Meet the chef: Paul Leonard at Forest Side

Chef Paul Leonard tells us about his journey into cheffing

Appointed head chef at Grasmere's Forest Side in 2019, Paul Leonard's innovative cooking style showcases homegrown and foraged ingredients to great success – the restaurant was recently awarded 4-Rosette status at the AA Hospitality Awards 2021.

We spoke to Leonard about his route into the industry, culinary inspirations and plans for the future.

What inspired you to become a chef?

PL: I've always had an interest in food. I cooked and baked with my mum from an early age and my grandparents owned and ran a whole foods and home brewing shop, so I'd imagine that had something to do with my desire to work in the industry. As I got my foot in the door, I was fascinated by the way the kitchens work and loved the feeling of being part of a team. It got me hooked!

Tell us a little about the journey that has led you to where you are today

PL: Like so many, I started out as a kitchen porter in a large hotel in my hometown. I completed my course at Hull College, and then became a commis chef in the same hotel. When I was 21 I moved to London to work at Pétrus by Gordon Ramsay, which was a huge eye-opener for me. I learned what it was really going to take to work at the top level.

I moved back to the north and spent time in sous chef roles in various kitchens before taking up a role with an absolute hero of mine, Andrew Fairlie, at his restaurant in Gleneagles. This really was a finishing school for me – I learned so much about how to run a kitchen and look after a team. I was then given the opportunity to take over my first kitchen at The Isle of Eriska hotel on the West Coast of Scotland. This was again a learning curve, and I look back on my time there with fond memories.

I then moved to The Devonshire Arms, which was a totally different operation to Eriska. Here, I continued to develop as a head chef, both in kitchen management and food style. When I was offered the position at Forest Side, I jumped at the chance. The Cumbrian larder, combined with our foraged and homegrown produce makes it such an exciting place to be. My style of cooking isn't too complex, and I think this suits the Forest Side perfectly. I'm really excited to develop further and take us to the next level.

What are your plans for the future?

PL: I really just want to carry on the journey we've started. I have big ideas for the menu and the way the kitchen works, which will really hammer home our ethos. I believe we have fantastic foundations in place, and we'll continue to improve on a daily basis growing and nurturing both our food and our team.

What are the vital ingredients for a successful kitchen?

PL: Positivity is huge for me. I want a happy atmosphere in our kitchen and I want the team to genuinely love what they're doing. Things are always going to go wrong, but that's life. Don't let it get you down – keep your head up and have a positive outlook, and it makes it so much easier. Self-discipline is also huge; I want to be able to trust the team and know corners are not being cut.

What are your favourite ingredients to work with?

PL: I love fish and shellfish. In fact, I just love cooking, but I would say they're my favourites. I absolutely love prepping and cooking a nice John Dory – it's an unbelievable ingredient.

What's your favourite dish on the current menu and why?

PL: We've got a mackerel dish that we serve wit preserved green strawberries, radish and a dressing made from tomato, cucumber and elder. The mackerel is really lightly cured, so the dish is so fresh and clean, and perfect for the summer. Apart from the mackerel, everything is grown or foraged on site, which is what we're all about.

Who are the chefs you admire most, and who's had the most influence on your cooking style?
PL: Andrew Fairlie and Stevie McLaughlin have had a huge influence on my career and I learned so much from working alongside them. I think Michael Wignall is one of a kind and I absolutely adore his cooking. I've also always looked up to Kenny Atkinson – being a northern lad, I've followed his career closely and taken a lot of inspiration from him. 
What are the best places you've eaten in recently?

PL: Mana in Manchester was an awesome experience and I love what Simon and his team have created there. I was lucky enough to go over to Denmark before the pandemic, and had an unreal experience at Henne Kirkeby Kro. I've had the pleasure of cooking alongside Paul Proffitt a few times and it was class to travel over and get the full experience – what a place!

What's your favourite guilty pleasure when away from work?

PL: I love any sort of cheese. I wait every year for Vacherin season to come around; a large Vacherin and some good sourdough is my idea of heaven.

Find out more about Forest Side.

An edited version of this interview first appeared in the AA Restaurant Guide 2022.

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