Award-winning chef, Paul Wendholt, tells Absolutely about a varied career that led to him opening Kintsu in Colchester
When did you first develop a taste for cooking?
It’s hard to pinpoint an exact time for me. Growing up my dad used to have a business building burger vans and he also had one of his own that he ran on weekends and at events that I would help out on. I’m not sure if that’s what gave me the taste for it or not, but it exposed me to cooking, albeit burgers and bacon rolls, at a young age. From there it made sense for my first part time job to be in a kitchen of a local cafe and it just snowballed from there.
What was your first professional job?
Aside from my part time jobs I had during school and college, my first full time job was in the kitchen of a small hotel in Maldon. I’d been there part time during college, but felt I wasn’t getting what I wanted from my third year in college so I dropped out and took over running the kitchen. Looking back it was fairly ridiculous – I could cook reasonably well even at that age, but I didn’t know a thing about running a kitchen. I was on my own most of the time, but occasionally I’d have a young lad helping out or one of the housekeepers covering the breakfast shift and washing up. We had an Italian waiter that would cook on my days off – so all in all it was a bit of a shambles, but I learnt a lot and I look back on all my work experiences good and bad fondly because they’ve all given me something that has got me where I am today.
How many places did you work at before launching Kintsu – and if so, what were the highlights?
Honestly I worked at a lot, it was a running joke among my mates that each time we met up I’d have a new job. I’d like to hope I was a good employee everywhere I went, but I would get itchy feet and move on too soon a lot of the time. So I’ve seen it all from burger van, café, pub, small restaurant, big restaurant, wedding venue, hotel, even a nightclub restaurant hybrid. That’s one that stands out, it was the first head chef job I took when I was actually experienced enough to know exactly what I was doing – honestly it wasn’t the best food I’ve ever cooked or even the best environment, but I had a good bunch of chefs and we really bonded over being in such an unusual kitchen environment together. It was a surreal time, but we keep in touch now and look back and laugh about what we went through there.
When did you decide to open Kintsu and why was it the right time?
Kintsu came about after my first restaurant Grain closed in 2020. I opened Grain with a chef I’d known and worked with for a number of years in 2016 after we both became frustrated with the restaurants we were working in being run so poorly. It started out as an innocent enough conversation, but realising we shared a similar vision we found a place that was on the market that we could just about afford so we took the plunge.
Speaking of Grain we opened in Colchester because it was where we both lived and where we knew the shape of the dining scene the best. Then when we closed in 2020 after deciding we wanted to move in different directions I never considered leaving Colchester. Our landlord from Grain was keen to keep me as a tenant and with it being right in the middle of the Covid complications it made sense for me to stay where we were and capitalise on the reputation we had built at this location, but this time on my own as a different restaurant.
From day one, what did you want to offer?
My goal was to build on and refine what we did at Grain. We had made it into the Good Food Guide and received a Michelin Bib Gourmand the year before we closed without really investing a lot more than we did to get open or changing what we did on day one. At Grain we were the first place locally to do small plates and after initial hesitation from some diners it really took off for us, so I opened Kintsu to begin with with the same format. The goal though was always to move towards tasting menus because I knew this would mean we could then start to move the food forward as we had basically hit the ceiling of what we were able to do from such a small team and kitchen with a la carte menus.
How do you approach the menus?
Fundamentally we cook what we like to eat and just try to make sure it’s the tastiest it can be. There are just two of us in the kitchen and we have an almost symbiotic working relationship so we tend to think similarly about the dishes and food in general because we’re working so closely for 12 hours a day. I have no doubt we’re currently cooking the best food we ever have at Kintsu.
Where do you source your ingredients from?
We have our main suppliers that I’ve built relationships with over the last decade or so in Colchester, but at Kintsu we’re keen to use smaller suppliers and even buy direct from the producers if we can. Our fish comes from a small company called A&J Seafood in Suffolk and they buy direct from local boats when they can meaning we get unbelievable fresh local fish from them and there are even smaller producers I will visit on my way to the restaurant in the mornings to pick up local milk, cream, fruit and vegetables.
Are there a couple of dishes you have on the menu right now that you particularly love?
It’s difficult because I’m notoriously hard to please and always think we can do more. However, currently we have a duck dish as our tasting menu main course – we get incredible salt aged ducks from one of our butchers and after cooking them we rest them over the barbecue to impart some of the smoky flavour. We also mince down all the duck legs for a really tasty duck ragu and serve it with black garlic, broccoli and a slice of duck ham that we cure and smoke ourselves at the restaurant. Our desserts are always great too – currently we are using Pump Street in Suffolk 2 different chocolates (milk and dark) that get served with a smoked date caramel and an ice cream made with a local apple brandy.
What do you offer with the Chef’s Table?
The Chef’s Table is an extension of the restaurant in the sense that the menu is the same, but you get to sit up on a higher bench directly in front of the kitchen so you can watch us cook and see how the kitchen operates. Then me and Ruby (my pastry chef) bring the dishes to the table to explain not just what they are, but the stories behind them, how they got on the menu, where the ingredients come from etc.
As we enter 2024, what are your hopes for the future?
2023 has been a tough year, so for 2024 we’re just hopeful that people still find the time and money to come out to eat and enjoy themselves. We’ve been lucky enough to receive a few accolades since we opened and of course we’d love to build on them, but they are a secondary to happy customers. If we can continue to hit that mark and have people leaving with smiles on their faces telling their friends about the great meal they had then that’s enough for us.