From kid of the castle to king of the kitchen... Wolfe Conyngham
Talented young chef Wolfe Conyngham grew up in Slane Castle as the son of Ireland's most celebrated Aristo-entrepreneur. Now he's busy conquering the heart of Notting Hill. Julia Malony meets him
Published 24/08/2015 | 02:30
Wolfe Conyngham is outside his restaurant, leaning against the doorway with his name over it when I arrive to meet him in Notting Hill.
We're on a West London street so adorably quaint it could be a set on a Richard Curtis movie. It's here, amongst the art galleries and specialist Pilates centres that Conyngham has set up shop, launching his small-but-perfectly-formed eponymous restaurant Wolfe just over three months ago, to widespread acclaim from the UK's most demanding restaurant critics.
He is tall, rangy, and decidedly handsome in a public-school-rebel kind of way. Which is perhaps not surprising given that he is the youngest son of the rock-and-roll-peer himself Henry Mountcharles. With his good looks and well-spoken but not-too-posh manner of speaking, you could easily see him fronting a prime-time cookery show. TV production companies could do well to take note, though admittedly he's got his hands rather full at the moment.
Wolfe grew up at the very heart of an exotic millieu where blue-blood met music industry legend. It was, and remains, a world created and curated by his visionary father, who famously secured the family's future in the late 1980s and early 1990 by turning the ancestral home, Slane Castle into Ireland's answer to Glastonbury.
Clearly Wolfe has inherited quite a bit of that buccaneering, self-starting spirit. Always the arty one in the family, he flirted with pursuing a career in the music industry before decided to channel his creativity into food. He did want to go professional as a musician for a spell, but ultimately left it behind with no regrets. "It was a bit too rock and roll," he says with a laugh. Having settled down with his Brazilian wife Paula, and with their small son in tow, he knows well the value of "looking after my health ... That music lifestyle comes with a package. It's not necessarily conducive to a healthy lifestyle. You could have all the success and trappings of success and money but ultimately all you have is your health," he says. "Right now I feel really healthy. I get up at the crack of dawn, look at all this amazing food and think, 'what am I going to make today?', rather than waking up in a hotel room next to a bottle of Jack Daniels and a few groupies. I'm much happier with a stable family life."
Cooking was always his first passion anyway. He says he has "always been obsessive about food," since he was a small child and started getting involved in the restaurant that his mother opened at Slane in the 1980s. "From a very young age I've been very hands-on with food," he says. "I didn't get paid to work there but I liked to get hands-on as much as I could, whether that was peeling eggs or learning whatever I could. My mother is a seriously, seriously good cook. So it's always been the closest thing to my heart - food. And as a job it's unique because unlike any other art, it's not permanent. You create and they destroy. And it's the only job that you use all of your senses collectively. It's sort of this ritual of starting with something, de-constructing it, reconstructing it, and then watching it be de-constructed again. It's really rewarding." He says he's somebody who needs to "work with my hands." I couldn't sit in an office with a computer all day. I'm very sort of, physical in what I do."
After he finished school he graduated from the prestigious Leiths cookery school and before opening the restaurant worked for a long time "cheffing for catering companies, pubs, private households, restaurants." The idea for Wolfe was seeded about four years ago, around the same time his son Shaun was born, and it's taken that long for him to find the right place and feel ready to launch. "There's never going to be a right moment to do it," he says. Indeed, he compares the process to having a baby - for which he thinks there's no perfect time, it's all about taking a leap of faith. "I've got a son, he wasn't planned. He just happened and then you've got to deal with it," he says. In the case of the restaurant, a suitable premises came up and he jumped. "I'd been looking for a long time," he says. "Because as a paid chef with the salary, it's pretty pathetic. With a child and a wife, I was like, I need to make more money."
But the journey from empty premises to open-doors has been long and painstaking. He was won over by the venue's natural light and high ceilings, and "went for this one because I've known this street all my life and I love it," he says. Having found the spot, Wolfe conceived, designed and built every aspect of the charmingly rustic, cosy interior himself, by hand. He constructed the bar, sanded the floors and created decorative features out of reclaimed materials pulled "out of skips." Everything, basically, that you see in here has his fingerprints on it, except perhaps a decorative wall-montage made from dried lichen which he says was hand-made by his mother. The whole thing took six months, and the result is impressive- a warm, comfortable and inviting space that is both informal and visually exciting.
He knows that as a restaurateur, he's picked a challenging arena. And with a young family and the full responsibility for everything resting on his shoulders, stakes are high. "I've seen at least 10 restaurants on this street come and go," he says admitting to having had the usual run of challenges and teething problems - mostly rel ated to staffing. Now, three months since open-doors, and with the hype about the place steadily building, it's time to take stock of what's worked and what hasn't and tweak the formula accordingly.
Though he hasn't yet settled on a definitive genre, the identity of the restaurant is strong. "I want continuity with the ambience and decor of this place, so it has to be quite rustic," he says. "It's got to look like it's just fallen on the plate - although it never just falls on the plate. I want to be able to offer things like good Irish stew and cassoulets and warm comforting stuff. Which makes my life easier because you don't have to cook it to order - the longer you leave it the better it tastes, and it's also showcasing some of the cheaper cuts of meat that most people discard where all the flavour is," he says.
His founding principle seems to be about quality of produce, which is an area on which he's not prepared to compromise. "It is really about finding a formula that is cost-effective, and at the same time fair for the consumers.
"I can guarantee that the sourcing is on another level. It's really good produce," he says. It's this focus on quality which he says then directs and defines his identity as a chef. "It's really simple, I'm not trying to be fancy and clever here ... It's all about purism. The whole idea here is about executing things really well, where there's no hiding. If you just have a simple piece of fish and a couple of vegetables, there is literally nowhere to hide."
Rather than elaborate and overwrought preparation, he prefers to let the produce do the talking. "If you are serving rat, you could put all these aromatics and spices into it, but it's still going to be rat. Your job is much easier when the source, the building blocks and foundations are good. You don't need to make all these accompaniments that are just over the top," he explains. "I like the classics. They are classic for a reason. It's one of my pet hates - particularly on the (nearby) Portobello road, if you go and order a Bloody Mary and it comes with a bit of bacon in it, it's not a Bloody Mary. I don't do gimmicks. Keep it simple is the golden rule."
He comes from a family of mavericks who have never shied away from a challenge, and enjoys the full support of all of his family. In response to the problem of how to sustain the financial white elephant that is Slane Castle, his father got creative and made it work.
"He's seriously busy, my dad, always. He doesn't just do concerts, he does farming, he does property, he does a multitude of different things. But he's a good example to set for us. I was always the creative one, with the arty background, and I'm probably the most amateur when it comes to business and entrepreneurial stuff," he says with a laugh.
In the future, the responsibility to maintain the castle will fall to his eldest brother Alex, who in response to the task has set up the now-thriving Slane Whiskey Distillery. He says of his siblings, "we all get on so well, we're really, really close. We're completely different, all of us. Alex is very driven, he has got a huge responsibility and three children. It's his duty and responsibility to leave a legacy, really, because these set-ups are very hard to sustain and keep going and most of them now, over here [ in England] anyway are National Trust."
"Alex has actually been an amazing mentor," he continues. "Just in the sense of his organisational skills. He's always really nurtured my creative side and has pushed me in a direction of trying to grasp the business side of it. Saying, 'You know, this is really beautiful and creative, but where's your spreadsheet?'
The Conynghams certainly seem to be a family of complementary interests and skills. "It's really nice because we all rub off on each other," he says. "There'll be times when, he (Alex) doesn't have my skill set, so he'll want ideas about design or brand development. Collectively we're a really good team. We all try to play each other to our strengths. And mine are definitely more sort of art-orientated. But I wouldn't be doing this if I didn't believe it could work. It will work. That first year is always going to be challenging - you're going to make a lot of mistakes and you've got to grow up pretty quickly as a result."
One of his sisters Heneretta, who lives in Devon, farms "rare breed Mangalitza pigs, Hereford beef, lamb and also has chickens, ducks and geese," and is "one of the main suppliers," to the restaurant. His mother Carina Bolton, who was Henry Mount Charles' first wife, (he later married Lady Iona Grimston who is the mother of Wolfe's younger sister Tamara) is herself an exceptional cook and "has been involved in the project from the beginning." She loves going to the restaurant, he says, though "she's based down in Wiltshire, so she doesn't get to come here much. But she's been really supportive and instrumental in helping us get off the ground. She's lent me some money, which has helped... We weren't open for six months and having to pay rent. But she's believed in me the whole way through this journey."
Wolfe grew up in Slane castle until the late 1980s when his father inherited a neighbouring estate and renovated it. They'd just moved across when a fire broke out in the kitchen of the restaurant and promptly ripped through the building, destroying everything inside.
"I do remember it - it was terrifying, and desperately sad," he says. "I was at boarding school in England, and I got called by the headmaster who showed it to me on the news. The main thing was that nobody got hurt, but it was really scary. I didn't know whether my dad was inside or not... But fortunately my dad had just finished the other house, so they moved in there a week before the fire. If it hadn't have been for that they all would have perished. "It was devastating. It took 10 years just to dry out from the amount of water inside it. I'm so impressed that my dad has managed to restore it. Because everyone said 'you're mad. Leave it, don't go near it.' But he did it. I've got to take my hat off. Obviously it's going to take a while to bring it back to it's ... it needs to be filled with art and all that stuff. The energy has changed in the building since the fire. The top floor now is completely open plan. It used to be a series of about 18 or 20 rooms. So it has cleansed a lot of that side of stuff and it's got an amazing atmosphere now."
He has vivid memories of growing up amongst the excitement, noise and celebrity behind the scenes of the Slane concerts. "All our friends used to come over. The concerts have been an evolutionary process. Back then it was nowhere near what it was now in terms of being a well-oiled machine. The sort of fabric and architecture and cogs and mechanics of how it works now is so impressive and slick. Back then it was, I imagine, really chaotic. Now it's super-organised. Obviously that's inevitable because of laws and health and safety - the amount of parameters involved in doing something like that - infrastructure for the roads, it's a lot to get your head around."
He still goes to every concert, every year. "It's the only chance that I get to see all the cousins and all the family together," he says. "It's a lot of fun. Me and my sister used to work there. We ran the helicopters. All the artists and people who flew in by helicopter we had to escort to their area backstage or chaperone up to the castle. That was quite a challenging job actually - I remember turning away various people on the bill because they didn't have their passes."
Last year, the family received a blow when his father was diagnosed with cancer, but he's currently enjoying good health. "He's doing really well," says Wolfe. "He's currently in America. But he does come over quite a lot, and he's normally at the bar. Where he likes to watch everyone and everything. He's on really good form."
Wolfe's next ambition is to get his beautiful wife Paula more involved in the business. "She's a full-time mum at the moment, which is much harder work than what I'm doing. I would love to get her more actively involved. Because more than anything we'd get to spend more time together. "I'm just trying to get to a position where we can afford an au-pair so my wife can be more hands-on here. She's very good on the practical side of stuff. She's really ocd about hygiene and cleanliness. It would be great if she could get more involved but it's finding the time. There's just not enough hours in the day for her at the moment."
It's been a tough, uphill struggle, particularly with a small child at home. "It's been relentless and it will be forever. But that's life. You've just got to keep trucking," and he seems delighted to have managed to inspire an interest in food in his son.
"He's a really sweet kid. And he's now obsessed by baking. So we've been making chocolate cakes together, muffins, it won't be too long before he'll be in the kitchen. He loves it. He was a really fussy eater but now he's getting really brave. He tried oysters the other day." Still, with so much on his plate, perhaps it's no surprise to hear him say, "When I get home I just want to eat junk food... It goes against everything I'm doing in the restaurant but sometimes it's quite comforting to have a ready meal."
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