In the most anticipated country house hotel launch in years, Michael Caines opens the doors of Lympstone Manor near Exmouth next month. In the second part of our exclusive interview, Jo Rees chewed the fat with Michael in the new kitchen
‘I don’t think anybody has done what I’m doing since Raymond Blanc opened Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons 33 years ago. I’m creating a country house hotel with 21 bedrooms in a building that has never been a hotel, something that no other two Michelin starred chef in the UK has done since Raymond.’
And if anyone has the balls to pull this off, Caines is the man. Plus, he’s had 21 years of cooking at the very highest order – 18 of those at Gidleigh Park where he held two Michelin stars – and the involvement in the design of a number of seriously good kitchens and restaurants.
‘I designed the kitchens at The Royal Clarence, Gidleigh Park and The Bath Priory,’ he says, ‘as well as the Abodes at Canterbury, Glasgow, Manchester and Chester. And, of course, I’ve worked in many kitchens of a very very high standard, such as Robuchon’s, Loiseau’s, and Raymond Blanc’s.’
So what lessons has he brought to Lympstone? ‘Well, you always have to work with the space you are given and design for the execution of what you want to do, so we’ve separated the cook area and the prep area because when we’re busy we’ll be cooking breakfast, light lunch, lunch, afternoon tea and dinner, as well as baking bread. And we’ll be doing things the American way by having a cook team and a prep team.
‘I’ve also built a rectangular pass [instead of the more usual long pass], around which Tom [Hine, group executive chef], Dan [Gambles, sous chef] and I can work and the team can congregate.’
Eschewing the kitchen table found at a number of high end restaurants where guests can eat while watching the team at work, Michael says, ‘It’s not the kind of experience I want to give people, plus all you need is a half pretty girl and that’s it, the kitchen gets distracted and service has gone.’
The kitchen cost around £375,000 to kit out, although, says Caines, ‘that’s excluding any mechanical, electrical and building works. But while the kitchen investment is only one part of the project, it’s one of the most important spaces, as the food is the element that’s going to draw people.
‘The kitchen is the heart of the experience, because the whole purpose of doing this is to give me a platform to cook at the highest level. So the justification for the investment is not even a conversation we need to have.
‘Funnily enough,’ he smiles, ‘people expect my kitchen to be fantastic but they are pleasantly surprised when I’ve done a good job out front and in the bedrooms.’
One of the aims, of course, is to reach the much feted three Michelin star status which would put him alongside just four other restaurants in the UK (The Waterside Inn, Alain Ducasse at the Dorchester, Restaurant Gordon Ramsay and The Fat Duck).
‘I’ll have a lot of satisfaction in being considered one of the new benchmarks within the industry. On a par with the likes of Le Manoir, Lime Wood and Chewton Glen. I say that because I believe if you don’t put that intention out there then no-one is going to deliver it.’
To help achieve it, he’s drawn together a brigade of 18-20 chefs which will rise to 25 when the restaurant is operating at full tilt. Many of them have worked with Michael before, including Tom Hine, but Michael says, ‘let’s be clear that we are not about to recreate things I’ve done in the past, it’s about creating a new future. Tom expressed his interest in working with me while at Kentisbury Grange and he’s done a great job so I couldn’t pass it up. Loyalty needs to be repaid with opportunity.’
Other notable appointments include assistant general manager Anca Paraschiv, who comes from running Sat Bains’ two star restaurant for three years and previously worked with Michael at The Bath Priory. She’s joined by head sommelier Marko Mägi (ex Le Gavroche) and Scott Andrews (ex Atlantic Hotel, Gidleigh and Le Manoir) who is the new GM, having previously worked with Michael at Gidleigh Park. ‘I’ve got the people I like working with and who like working with me – and I’ll admit, I’m not an easy person to work with because I’m so demanding.’
So what should we expect of the next phase of Caines’ cooking?
‘It’s going to be an evolution. You don’t go and see Coldplay without hearing any of their greatest hits, and so it’s important to recognise that people are eagerly awaiting the opening of Lympstone Manor because of the food that I’ve cooked for the last 21 years. So I won’t be throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
‘I’m simply giving myself a platform to cook at the highest level in an environment that’s completely designed around me, so that I can express a new era. Make no mistake, this is a new experience. We haven’t just decorated the dining room and bought a few new chairs. From the moment customers come down the drive and through that door, everything has been calculated to give them an incredible experience.
‘If I had to make a point of difference about how I feel about standing in this kitchen compared to Gidleigh, it’s that at Gidleigh the kitchen was my domain. At Lympstone, it’s all my domain.
‘As soon as I walk in the front door it’ll feel like home, and going to the kitchen is just where I’ll end up. I won’t walk in the back door to go to work, I’ll walk in the front door and see it as a guest sees it. I’ll say hello to the guests and my staff and make sure that everything is pukka, before heading to the kitchen where it’ll be a case of, “right, Tommy, off we go”.’