is no air conditioning or even a lift. Nor is there a view of Lake Windermere. But the bedrooms are extremely comfortable and the restaurant has been stylishly modernised.

Crucially, there is a modest but highly talented chef in charge. Paul Leonard is 37 and has been cooking since he was 16. Born in Hull, from where he has not lost his Yorkshire accent, he has acquired an impressive CV, and an unusual approach to his trade. He described the cooking he and his team seek to offer to me as ‘a combination of confidence and love’.

This confidence Leonard has imbued into his team and showed itself initially as we went down to meet our friends. We were greeted by a young Lancastrian, born he told me between Blackpool and Lancaster, as we were taken with a smile out onto the terrace. There we enjoyed a distinctive Bloody Mary, with strained tomato juice and just the appropriate amount of lovage, as we read the menu.

We had already been warned. This was to be Leonard’s eight-course tasting menu plus snacks, which could be adapted to suit. This is the custom for all those staying one night, as we were, although Leonard said that it is adapted for those staying longer. Perhaps it was the presentation inside a drawing by local artist William Heaton Cooper that softened us up.

Or perhaps it was the manner of the sommelier, Michal Dumny. Polish born, he has worked in the UK for a decade, and is in charge of an extraordinarily wide-ranging list. This is best exemplified by the glasses of wine that Dumny chooses to accompany Leonard’s menu, which range from a California chardonnay through two very different English wines to a Moroccan red. He is both knowledgeable and relaxed.

Carrying our menus, we walked into the sunny dining room and were seated. While a tasting menu tilts the balance of power firmly towards the kitchen, it also gives the chef the opportunity to highlight every strength at his disposal. This was a path that Leonard chose to follow.

From the first snack, a tartlet of salmon’s eggs, it was obvious that his pastry section has a particular talent: this was a combination of salty eggs and ultra-thin pastry. There was also finesse in a dish of local ham with asparagus and hen of the woods mushrooms enlivened by a small mound of walnut ketchup.

It was courses four and five (pictured below), before the main course, that were to prove the highlights. The first comprised strips of thick beetroot on top of pale cod’s roe, the whole adorned with bright yellow nasturtium leaves. This was followed by a single grilled langoustine sitting alongside a confited egg yolk and the first of this summer’s peas. The main course that followed, a piece of local beef with grilled alliums, was, like so many, less exciting.

Forest side course 4 beetroot and cod's roe and 5 langoustine and confit egg

But this slight disappointment only highlighted our two desserts, an unctuous combination of chocolate, toasted barley and yeast, and another wafer-thin pastry case this time containing preserved raspberries topped with meadowsweet. Four of us drank a bottle of Grosset Riesling 2018 from Australia and another of a stunning 2014 Rasteau Vielles Vignes from Tardieu-Laurent for a bill of £580.

The following morning I was to meet the man who makes Leonard’s life a lot easier and at the same time a lot more exciting.

To the right of the hotel and above the car park is a large walled garden under the stewardship of the half-Danish Bjorn Abraham, who has worked with Leonard at The Samling Hotel nearby. Collectively, he and Leonard share a passion for everything horticultural, combined with a freshness that the proximity of only a few hundred yards can offer.

Forest Side chef Paul Leonard with Bjorn Abraham
Forest Side chef Paul Leonard with Bjorn Abraham

From small pots of Florence fennel, to tubs of salad leaves, to a couple of greenhouses replete with lots of herbs and gorgeous flowers for the tables, not to mention nasturtium leaves to adorn every plate. Abraham mentioned that on a daily basis he delivers four trays of microgreens down to the kitchen every lunchtime and eight for dinner, an arrangement that makes Leonard the envy of any urban chef.

Leonard’s tasting menu is extremely impressive, a very good reason to stop here. But he would be the first to admit that while the inspiration may be his, like every other leading chef today he needs the support of an excellent team.

The Forest Side Hotel Keswick Road, Grasmere, Cumbria LA22 9RN;
+44 (0)1539 435 250