Harriet Mansell never opened her Lyme Regis restaurant looking for accolades. In fact, quite the opposite. She did it for a pure love of cooking for people. “I approached being a chef with the desire to share through hospitality, and spark joy in customers,” Mansell tells me. “My goal was to get that moment of delight where people are like ‘Oooh!’ and to embed people in a time and place.”

This is something she has done with ease since opening Robin Wylde in October 2020, and, not one to be set back by something as pesky as a global pandemic, her second, slightly more informal eatery, Lilac, during the third lockdown. But as with any success comes the awareness of your visibility, and the realisation that sometimes public achievement is about so much more than just what it means to you on an individual level. Robin Wylde has an entirely female kitchen, something Mansell tells me wasn’t intentional. “It really wasn’t what I set out to do,” she says. “I just wanted to have chefs that were passionate.”

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It is perhaps this all-female team that has changed her attitude around awards, but Mansell admits in our conversation that now, as a team, they are actively seeking a Michelin star – something she makes clear was never an aim before. “Increasingly I have this sense that if we could gain an accolade – for example, a Michelin star – what that would mean for us as an all-female team,” Mansell says. “This year we actually got pegged to get a Michelin star by some people. I think Great British Chefs issued their predictions, and they predicted Robin Wylde, which was super lovely. We just thought that even being there is an amazing feat already. But then the announcement came out and we actually looked at all the new restaurants, and there were 18 new one-starred restaurants, and they were all run by men. And we just went, actually, do you know what? I think we need to do this for women.”

None of this is said with expectation or arrogance. I don’t get the impression Mansell is the kind of person that needs acknowledgement for acknowledgement’s sake. And it’s a fair point – visibility is key to moving forward and when one of the major culinary awards systems is still largely male-dominated, it raises a fair few questions about what the industry as a whole is saying to those looking to work in food.

We looked at the new one-star restaurants, and they were all run by men. We just went 'We need to do this for women'

And when it comes to role models for what it looks like to be a female chef, I struggle to think of many better than Mansell. Her story is one of hard work, commitment and – above all – a belief that things will work out. “I was 12 or 13 when I first said I wanted to have a restaurant when I was older,” she tells me. “Obviously that was a very premature idea and I had no idea what that would look like. I was working in a greengrocer and I loved learning about fruits and vegetables.” It’s this pursuit of knowledge that seems to have underpinned her entire career. Robin Wylde is lauded for its hyper-seasonal menus that centre local produce and foraged ingredients that Mansell herself has a knack for finding.

This is perhaps a skill she developed while working on superyachts, travelling the world and cooking for guests under some of the most unique culinary conditions. “Yachts are very different to working in kitchens on land,” she tells me. “Ultimately you have guests who expect the service to be above five-star, and to have whatever they want whenever they want it. So in that sense you have to be an agile worker and an agile thinker. You’re also working with lots of different produce and ingredients from all around the world. Everywhere we went, I was always as focused as I could be on finding out what was indigienous to that area. My love for wild and native ingredients was a real motivation for me when I was travelling.”

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After a decade of hard work, with Mansell admitting she “barely took a holiday” in her twenties, she realised a bit of a break was needed, and headed off to teach yoga in Bali. But, in what I gather is true Harriet Mansell style, this didn’t last long, as her drive to achieve her goal of owning her own restaurant hit in what she calls a “lightning-bolt moment of realisation. I was suddenly like, ‘If want to open a restaurant, Harriet, you’re going to need to actually do it,” she laughs. “‘You’re going to need to start making moves, because if you ever want to have a family, you’re going to have to stay in this restaurant for at least five years, by which time you’ll be 36, by which time you really need to think about it.’ So I just had this new sense of urgency to get back and set it up.”

This urgency was somewhat measured by her accountant, who encouraged her to briefly pump the breaks, and test out business ownership on a slightly less formal basis via a pop-up. She found a space to open four nights a week in Lyme Regis, and unsurprisingly it wasn’t long before her talent brought The Great British Menu sniffing about, and then, as they say, everything fell into place (in spite of that minor hurdle known as the global Covid-19 pandemic). The landlady of a former craft shop offered her the space, and she signed the lease in January 2020, with planning permission to turn it into a kitchen and restaurant coming back in August 2020. She eventually opened the doors in October 2020, and found quick success despite the pretty enormous setbacks faced by multiple lockdowns.

Mansell credits a stage at Noma with “opening my eyes up to methods of preparation that I hadn’t considered were a part of cooking." There are hints of her time at the restaurant as with any eatery attempting modern, hyper-local food, but it is only in this and the commitment to incredible cooking where comparisons can really be drawn. Because Mansell has a knack for seeking out incredible flavours and ingredients from England’s natural larder, foraging for things I didn’t even know existed, let alone grew in abundance and made the perfect addition to a plate of food. It’s the kind of approach to cooking that is inventive, creative and more than deserving of accolades, and definitely of a Michelin star – not just for what it would say about Mansell’s food, but for what it would mean for all the girls that see her success and believe that they can do it, too.