Behind the scenes at the best restaurant in the world
- Credit: Jenny Jones
Ryan Blackburn’s dedication to provenance, good food and Lakeland produce has seen his Ambleside restaurant named as the "best in the world"
They say it’s good to start them young but Ryan Blackburn, the talented chef behind Michelin starred Old Stamp House in Ambleside, takes the saying to new levels. When he was just eight he was pitching in at his grandad’s pub and by the time he reached high school, his cooking, and connection with good food was so developed, his teachers went to him for advice.
‘I had a great childhood, the type you are very grateful for,’ says Ryan, who grew up in Great Langdale. ‘My grandad had the Blacksmiths Arms at Broughton Mills, and several other pubs, and I started in the kitchen when I was eight with him, helping out. My dad and grandad both ran pubs. I’m the third generation in hospitality in my family. This meant I knew a lot about food early on and, at secondary school, the home economics teacher would come and find me in class.
‘I knew more about food and cooking than they did. I got to year nine and there was no point me being in the class. Being around a family like mine, it meant my life has always revolved around work, it’s good because it gives you a purpose in life but I’ve also learned lessons from it.’
It is little surprise then that the Michelin starred, three AA rosette and former Lancashire Life Food & Drink Award winning restaurant, continues to go from strength to strength. This was was confirmed with the recent announcement that the Old Stamp House topped the restaurant listings in the 2021 Travellers' Choice Awards by the review website Tripadvisor, meaning that the establishment located in the former office of William Wordsworth in the busy Lakes town, can lay claim to the best restaurant in the world'
Ryan founded the business in 2014 with brother and restaurant manager Craig, who has worked at Edinburgh’s Harvey Nichols Restaurant and in America for Nobel House Group. Ryan also launched more casual eatery Kysty, also in Ambleside in 2018.
His food pays homage to the contribution the county’s farmers and fisherman have made to Cumbria’s food heritage and the hospitality industry, taking inspiration from Cumbrian classics like Herdwick but also shining a light on the lesser-known stories of Whitehaven and Maryport and their role in bringing a swathe of diverse flavours to the UK.
- 1 7 autumn walks in Kent to delight the senses
- 2 12 historic village churches in Cheshire
- 3 20 of the best places to eat out in St Ives
- 4 20 of the best restaurants in Hertfordshire
- 5 6 waterfall walks in Derbyshire and the Peak District
- 6 Meet Maggie, GBBO's 70-year-old contestant from Dorset
- 7 Try this pretty, circular coastal walk at the Chidham Peninsula
- 8 9 of the best places for coffee across Cornwall
- 9 5 great walks in and around Kendal
- 10 20 of the best restaurants in Essex
It is Ryan’s unswerving commitment to provenance, dedication to local – both produce and people – as well as a meticulous attention to detail that has been his winning formula. Even during the pandemic his food has been much in demand and once restrictions eased after the first lockdown, and people could travel to the Lake District for a holiday, people were eager for the Old Stamp House experience.
‘It was a touch easier the second time for us,’ says Ryan. ‘You know what you’re doing, what to expect. In the first lockdown we’d just gone through a long, hard winter, but unbelievably, last summer was a real boomtime for us.
‘Every single table, every single sitting on every single day was sold out. We never wondered if we would fill tables, we were always booked.’
What is surprising is that Ryan, now a household name on the northern dining scene, almost decided to give up on his career. While Ryan credits that all-important influence of his grandparents and father – one grandfather left behind a food stall at Blackburn Market to run a succession of successful pubs in Lakeland and another who taught him all he knew about foraging – he was ready to give up.
He had worked in country house hotels which had taken the joy out of his work but it was working at Restaurant Martin Wishart in Edinburgh that ignited his drive to have his own restaurant. Then a time as head chef at the multi award-winning Cottage in the Wood in Whinlatter Forest that further sealed his ambition.
‘I’d worked in country house hotel and been treated like a servant and produced Michelin standard food and I remember thinking I never wanted to do that food. Everything was about precision; it was all about foie gras and the dining rooms were like a library. It almost put me off for good.
‘Then I went to Martin Wishart. It showed me what was possible and what I was capable of. It made me confident in what I could do. The focus was on being really good at what we did. It was so exciting and what I went into the industry to do. Stamp House wouldn’t be what it is if it wasn’t for the time I had there.
‘Then came the incredible experience at Cottage in the Wood. This was where I became my own chef. I was so fortunate I could express myself there. It was the Cottage that allowed me to develop so much. It was a chef’s dream. But then, I think because of my grandad’s outlook, I was always looking for opportunities for my own place and the Old Stamp House was one that could not be missed.’
While the pandemic has presented challenges, the experience has also been an enlightening one for Ryan. It has encouraged them to develop and evaluate that all-important work/life balance. He has always given staff fair working conditions and the restaurant is closed on bank holidays and at Christmas to give staff balance. But he is now also looking to get balance in his own family life and is looking forward to reinvigorating not only the Old Stamp House but also Kysty.
‘Lockdown meant I could spend a lot of time with my wife and young family,’ said Ryan. ‘Time I just wouldn’t have got and it would be nice to get to a point where I can have days off and step back a little.
‘But I’m also excited to get back to it and to get Kysty on the right track. We’ve got the right team in place now and I hope we’ve found the right approach. There are definitely things to look forward to and I’m looking forward to seeing how it all develops.’