Husband and wife team James Wilkins and Christine Vayssade own and run award winning Wilks Restaurant in Bristol, with Christine at the front of house and James in the kitchen. Chef James arrived in Bristol with an accomplished CV that has seen him work in some of the best kitchens in Britain and France, including three-Michelin-star restaurant Michel Bras in Laguiole. When Michel asked James if he would move to Japan as Head Chef and Director of his restaurant Toya in Hokkaido, James jumped at the chance. There then followed a two-year stint in Istanbul, which required a very different vision and culinary approach.
Christine characterises James’ cooking as modern European with a strong French influence, but the diverse cuisines, produce, cooking styles and cultures he experienced during his travels are a huge influence and source of inspiration. The team has a strong French influence: sommelier Ludovic Lidon grew up in Sancerre and has worked in a number of fine dining restaurants in France including Le Jardin des Sens in Montpellier, Michel Sarran in Toulouse and Le Jules Verne in Paris.
Christine and Ludovic were kind enough to spare some time to talk to us ahead of a busy Bank Holiday weekend. We spoke about the multicultural roots of Wilks, their enthusiasm to work with small local producers, and the arrival of young chefs and gastro-businesses who have set up in and around Bristol and are turbo charging the food scene in the city.
Jo: Christine, tell me about the journey to Wilks – what places and culinary experiences inspired you and James to set up the restaurant?
Christine: James is English and although he has been abroad a lot, had always wanted to set up his own restaurant in the UK. When we returned from Istanbul it took time to find a property we liked in the south of England. The Wilks site became available – we didn’t know the city or have any contacts here, but we liked it, saw it had potential and we took our chance!
Jo: You were awarded a Michelin star only a year after opening and entered the Good Food Guide as the highest rated in Bristol – what did this recognition do for the business?
Christine: It changed everything overnight. We got really busy, the diary was booked for lunch and dinner every day – it was fantastic. We had been open for such a short period of time we weren’t expecting it. It was very sudden and if you’re not prepared it can be a bit of a shock, but James has very strong experience in Michelin environments, you have to keep doing what you’re doing and try to improve. We have a strong team. Ludovic has brought really good experience from his background and we try to improve every day.
Jo: What is the dynamic between the kitchen and the wines? Does the menu drive the wine list or do delicious wines you try inspire the kitchen to create dishes to match them?
Ludovic: The point is to emphasise the chef’s cooking. James has his style and it is up to us to find different wine styles and pairings to complement his menu. We choose wines with James to match with his cuisine, not the other way round. It is important to us to experiment, not to always choose wines from the same country or in the same profile. James’ cooking is multicultural and it’s interesting to explore possibilities that are close to the spirit of the cooking; we like to try this with our customers.
Jo: What is the essence of your wine list and what do your customers respond to the most? Do they opt for classic wines or do they ask for advice?
Ludovic: We have a range of customers, most are very open minded about wine, they are really receptive to suggestions and look to us to recommend good matches. Our menu is always changing depending on the best produce available. I find it important to have fresh wines on the list to keep customers excited and to match the daily menus. It also gives me the chance to road test a wine to see if it works well before adding it to the main list.
Christine: Sometimes we have a young couple that has come for a romantic dinner; they perhaps don’t visit fine dining restaurants regularly and are treating themselves. It is fantastic for us to see people coming to us like this because it means we are approachable. We never wanted to be stuck up – we aim to offer good service in a nice atmosphere. If they order the tasting menu and you give them the wine list they are sometimes overwhelmed, so that’s where Ludovic steps in. It’s an important part of the job to read the customer, and offer something that will satisfy them, and that they will enjoy. It usually works really well.
We used to have a very French wine list, but since working with Indigo we are diversifying, and we enjoy the selection of different wines that we can offer by the glass. We have ‘wines of the week’ – two whites and two reds. Ludovic does a lot of work to choose these. Some places have the same menu for a season or for a whole year. We have a lot of regular guests – people that come once a week, or monthly – so we have to offer different things. Some regular customers don’t even want to see the wine list – they just ask for Ludovic
Jo: I know Ludo is partial to Riesling – are any other styles or regions close to his heart?
Ludovic: Quite a lot! I’m a big fan of wine from Spain, especially from Galicia. I really started to learn about it when I started working at Wilks, including wines from Rafael Palacios and Eulogio Pomares. I like Ribera del Duero, we used to have Cometa from Quinta Milú— it’s a beautiful wine. I was born near Sancerre, but I’m not a big fan of that style of very classic wine. It’s popular here in England – Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, lots of people ask for them – but we want to offer something different that you don’t find everywhere. We like to find small production wines, to support small domaines and introduce them to people.
Jo: The 64 thousand dollar question… what about English wine? You don’t have to say flattering things!
Christine: I think there is great potential, but they aren’t there quite yet, that’s my opinion. We used to have a white English wine on the list, but none of the English customers would choose it, and I wasn’t crazy about it myself so we didn’t continue with it. In a few years I’m sure they will be producing some very good sparkling wines.
Jo: Bristol has a thriving restaurant and bar scene, tell me more about it.
Christine: Yes it has changed dramatically in the four years we have been here. There were good restaurants when we arrived but now there are a lot of young chefs opening up businesses. London is expensive and Bristol has a lot to offer, it’s a vibrant city. There are many restaurants opening and very talented chefs in the city.
Jo: Where do you go to eat/drink/socialise on your days off?
Christine: We both have a favourite at the moment: Bulrush (open since November). A young couple runs it. Like James and I they started from nothing but now they are establishing themselves.
Ludovic: They have a beautiful tasting menu, really nice. Also the Kensington Arms is superb, it’s just around the corner from here.
Jo: In this part of the West Country you have some fantastic local produce.
Christine: Yes at the moment we’re using asparagus from the Wye Valley, Cheddar strawberries – we try to use as much local produce as possible. Our butcher is two streets away, and his sister has a farm just outside Bristol – that’s how local it is. Even our gin is local. There is a lot of interesting produce around Bristol, people setting up small companies, they start from nothing and step by step they succeed which is fantastic and we try to support them. That said, we do also bring produce from France. We look for the best, that’s our priority over locality.
[Side note: Wilks source their gin from Psychopomp, a micro-distillery in Bristol. Coincidentally I visited their bar the evening before talking to Christine and Ludo, and I can absolutely attest to the deliciousness of their bespoke botanical blends! Their sipping gins are almost close to whisky]
Jo: Finally… If you had a “desert island” meal and matching wine(s)
Christine: That’s such a tricky question, what is the best meal? I remember having a fantastic meal in a three-Michelin-star place in France, it was stunning, but I also remember being on holiday in Cinque Terre in Italy with two friends, and going into the local shop, buying some Gorgonzola, some fresh tomatoes, a bottle of red, and having a picnic by the sea. It was absolutely fantastic. It’s all about good company, good produce. The list would be endless if I had to tell you my favourite ingredients – a bit of foie gras, pigeon, asparagus, sweetbreads…
And that concludes our interview. A huge thank you to Christine and Ludovic for talking to us. Their passion for rooting out the best ingredients on offer, their continual quest to explore and improve, and most of all their joy at bringing all of this together to delight their customers really shines though. We could have continued the discussions for much longer but lunch service called. Here are the details for Wilks and for some of the other fantastic local eateries mentioned in the article.
1B Chandos Road, Bristol BS6 6PG
Bulrush – 21 Cotham Road South, Bristol, BS6 5TZ
Kensington Arms – 35-37 Stanley Road Redland Bristol BS6 6NP
Psychopomp – 145 St Michaels Hill, Bristol
Wilsons Restaurant – opening soon