Head chef Mark Mchugo at Chapters in Hay-on-Wye on opening his first restaurant
First-time restaurateur Mark Mchugo began his culinary career as a junior sous chef at The Arden Hotel in Stratford-upon-Avon. After landing the head chef role at the Six Senses Zighy Bay hotel in Oman he’s since returned to the UK to open Chapters in Hay-on-Wye.
It’s not everyday you come across a restaurant that used to be a Medieval church. Chapters is in the heart of Hay-on-Wye, a historic book town that straddles the Wales-England border, and is the first joint restaurant venture from Head Chef Mark Mchugo and Charmaine Blachford. Together they’re bringing seasonal British dishes featuring neighbours as local suppliers and modern techniques at their 30-cover relaxed fine dining restaurant.
Mark, running your own restaurant is a dream for many chefs. What prompted you to take the leap and realise that dream?
I met my partner Charmaine, who oversees front of house, whilst working at the Cellar Door in Hereford. She was already the General Manager there when I got the job of Head Chef and we started two weeks apart from each other. It wasn’t long before we decided we wanted to have a restaurant of our own. We looked at sites for six months but not many spaces came up. Luckily, we came across this spot in the nearby popular tourist town of Hay-on-Wye and knew we had to go for it.
What’s the style cooking at Chapters and the philosophy behind it?
Our style is quite simple. It’s a modern British restaurant serving seasonal food with local sourcing and minimal waste. It’s not fussy and I’m all about just trying to get good flavours on the plate. What’s great for us is the size of the restaurant. We can focus on not having too many covers and put our energy into focussing on the quality. In our experience, we’ve seen that if you do something too big, that’s when you lose the quality.
Talk us through some of the dishes can we expect. What are you cooking at the moment?
At the moment you can expect dishes such as parsnip soup or heritage beetroot, goats cheese and candied walnuts to start. Last week we had a pheasant main course of confit pheasant breast with a boned pheasant thigh, deep-fried in a southern USA style. We accompanied it with variations on the humble yet delicious swede in a swede pearl barley risotto, swede puree and pickled swede. You’ll also find Hay apples, cream cheese and cinnamon for dessert. All really tasty and bang in season.
Why is using locally-sourced ingredients important to you?
All local produce isn’t amazing, is it? We don’t just use local produce for the sake of it, we use it because it’s good. We use the local butcher C.J. Gibbons in Hay. When we moved to the area we met with Geraldine the owner and she talked through her produce with us in detail. We got on really well and her award-winning local beef and lamb is amazing.
You have an interesting way of sourcing hyper-local ingredients. Tell us about some of your suppliers.
We’ve just started using a new supplier called Gwernyfed Walled Garden just a couple of miles away for vegetables. It’s a family business and it’s all organic which is great. At the moment they have sprouting broccoli, lots of cabbages and winter vegetables. The owner Charlene has a real passion for it so it’s fantastic to work with her.
And what about the Hay apples?
These are from the garden of our friend Derek who runs the local deli! We’re always looking to source as locally as possible.
You also have an entirely vegetarian menu. What’s the inspiration behind this?
We only have a couple of meat choices on our main menus. In the evening we offer a fully vegetarian menu and also a vegan tasting menu, with notice. We get good feedback from our vegetarian dishes – sometimes better than for the meat – so why not carry on down that road?
Your menu includes subtle international touches such as dashi or dukkah. What influences you?
There’s a few middle eastern touches that I picked up when I was working abroad in Oman. The head chef I worked under for a year also taught me how to use all different kinds of Japanese products which was fascinating. They add an entirely different depth to the flavour. However, we only use a few international products as what we’re really trying to do is champion excellent quality home-grown produce from the UK and showcase locality.
How does your time abroad influence your techniques and equipment in the kitchen?
One thing we’ve got is a Konro Japanese grill. It’s normally used for yakitori but I use it for finishing bits of meat and veg as it imparts an incredible smoky flavour.
At Chapters we use modern techniques that every good restaurant will use. We have a sous vide machine, a Thermomix and a Pacojet for making ice cream. It’s very expensive, but being able to spin ice cream to order so it has the freshest flavour is brilliant.
How did the opportunity to work at the Six Senses Zighy Bay hotel in Oman come up?
It came about randomly a few years ago. I’m from Birmingham and was doing agency work there when they asked if I wanted to work in Oman for a month to help this company out. I thought, why not?
After a month’s trial I got offered a job as a Sous Chef in the fine dining restaurant. I worked under a brilliant chef called Ron Mckinley who had good experience both in Australia and in the UK. When he left I had the chance to take on the Head Chef role which I did for a year.
What did you learn whilst working abroad?
I learnt a lot! It was a culture shock, but you get used to that. The hotel is a luxury 5-star resort and one of the best companies around. It was in a stunning location and the produce wasn’t that limited. Because of the price of the menus we could get the best produce from anywhere. We got a lot of seafood from Scandinavia and vegetables from Holland but we also had our own organic farm onsite. We used a lot from there too, which is like the best of both worlds.
What would you say to any chefs interested in working overseas or in the Middle East?
Do it, definitely. 100% do it. The hours weren’t that bad, we had it quite lucky. We were only ever working five nights a week and it was tasting menus. It’s really safe and the summers are pretty hot but the winters are amazing. It’s not winter like you get here in the UK, it’s still 30 degrees!
One thing to think about is its location. The hotel was really remote. Dubai was two hours away but the nearest town was one hour away. After a few years I wanted to get back to normality. My family would visit and a friend worked with me for a few months when I got the head chef role which was amazing – we just went wild in the kitchen.
What are your ambitions and future goals for Chapters?
We want to be the best restaurant in the area. We’re just about making the customers happy. We don’t want to be seen as a fine dining restaurant that’s stuffy, we want to be open to everyone and accessible.
Mark Mchugo is the Head Chef at Chapters restaurant in Hay-on-Wye in Wales which opened in July 2019. Visit their website for the latest job vacancies and follow their Instagram for the latest news and updates.