Chef Yes Chef (54 years and still Counting)

Chapter Six

My Big Break

Where was this amazing new place I was desperate to work at? It was to become Eastwell Manor, and more like a building site than an hotel but it impressed the pants off me. So sorry Beverly but I will not now be coming. Turning down a job like the one I had been offered in Beverly was an extremely difficult thing to do because it was a very good job, but I just knew in my water that Eastwell was the place for me.

Eastwell Manor

This of course meant that a massive move and commitment was on the cards, but I didn’t think twice. We sold our house in East London and moved down to Ashford into a brand-new house on a brand-new estate and loved it. Everything was perfect, probably about as perfect as things ever got. I had the opportunity to set up a kitchen from scratch, there wasn’t even a floor when I started, just a hole in the ground with some pipes sticking out of it. Once we opened, and the accolades started to come in it was beyond perfect, but hang on a minute, I’m getting ahead of myself here.

The whole management team at Eastwell was young so I fitted in perfectly, in fact I was one of the oldest there, so much for Jacque’s insistence that they wanted someone older, it turned out the older person they needed was me, I was just 27! 

Matthew the owner was only 22, John Croft the manager I think was about 25, Simon Pyle the Restaurant manager was even younger and Corrine Weaver the Head Housekeeper may have been the same age as me, possibly a year older. 

I think 3 of them, Matthew, John and Simon had all worked together with Gerald Milsom at the Talbooth/Maison Talbooth in Essex, a leader in both food and quality accommodation back in the 70’s.

John Bates, Matthew’s father, had bought the 3,000-acre estate, on the north side of Ashford in Kent on which Eastwell sat, some 2 or 3 years prior. The Countess of Middleton and her son, from whom they had bought it from, was given leave to live in the house until they were ready to move. When they did eventually go, which to be fair was not long after selling, the Bates family then had this huge house that they were planning on turning into an hotel. The family business was in the building trade, and they bought the estate for its land as farming was a side line, not only that though, John Bates was a keen shooting man and he wanted the land for shooting purposes.

Matthew Bates, John Croft and Ian McAndrew

The A Team

Left to right: John Croft Manager, Me Head Chef, Matthew Bates Owner

When I went to work at Eastwell it was early November 1979 and the plan was to open the following February. The construction of the hotel was underway, the plans had been drawn up and passed and a lot of the work had been completed. The kitchens, and back of house area, however were still in the planning stage thankfully, despite some work having been started. The hole in the floor was them laying drainage and gas pipes etc. This obviously gave me massive scope to come up with what I wanted and how I wanted it. What an opportunity this was. Of course, not only did I not have a kitchen, but I also had no staff or suppliers, so those first few months were extremely hectic and busy. The kitchen layout was decided quickly then the task of sourcing equipment began along with crockery too, of course I had never had any experience in doing any of this but together we brought it all together.                                                             

My New Kitchen

I ended up with a kitchen and equipment I was extremely happy with, I even had brand new tin lined  copper pans to cook with, proper stacked pastry ovens, a great stockpot with it’s own stove, even an office (a very small office at that), although I had to fight for this as I was the only one who thought I needed one!

As for staffing, that went swimmingly, I got some great people. Again so lucky to have the brigade I did when we first opened. Bernie Warne as Sous and Andrew Burton as CdP (Chef de Partie), both knew each other and had both worked for Gerald Milsom at the Talbooth I think it was. Alan Styche as Pastry Chef, a real eccentric guy but a good pastry chef, an unusual lad was our Darel, (I’ve already mentioned him in the chapter on the Dorchester) but a great guy, loyal and really hard working, and a really good chef, although he never agreed, and I’m pleased to say he’s still a friend. Fiona, I took on with Alan in the pastry, she was a local girl and turned out extremely good and another I am still in touch with after all these years. Jeremy & Colin as CdP’s, an apprentice, who’s name escapes me at the moment but may have been Donald, along with a number of others, I think I had a brigade of about 9, so a good sized team.

From L-R Darel, Alan, me, Jeremy, Andrew and Fiona after winning lots at the Canterbury Salon Culinaire 1980

It was a massive learning curve, coming from the big city 5-star hotels as just one of the boys, to the middle of the countryside, an area I did not know, into a small establishment by comparison and a much smaller team. No suppliers, no customers, no menu, and in charge and responsible for all the food offerings! In charge! No problem I had all the confidence in the world and then some!

Suppliers were a bit of a challenge to begin with and it took some considerable time to get this aspect sorted out to any sort of acceptable level. I remember approaching a fish merchant in Ashford, about 3 – 4 miles away, to get regular deliveries. Not a chance, he was not interested at all, it was too far for him to come! What an absolute clueless prat! 

Thankfully before long suppliers found me which made life a whole lot easier. We very quickly had a good fish supplier in John and Patricia from Deal and a lot further afield than Ashford, a local fruit and veg man that did his very best to get me what I wanted but I also soon developed an extensive chain of great people sourcing and growing for me, some fantastic stuff.

Just over a mile away was Perry Court, growing mainly fruit such as apples, pears and of course strawberries and raspberries, as so many in Kent do, but vegetables too, courgettes and broccoli in abundance. I spent a lot of time there as they did pick your own. I think it was a woman called Leo who ran the farm shop but I was soon chastised for picking little finger sized courgettes (plus their flowers) and small tight heads of calabrese as I was buying them on weight then which of course meant the farm was losing out big time and they soon cottoned on! They were great people though as in the later days of my time there they let me walk the farm with my gun and dog, popping off rabbits.

One of these great suppliers were Frances and Neil Smith of Parkhill in Appledore in Kent. They raised quail and sold the eggs and birds. They, the birds and eggs, were fantastic, and they, Neil & Frances, were fabulous people, loved them to bits, still do, even though Neil has since passed. Frances invited Jane and I down to her place for Sunday Lunch one week. Her place – it is the most fabulous old Kent house in the countryside and on about 25 acres know as Park Hill Farm. That day when we arrived Frances was busy in her kitchen garden thinning out some leeks. So, I asked her what she was going to do with the thinning’s, “nothing! Okay I’ll take them and use them plus any more that you can let me have.” I was also looking for a regular supply of flat parsley too and Frances had plenty. Very soon she was growing all sorts of stuff for me and branched out to supply other chefs too. In no time at all we were invited to an erection party! To help erect her first 120- foot poly tunnel, she went into veg production in a BIG way, with a further 3 more tunnels over the years. All the while I was taking both quails and quail eggs from her. Indeed, any photograph in any of my books that includes quail or their eggs then these birds and eggs were supplied to me by Frances and Neil.

I think it was that first visit to Park Hill farm that Neil took us around his quail sheds. As we walked around the narrative went something like: “now these little people in this pen are just a few days old, and these little people are 2 weeks old, and these little people will be dead tomorrow,  and then on your menu”!

Over the years Frances used to source new varieties of vegetables and salads along with their seeds from their travels, mainly around Europe, so I was getting some fabulous produce that initially no one else had access to. She continued for many years and whenever I could, no matter where we were, I would buy from her, as often as much as was possible.

Neil was and Frances still is, the most eccentric and loveable people we have ever known and I have always been proud to call them really good friends, a friendship I hope lasts for ever.

Working in the 80’s on high end food was really cutting edge at the time, there were so few places around, unlike today. So many of them, like Eastwell, were country house hotels throughout the UK, and very soon we developed contacts at many of them. Much of this was helped by the accolades we began to amass and the resulting publicity that came with them.

The Good Food Guide, The AA, Egon Ronay, all gave us great marks in the first year, we were over the moon. 

The Bates family were friends with a number hoteliers and restauranteurs around the country, and France too. It was thanks to these friendships that other good things happened for me. Firstly, Jane and I got to stay and dine at many of the great country house hotels throughout England. Gidleigh Park, Bishopstrow House, Royal Crescent at Bath, Gravetye Manor, The Maison Talbooth, Hunstreet House, The Stafford, Castle Hotel Taunton, Lygon Arms, Hambleton Hall, Oh so many places. Of course, I already knew some of the chefs of these, John Webber, we worked together in the larder at the Dorchester me on one shift, John on the other, he was the chef at Gidleigh Park, John Hornsby also at the Dorchester as a Sous Chef when I was there was now chef at the Castle Hotel in Taunton. Also due to these connections of both mine and those of Matthew and John Bates, that it was proposed a group of chefs from these now up and coming establishments, should form a group similar to Mosimann’s Club 9. So the Country Chef’s 7 was born.

Consisting of 7 young, talked about chefs, all working in prestigious Country Houses around the UK: John Webber of Gildeigh, John Hornsby of the Castle, Shaun Hill of the Lygon Arms, Nick Gill of Hambleton Hall, Murdo McSween of the Elms, Michael Quinn, then of Gravetye Manor but soon to become the first British Executive Chef at the Ritz in London and of course myself at Eastwell Manor, we were the Country Chefs 7.

Country Chefs Seven

L – R Shaun, John W, Me, Murdo, John H, Michael, and Nick

We did a TV spot and a lunch at the Ritz, and this was taken that day

We produced a brochure, got ourselves on both the TV and even the radio 4 Food Programme and generated loads of publicity for our respective hotels and employers, we even featured on a calendar for British Meat, it did us all nothing but good.

The day we did the radio 4 Food Programme from the Castle Hotel in Taunton

We used to go to each other’s respective hotels for a get together/meeting/good drinking sessions. One of the first ones of these get togethers was the end of January 1981, less than a year after the opening of Eastwell Manor. Held at Hambleton Hall with Nick Gill in the chair. The date was while Eastwell was closed for a couple of weeks to get holidays out of the way all in one go.  Jane and I were staying in Mansfield with her dad so I left her there and I went off to meet the boys. As I walked in the front door I was greeted with cheers and congratulations and the popping of a champagne corks! I had absolutely no idea why but it seemed it was all for me, to celebrate Me/Eastwell gaining a Michelin Star! Yep the guide had just come out a few days before and being away and on holiday I knew nothing about it. Back then there were no facebook pages or mobile telephones so I had no idea of the great accolade, open less than a year and we’d won a Michelin Star. I can’t tell you how flabbergasted and elated I was.

Back then there were only 32 Michelin Stars in the UK and I had one of them, now – I’ve lost count, although at the time of writing I understand there are 69 in London alone. To be one of those 32 was like being a member of a very exclusive club, to which the Bate’s family that owned Eastwell pretty much gave me membership to, and I can’t thank them enough. Not that it wasn’t hard work and real graft mind you but I loved it. 

Some of the produce we were using was stunning, I had some good chefs with me that were all great people and all hard working, I look back now and wonder how we did it really. They’re scattered to the four corners of the earth now but I hope they too remember their time there as fondly as I do. From David Spice to Jim Byars both extremely dear to our hearts and back home in New Zealand these days, Darel Turney who came to me from us having worked together at the Dorchester. Berine Warne who came as my Sous and his friend Andrew Burton who was a CdP, Jeremy Brazell, and of course Alan Styche as Pastry Chef now in Bermuda and of course Jean Michel Gauffre as Sous Chef after Bernie had left, as well as many more who passed through my kitchen.

1981 was a big year for me all round really, the awards and particularly the Michelin Star, the CC7 and all the publicity from that, the same year Charles (King) and Diana married, so of course we had a big celebration at the hotel for that and this huge sugar model of St. Pauls Cathedral was the centre piece of the day that both Alan and I worked on building.

St Pauls for Princess Diana's wedding

Lots of celebrities started coming to Eastwell too, regular visitors were Susie Quatro (she knew the family), Noel Edmonds as he could land his helicopter on the lawn but most of the time I stayed out of the way of them. Then Rod Hull started coming fairly regular on a Sunday lunch and he even brought the bloody bird once. Rod and I got on really well and he and his wife used to frequent our restaurant for years until his tragic death. These photos are of the day he brought the bird and caused havoc in the kitchen. It was the strangest of experiences too, all you saw was the bird, Rod never even existed when he had that on his arm, all you could concentrate on was what that thing was going to do next, it really did have a life of its own.     

Roux restaurants played a big part in my life then too, Albert knew Matthew the owner manager indeed he knew the whole Bate’s family. Eastwell Manor had a 3000 acre estate that John Bates farmed and kept a really high end shoot employing a number of full time game keepers and under keepers. He started selling baby lambs or Pauillacs to Albert and the Roux chain and pretty soon was selling a whole lot more too and the majority of our beef and lamb we used came from the estate too.

I think it must have been the shooting season of 1981 that John Bates invited me to shoot with them one day. I had been catering for their shoot lunches since before the hotel opened but had never picked up a gun. He said why not come and have a go – too bloody right! Wild horses would not have stopped me. All his shooting days were big bag days, formal driven shoots and most of the guns had loaders with them. A loader is a person that accompanies the shooter (or gun as he/she is known) and simply put, he loads the gun with the cartridges. On shoots like those at Eastwell the loader is almost invaluable to the gun as there is no way he would otherwise keep up with the volume of birds going over his head.

As a total novice, so as not to embarrass me or himself, Mr Bates arranged for me to have a shooting lesson with the local gunsmiths, Greenfields of Canterbury. I rocked up to their practice shooting ground and was given a thorough induction into how to handle a gun, how to shoot and all the safety and etiquette around a day’s shooting. It was fascinating. The following week I was in the field, in the line, and with a gun in my hand along with my very own loader standing next to me, on a 450 mixed bird day I think it was. I shot 32 pheasants across 2 consecutive drives that day, I did not get to shoot the whole day just the two drives but it was fantastic, I think it was the following week that I went out and bought my first gun, from Greenfields of Canterbury of course, and started my love of shooting, one that I have loved every day of, and still do when the opportunity arises.

Working in the grounds of a 3,000 acre estate of course offered me endless opportunities to shoot, and I will be forever grateful to John Bates for that day, and the chances he gave me throughout my time at Eastwell.

Albert had started off a veg supply company called Rouxell with a Frenchman called Dominic Rousell, (hence the name Rouxell). Dominic used to go to Le Rungis, the French market just outside Paris every week and bring back a truck laden with all sorts of fabulous products from fresh foie gras to the most incredible gladioli I have ever seen and everything in between. These gladioli were easily 2 metres tall and flowers almost from the very tip to the base, they really were incredible things and I have loved gladioli ever since but never seen their like again.

The story as I understood it was that Albert’s wife used to go across to France every week in a little Renault 5 with as many sides of Scottish Smoked Salmon hidden under the removable back seat and as many as could be packed in. She would then return with the same space stowed out with fresh truffles and foie gras etc as she could. It’s a great story and one I fervently hope is true!

To begin with Dom would deliver to me directly at Eastwell, on leaving Dover he would drive directly to Eastwell, which meant I was getting the very first of everything new on the market before even Albert got them. I had the first Morels of the season, the first black truffles, the first strawberries of the season, water asparagus, types of lettuce never before seen over here, at one point I was stocking up to 14 different varieties of leaf it was incredible. It then got to be too difficult for him to deliver, so I would occasionally meet him in a layby somewhere close to the motorway and collect from him at the side of the road but eventually that too became untenable for us both. Dominic never agreed with having to pay the customs people in Dover a bung to let him and his highly perishable lorry load of goods through in a timely fashion so they would (allegedly) hold him up in the docks, making him unload his whole lorry to check it, often leaving all this high end produce just sitting out for hours. It was impossible for him to tell me when he would be getting to me, it could be 10am or midnight, we never knew. 

He would pull up at the hotel or , as I say, often pull into a layby somewhere on the A20, clamber into the back of the lorry which was packed to the roof, crawl across stacks of boxes, often burrowing down deep into the stacks to find the right box for me. I would have the first Girolles, Pied de Mouton or Mousseron, Charbonnier, White Asparagus, Raspberries, Grelots, of the season, all before the Roux’s or anyone else for that matter.

In the end I used to meet him in London outside the Roux bakery which of course meant I stopped getting the pick of the lorry – hey ho! I did well out of it up until then. Often I would also see Peter Chandler picking up from him outside the Roux pastry just as I was. Pete had just opened his place, in Woburn Park around then too. My highlight of those Thursday mornings, it was normally a Thursday he was getting back, was a bacon sandwich and cup of tea under the railway arch opposite the Roux bakery on Wandsworth Road. After picking up from him I then went on to Hyams & Cockerton, a fruit & veg merchant just along the road, almost opposite the college, to get more fruit and veg for the week.

He also used to bring fresh live Crayfish over, I got a large water tank plumbed in supplying continuous running water installed in the courtyard outside the kitchen window to keep them alive in.

It wasn’t long before I was taking more to London than I was bringing back every week, in the end I hitched up a huge trailer to the back of the Bate’s Range Rover every week, it was longer than the Range Rover itself and at least half the height, it, and the back of the car, were laden every trip with rabbits, venison carcasses, partridge, wild duck, pheasants, whole lambs, woodcock, pigeons – all sorts of things, game and meat, from the estate all of which was delivered to the Roux butchery round the back of the Pastry shop, Rowley Leigh used to work there at the time. I would then return with, not only fruit and veg, but flowers, chocolate, flour, all sorts of incredible produce.

These Thursday mornings grew into a ritual, one, that even after I opened our first restaurant in Canterbury, I kept up every week.

One year Jane and I went over to France with Matthew, must have been 1982, we stayed at the Hotel du Bas-Bréau in Barbizon just south of Paris. I was then taken with the owner (Matthew and family were good friends with him) to the Rungis market. It was phenomenal! It blew my mind, it was so vast, and the amount of produce, and the quality was like nothing I had ever seen before. The following year, the owner of the Hotel du Bas-Bréau was getting married, and he would have his wedding at Eastwell Manor. For the main course of his wedding breakfast, for I think it was about 70 guests, he wanted Woodcock, cooked and served in the traditional manner. Yes 70 woodcock! Good job we had a lot of notice as it took a long time to amass that many woodcock. Every shoot every week throughout the season was instructed, shoot the woodcock, don’t miss!

On the day of the wedding the woodcock were roasted and served in the classical manner, each on a croute topped with farce au gratin, made from the cooked birds innards, and the heads split. Albert then went around the room grabbing up all the heads that had not been sucked clean and emptied the skulls of the brains of each one, yummy!

During 1983 I was getting good press all over the place, thanks in the main to CC7 and of course our Michelin status. In the May of that year, I featured on the front cover of Garden News, I even think it was the week of the Chelsea Flower Show, it is normally towards the end of May and it was the 21May edition 1983 that this photo appeared.

I had come up with the idea of doing something different, may have been specially for Mother’s Day but I’m not sure about that. We had daffodils in the fields around us everywhere, and in those fields lots and lots of sheep, eating the heads of the daffs off. So, I thought if they can do it why can’t I?

So, Jonquil Printanière was born! Crystallised Daffodil on a bed of Kiwi Fruit and a Strawberry Coulis, boy did that go well or what! Had social media been around then  it would almost certainly have gone viral, I guess it did in it’s own way! I got publicity everywhere for it and it sold like hot cakes! There are still plenty of people out there that remember me just for that one dish! Flowers just weren’t being used much at all back then and folks love a gimmick, don’t they?

Jonquil Printanière

From an article in the Caterer about cooking with flowers in 1985

I could almost write a book solely about my time at Eastwell but eventually all good things come to an end though and it started to turn sour. The Bates family sold the hotel, and inevitably it was not the same and it didn’t take long for me to start thinking about our own restaurant instead of working for someone else, a decision that was pretty much forced upon me as I never did get on with the new owners and because of the way I had been allowed to run the food operation to that point I could not work for someone telling me what had to be done, especially when I did not like them! 

We went through some turbulent times for a few months until it became unbearable – for both sides! So that was that, we found a property in Canterbury, a former fitted kitchen showroom and turned it into a restaurant for the next phase in our lives.

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