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SPECIAL: Top chefs share their kitchen secrets, Part 1

Michael Caines

We hear from some of the country’s top chefs on how they are preparing for reopening, with new menu creation, food waste strategies and redevelopment ideas high on the agenda as they look towards recovery.

People were staying longer and wanting to eat a lighter lunch and supper – sheer volume drove other parts of the business”

Michael Caines is chef owner at Lympstone Manor in Devon.

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He recently announced the launch of shepherd huts at Lympstone, has another restaurant launching in Devon later this year and launched two last year.

Where did you see the biggest growth when you were open in terms of F&B purchasing from guests? The volume of traffic – staycations were huge and most people wanted to buy into the traditional offer. People were staying longer and wanting to eat a lighter lunch and supper – sheer volume drove other parts of the business. People were sceptical about going to other institutions locally, so they decided to come back to the hotel. We were seeing 96% to 100% occupancy every night in the summer months.

What are the biggest changes to the kitchen operation brought on by the pandemic? Volume of breakfast that was being served! The biggest service. It was very very busy and trying to run a busy kitchen with all of the precautions. Guests were very inconsiderate about the precautions and the changes that needed to be made; it was difficult circumstances, we had less staff, but a lot more demand.

Did you add any more margin to your menu prices when you reopened last year? No, but we benefitted from the cut in VAT and didn’t pass that onto the customer.

What is your main focus now for the first few months of the year? Get through the current lockdown and learning the lessons from last year; we expect to be busy from the moment we open. My determination is to keep as many staff as possible on the pay roll and ensure we are in a good position to maximise business from when we reopen. We are hopeful that the government will extend the VAT and holiday on business rates, as all of those things helped last year and kept our head above the water.

How does your food buying process work? Will this change post-pandemic? Buy local where possible and the biggest change will be the effects of Brexit and what we can get from the European market – there are already delays at the port and we are going to need to understand the ongoing effect of Brexit on the imports.

What sustainability drives are you focusing on in 2021? The first rule of sustainable business is being sustainable! We need to look at what this means – once you’ve got it then you can look at the wider business i.e green credentials. Big message is how can we do more to reduce our carbon footprint and have a more sustainable approach, whilst also maintaining the business itself?

 “We were fortunate that before the final lockdown the Latymer was fully booked for the next 8 weeks”

Steve Smith, head chef Latymer at Pennyhill Park, which was recently awarded a Michelin Star, is part of the wider Exclusive Collection group of luxury hotels.

How does the staffing structure work in your kitchen? We currently have a kitchen team of seven, and are looking to add a pastry chef de partie to that. The kitchen is split into six sections. Meat, Fish, Larder, Snacks, Pastry, and Pass. Although the kitchen is split, it’s all about everyone coming together and helping out wherever they are needed during prep and service periods.

How have you dealt with the key challenges of the lockdowns? We operate a six course tasting menu so we are able to control purchasing, and minimise waste. Food was provided to food banks when the first and second lockdowns were announced. Due to different areas being put into lockdown at different points in December, produce was transferred around the group to avoid waste.

What is your main focus now? Now we are in lockdown again we are looking at seasonal produce that may be available in the next few months and planning what we could do with it. Mainly researching products and supply chains. Brexit and bring to move to buying more local produce is really the main aim.

What sustainability drives are you focusing on in 2021? Sustainability is incredibly important and as a restaurant within the Exclusive group we will focusing on reusing and recycling. Our coffee pod waste will be used to make kombucha for desserts and petit fours. Concentrate on using the best British suppliers we can and support local small suppliers wherever possible. Try and remove all single use plastic by the end of the year. Ensure that we have environment champion both back and front of house and that we have a sustainable programme and emphasis on our environmental policies.

How are you preparing for reopening and what strategies are you bedding in to ensure you bounce back as quickly as possible? We’ve been fortunate to find a formula that worked for us and we’re able to develop it during the last few months of being open. We were fortunate that before the final lockdown the Latymer was fully booked for the next 8 weeks. We hope that we have the same demand when we do eventually return from this lockdown.

“The wine and drinks sales were boosted along with the sale of cheese and the hampers”

Oli Martin, head chef at Hipping Hall won Masterchef: The Professionals over Christmas, and is passionate about utilising local produce to minimise food miles and ensure guests get a taste of ‘local’ when they stay.

What measures did you put in place to deal with Covid-19 restrictions? We had a one way system in place in the kitchen, with designated utensils and equipment per chef who also had their own work bench. Extra sanitising and cleaning was brought in and we operated temperature checks. We tried reducing the amount of time we spent in the kitchen, of course social distancing was a huge part too. We were lucky enough to only reduce our max capacity by about 10% due to the restaurant already being quite well spaced out.

How have you dealt with the challenges of the lockdowns? Due to the size of the operation we don’t often hold a huge deal of stock. The first lockdown we gave the staff the food we had in the fridges and freezers to help them through the tough months that were ahead. When placed into the tier system lockdown we were already running a very low level of stock as we saw it coming lucky enough; our sister hotel was in tier 2 and remained open so we could pass on any excess premium produce onto them.

Where did you see the biggest growth in terms of F&B purchasing from guests? We only offer a single tasting menu and the option of hamper on arrival/departure. We found the people that came to stay were happy to spend well. The wine and drinks sales were boosted along with the sale of cheese and hampers.

What are the biggest changes to the kitchen operation brought on by the pandemic? We really had to assess the way we worked. We decided to drop from a five-day working week to a four-day operation so that was the biggest change for us. This allowed us to keep one consistent team and cut the hours spent working closely together. We changed the way the menu flowed, serving multiple small dishes at the same time instead of rapid succession of each other. This added a new dynamic to the menu, meaning we could continue serving a multi course tasting menu with a reduced team. We also brought in two single sittings, meaning the flow was a lot more controlled; we knew what every table was eating at the exact time, but it also allowed us to give a better service and product to the customer, whilst offering the two most in-demand time slots to sit down for dinner.

How are you approaching new menu creation? It’s extremely difficult to plan a menu when you don’t know when you’ll be reopening. Most of my dishes are born through inspiration and that’s usually whilst in the kitchen at Hipping Hall playing with different ingredients. A lot of spur of the moment ideas pop into my head though; I’ve got a huge notes section on my phone that I can’t wait to crack on with!

How does your food buying process work? Will this change postpandemic? We were lucky enough to be able to change the menu to fit the best produce available to us, and we have always worked like this. We buy hyper local and we will just continue to do this. I know all of our suppliers on first name basis and genuinely care about supporting them; we will work extra had to really ramp down on the food miles.

“We have got very good at closing the kitchen at a moment’s notice and preserving/pickling everything in sight”

Paul Hegley is executive head chef at Gara Rock.

He joined the team in November 2020 following a two-year stint at Sunborn London and is raring to reopen the hotel.

How does the staffing structure work in your kitchen? We have a tiered structure pretty similar to the majority of kitchens with chef de parties leading sections and senior chefs overseeing and quality controlling day to day and myself leading the brigade. Mostly I’m kitchen based and hands on but the nature of the job sometimes dictates I split my time in other areas which means the senior chefs really step up which is vitally important for their development and the business. Generally speaking though the modern kitchen is changing whereby junior chefs really do have more insight into how the business operates, due diligence, costings, safety systems and so on. Everyone has to take ownership which is great for their development and us as a business.

What measures did you put in place to deal with Covid-19 restrictions? Our kitchen is well drilled in HACCP, food standards and best practice so this helps when introducing new measures, the team are really engaged and responsive and understand the importance of guidance. Re-engineering the menu was tricky but this did enable certain garnishes to come from different areas to reduce unnecessary contact between the staff. Front of house have done an excellent job in managing footfall and table distancing and all of the Covid secure measures we have introduced.

How have you dealt with the key challenges of the lockdowns? Keeping it simple, not over complicating dishes and working with great seasonable produce procured as locally as possible helps us keep consistency. A great relationship with our suppliers has been very important as transparency is key. ‘Lockdown pickles’ will be a feature on our menus for months to come that’s for sure; pickling, preserving is very ‘of the moment’. We have got very good at closing the kitchen at a moment’s notice and preserving/pickling everything in sight.

Did you add any more margin to your menu prices when you reopened last year? The VAT reduction has helped take the pressure off a little which is welcome and we have had to be realistic with our menus. There is a fine balance between keeping the standard where we want it to be and having a level head and being creative with cheaper cuts. Again if you get buy in from the whole team, train them and invest in their development everyone understands cost and impact on margin and how we build a sensible menu mix.

What are the biggest changes to the kitchen operation brought on by the pandemic? The unknown. The day-to-day booking cancellations, government announcements and very last-minute guidance. We have had to be very agile as a business; it’s been very difficult to predict what would happen day to day. The mask wearing also is very alien in a hospitality environment.

What is your main focus now for the first few months of the year? Switching those lights on and getting the team back in, getting creative and really looking forward to a more positive spring/summer all being well. We are working with Ox Grills at the moment on something special for our outdoor area, so incorporating food cooked over coals into our food offer and getting it right will be important this year.

What sustainability drives are you focusing on in 2021? Reducing our plastic and food packaging and working with suppliers on this as it is important for everyone and is high on our agenda as a business. Buying in season and being clever with the produce you buy and maximising all of it is an ethos we use all round the kitchen; we have very little food waste. We have a small kitchen garden which in reality isn’t big enough to supply us vegetables to service the kitchen but really helps with garnishes and reduces the amount of cress and herbs we buy and I will be developing this is 2021.

“We also buy the fish as a whole rather than filleted – this keeps the skill set ongoing”

Damian Broom, head chef at Seaham Hall, is focused on maintaining excellent quality and a close-knit team in 2021.

What measures did you put in place to deal with Covid-19 restrictions? We moved the pastry kitchen into the main kitchen and redesigned how the kitchen works to allow four chefs to work within social distancing rules. We ran a smaller menu so we could cope with the increased demand without compromising the quality of what we offer.

How have you dealt with the challenges of the lockdowns? Supplier shortage was an issue – but as we change the menu daily we just improvised and had back up plans for every day. Food waste is always a challenge but we try to maximise what we have; we had an apple dessert on and after two weeks we had enough apple skin to make a pure apple skin sorbet.

What are the biggest changes to the kitchen operation brought on by the pandemic? We have had to rethink how we approach each dish. We haven’t sacrificed quality in the slightest in what we do and what we buy, but we have thought out every detail to make sure we aren’t wasting a single penny or a single man hour.

How does your food buying process work? Will this change post-pandemic? We work with suppliers that have the same ethos as us; animal husbandry and provenance is top priority. Same as our fishmonger, we buy what has been caught that day rather than keep the same fish on, so every day is a different fish/ dish. We also buy the fish as a whole rather than filleted – this keeps the skill set ongoing.

Tags : chefsExclusive HotelsHipping HallMichael Cainesspecial
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