The AYALA SquareMeal Female Chef of the Year Series 2024: Harriet Mansell

Harriet Mansell's career trajectory is quite something - from a three-month stint at Noma to spending a year as a private chef on the Murdoch's yacht. We caught up with the chef to discuss the highs, the lows and what she's up to now.

Updated on • Written By Ellie Donnell

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Harriet Mansell has always had an afinity for wild foods, but as we listen to the chef talk about them now, in her cosy Lyme Regis restaurant and wine bar Lilac, the energy she radiates is palpable. ‘I just love for people to get the subtleties [...] when you're getting a crunchy bit of nettle, or oxalic acid from the sorrel. They smack you in the mouth with bitterness as well. You can't escape eating that dish without thinking about it.’

The dish she’s describing is the one she’s chosen to pair with AYALA’s Le Blanc de Blancs A/18 today – a verdant nettle and wild garlic spring gnocchi – and she’s electric with enthusiasm, her eyes alive as she explains every nuance and subtlety. Most chefs care about cooking seasonally, but Harriet’s approach is deeply rooted in nature to the point where she’ll be out in the fields in the morning, foraging for ingredients that will end up on the menu at Lilac that evening.

A passion like this runs deep, and the seeds that would eventually give root to her love for wild produce were planted in her consciousness from a young age. Harriet attended an ‘alternative primary school’, as she calls it, where the children were encouraged to spend a lot of time outside, playing and learning what was growing in the hedgerows. It was here where she began to register the inextricable link between food and nature: ‘It entered my consciousness that the hedgerows offer things for us that we could use’, she recalls.

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Unlike her peers, she was also exposed to culinary influences far beyond her home in Devon. Harriet went to an international secondary school, and her mother would frequently host some of its students to earn some extra money. She remembers eating fondue with a Swiss girl who came to stay, and learning how to make a proper tomato sauce with another student who hailed from Italy. It was an education in food like no other, expanding Harriet’s breadth of knowledge and understanding from the tender age of seven years old.

‘I was definitely always a workaholic. Sometimes I just think: ‘take a chill pill Harriet!’’

It's no surprise then that her first job was in food. She landed a role at her local greengrocer at 12 years old, earning a pound an hour which, at the time, felt like a huge amount of money. And for Harriet, money equalled freedom. ‘I was always working, two, three, four jobs at a time, because it was very important for me to financially free myself so I could do things.’

She was bright, energetic and exceptionally hard-working, qualities that her peers believed meant she was destined for a more academic future. Her grammar school wanted her to be a lawyer, as did her mother, and it’s not like she didn’t try to meet them halfway.

By the time she was 23, Harriet had finished uni, completed both a ski season and a yacht season, and spent a few years working an office job as a project manager for a property company in Knightsbridge. ‘I was definitely always a workaholic. Sometimes I just think: ‘take a chill pill Harriet!’’. The work ethic was undoubtedly there, but the life of an office worker just didn't appeal at all. 

So, what does a women with that much experience, ambition and drive do next? Apply to Noma, of course. At the time, it had just regained its pole position as the number one restaurant in the world, was receiving thousands of booking requests a day and being inundated with people applying to work there - including Harriet.

She managed to score one of its rare stagiaire spots, a three-month course that opened her eyes to the boundless possibilities of using fresh and wild ingredients, with Rene Redzepi as a mentor. An opportunity like that is near impossible to come by and she remembers asking them once how she managed to get a place on the programme, to which they replied that they measure everyone based on enthusiasm. Harriet smiles. ‘I sent them countless emails over a long period of time. And at one point they must have gone: 'she means business, this girl.' I'd been messaging them for years, because I knew I wanted to get there.’

Then, she looks at me blankly. ‘When you want something, you go and get it’. She really means it – this is a woman with an immovable understanding of what she wants and how she’s going to get there.

‘People often say to me, oh, you're so lucky. You've done this, that and the other. I started my entire business on nothing. No one's ever given me any money. Everything starts with a thought up here’, she points to her head, ‘and you make it happen.’

New obstacles

Harriet certainly isn’t averse to a challenge and would push herself to her limits at numerous points throughout her career - sometimes to her own detriment. After Noma, she returned to London to work at a string of top restaurants – Dinner by Heston and Hedone – but she quickly discovered that their way of working just wasn’t for her. She was also running out of money, fast, so jumped ship (literally) to go and work as a private chef on yachts, working for high-profile names including the Qatari royal family and the Murdochs.

While the stint helped fulfil a desire to travel, by 31, something had to give. ‘My body was genuinely pushing back at this point because I had worked non-stop over that period of time. I hadn’t taken holidays, I didn't do stuff with my friends and family. I sacrificed all of those things to pursue the career, to amass the experience and to save up the money in a short period of time.’

In fact, she ended up in hospital a couple of times because the stress was causing her body to mimic the symptoms of a heart attack. In desperate need of a break, both mentally and physically, she took herself off to a yoga retreat for some much-needed R&R.

'I said to myself at the time, this is going to be a hell of a roller coaster and you are probably going to burn out. But there was something stronger inside of me saying, do this.’

After years of travelling the world on yachts, and a short stint decompressing in Bali, Harriet finally flew back to the UK to settle in the idyllic seaside town of Lyme Regis. However, a life of normalcy isn’t exactly what she had in mind. A thought had crystalised in her mind while in Bali: that if she wanted to open a restaurant, she had to do it now. ‘It hit me hard like a ton of bricks.’

The next few years snowballed into something larger than she ever could have expected. In 2019, Harriet opened her tasting menu, pop-up concept Robin Wylde, which quickly made a huge impression, one that would see Harriet land a spot on Great British Menu the following year, ‘even though it seemed insane', she muses. In 2020, she found a permanent space for Robin Wylde and a year later, she went on to open Lilac, a cosy restaurant and wine bar in the centre of Lyme Regis. It was open for just three days before the country went into lockdown.

Listening to her talk about that period of her life is a true reflection of her unworldly determination and self-belief. ‘There was some drive going on at that moment in life which I actually can't compute. I said to myself at the time, this is going to be a hell of a roller coaster and you are probably going to burn out. But there was something stronger inside of me saying, do this.’

It's not just testament to her incredible work ethic, but also to the way people responded to both projects. Harriet’s love for wild produce and her connection to nature is what sets her apart from other chefs, driving her towards a goal bigger than just food. ‘Our business values are really, really strong and we're really big on care. We want to enjoy what we're doing. We want to love what we're doing. We know that that's the most important thing in the world.’

It’s helped her to attract a stellar team across both restaurants, as well as a loyal customer base. Although Robin Wylde closed in 2023, she felt complete in terms of what the team had achieved, and the plan was never to keep it open forever. For now, Lilac lives on, attracting people from all over the country to come and experience her distinctive food. She’s also planning to open another tasting menu concept this summer – The Garden Table – which will allow Harriet to do more of what she loves: connecting people to nature through wild foods. Having witnessed her energy and passion firsthand, we have no doubt in our mind that it will flourish. 

Harriet's perfect match for AYALA's Le Blanc de Blancs A/18

The dish: Nettle and wild spring herb gnocchi

The Champagne: AYALA Le Blanc de Blancs A/18

Gnocchi dish with AYALA bottle

Harriet explains: 'This dish is super fresh without being overtly herbal, and I think that works really nicely with the freshness of the Champagne. We blanch the nettles and wild garlic for just a moment, then thicken the sauce with the potatoes. It's very simple cooking in a way. It's also done in a way that respects the ingredients and I am a big fan of allowing the ingredients to shine.'

Harriet's quick bites

Who or what have been your biggest influences?

Restaurant Noma had an impact on me on the basis that it was the first really good restaurant that I worked at, as well as its connection to wild foods and the natural world.

Which female chefs have inspired you in your career?

Some of the epic female chefs I’ve had the pleasure of working with have inspired me no end because they have so much commitment and dedication to their craft. Our ex-head chef at Lilac, Faye, had so much focus in terms of her work, and the girls that did Robin Wylde with me – Danny and Willow – it’s been really inspiring to see them grow.

If you could give someone just starting out some words of wisdom, what would they be?

Follow your intuition – if something doesn’t feel right, don’t do it. Where you focus your efforts is where things are going to grow. And try different things!

Describe your cooking style in three words?

Natural, fresh and intuitive.

What is your favourite thing to cook at home?

A veggie concoction! Maybe a buddha bowl with lots of seasonal veggies.

Do you have a guilty food pleasure?

A cheese toastie.

Where is your favourite foodie destination?

The south west of England – and Copenhagen.

If you weren’t a chef, what would you be doing?

A meditation teacher.

What was the last great thing you ate?

The last amazing tasting menu I had was at Maison by Sota Atsumi in Paris. It was one of the best meals I can ever remember having. But the best thing I’ve eaten most recently is a wild garlic pesto that our chef Mark made last night.

Read more about our AYALA Female Chef of the Year awards, including interviews with the likes of Pip LaceySabrina Gidda, and Adriana Cavita.

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With its longstanding commitment to the restaurant industry, Champagne AYALA is a natural sponsor to this award and to the series of interviews that accompanies it.

AYALA is one of the best kept secrets of Champagne. With a history dating back to 1860, AYALA were pioneers of dry, vibrant styles of Champagne, they were one of the original Grandes Marques Houses, and were awarded a Royal Warrant by Edward VII in 1908. Since 2005, the Bollinger family have helped restore this historic House to its former glory. Champagne AYALA is known for its fresh and elegant wines, made with precision and delicacy and crafted on a boutique scale. The wines have been served in the UK for over 100 years in many of London’s most prestigious establishments.

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