The Castle Dairy in Kendal re-opens after £1.2million refurbishment

The main dining room

The main dining room - Credit: Archant

Talented chef and hospitality apprentices are put under the spotlight at a Kendal restaurant that has reopened after it was devastated by floods. Sue Riley reports.

Roast pork belly, yakitori cheek, black pudding, butternut squash and allium

Roast pork belly, yakitori cheek, black pudding, butternut squash and allium - Credit: Archant

A state-of-the-art ‘floating’ stove installed in a building which existed when the Black Death was decimating the country is one of the many anomalies at the Castle Dairy. A fine dining experience cooked and served by apprentices is another.

The team behind the Castle Dairy in Kendal is used to managing people’s expectations. After opening in 2011 it took a while for the restaurant to find its feet. Just as the tide was turning, Storm Desmond hit and floods tore through the 14th century building. Eighteen months later, it has just reopened. It may look the same but there are major differences. The newly designed kitchen is essentially flood proof – the huge stove can be ‘floated’ three feet up, using a crank system; the fridges can be wheeled out and all the electrics are above the flood level. Everything is marine specification. If the floods come again, the restaurant will have to close for no longer than a fortnight.

Run by Kendal College, Castle Dairy’s aim is to help fill the staffing gap in the hospitality industry by training great chefs and waiting staff. Qualified workers are in demand and Brexit is likely to make the shortage worse as many Europeans who currently work in Michelin star restaurants leave the UK. The team also want to encourage a healthy work/life balance as the industry is notorious for lengthy days and late nights – not conducive to family life. Chef Chris O’Callaghan – formerly of the Linthwaite House Hotel in Windermere and Michelin star restaurants including the Ledbury and the Fat Duck – is at the helm.

‘It’s as close to running your own restaurant as you can get,’ he said. ‘We are trusted to run it on a daily basis. This was an opportunity to get involved with students and try to change the situation in the industry at the moment.

Robert Marshall Slater (Head of School for Catering), Chris O'Callaghan (Head Chef) and Graham Wilki

Robert Marshall Slater (Head of School for Catering), Chris O'Callaghan (Head Chef) and Graham Wilkinson (Kendal College Principal) - Credit: Archant

‘Catering has given me the chance to travel the world but the industry is struggling, we need to change the grass roots of it.’

The premise is simple. Apprentices work there for an average of 18 months to two years; get their qualifications, practical experience and then leave, making way for more trainees.

‘We want apprentices to come and join us,’ said Robert Marshall-Slater, head of hospitality. ‘If they want to work at a Michelin starred restaurant, this is their training ground. Our job is to get them their next job.

‘Everyone on the college’s hospitality programme has a guaranteed job, but we could double the numbers. Here, people are getting paid to learn.’

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Chef Chris, 35, has been at the college for 10 months helping develop the Castle Dairy, and is now raring to go as the opening was originally scheduled for Christmas 2016. He’s not only designed the kitchen to his own specification – ‘professional chefs come in and say ‘wow’, they have been blown away by it’ – but has also introduced a chefs’ table and is encouraging the apprentices to accompany him on local foraging trips. He goes to Roe Island once a week for sea purslane and sea aster, and to Grizedale for mushrooms and pine.

Chris learned his trade on the job and has no formal qualifications. Now he’s keen to pass on his skills to the apprentices – two in the kitchen and two front of house. The menu is full of enticing ballontines, consommés, syrups, foams and mousses.

‘It’s really clean, exciting flavours that complement each other and expose people to ingredients and ideas they have not seen before,’ he says. ‘But it’s not too crazy!’

The Castle Dairy reopened in May and was fully booked for the first four weeks. It’s all a far cry from 2015 when the entire team, including college principal Graham Wilkinson, rolled up their sleeves and helped clear the restaurant immersed in 42 inches of flood water.

All the antique furniture had to be power washed and French polished by Kendal’s Kevin Park; the horsehair walls repaired and repainted; the stone flags removed and laid on lime mortar instead of the existing soil. Then they had to wait for the ancient beams to dry out. One of the biggest expenses was scrapping the existing kitchen and replacing it with the ‘flood proof’ one.

There was a positive spin-off of the £1.2million refurbishment though as the builders uncovered an ancient doorway which leads into the new Wildman gallery – Kendal College invested £2.3 million in the gallery which, at the time of press, was due to officially open. Diners can look at the artworks before eating, should they wish. The other benefit is that the gallery is above the flood plain so everything can be moved in there if necessary.

To regular customers of the 42-cover restaurant, not much has altered. There’s still the antique furniture, a four poster bed upstairs, Hogarth prints and similar muted colour scheme. The staff change regularly though, and at 17 Ryan Barrow is one of the youngest members of the kitchen team.

‘I would love to be a head chef,’ he says. ‘I would love to come out of here better than I was. I know I will do. The kitchen is where I feel most relaxed.’

Six years into a 30-year lease from South Lakeland District Council, which owns the building, the team has lots of plans. Cookery days, encouraging people at the chefs’ table to come into the kitchen and dress their own dishes, an outdoor food market and cookery school are on the cards. The ambition is there and it’s all backed by Kendal College. Principal Graham Wilkinson was once a chef – he worked at Buckingham Palace among others – and as Chris says, ‘if you don’t own your own restaurant, this is the next best thing.’