This month's Featured Chef...
Michael Caines MBE
Executive Chef, Gidleigh Park Hotel Devon & Bath Priory Hotel
Director, Abode Hotels & Michael Caines Restaurants.
Michael, thank you very much for your time today. It's great to see you. Maybe you could start by outlining your role.
Well, my role varies in levels and activities from creative input and development of our menus; strategic management of our delivery of service and then in Abode mode, of being the operational partner and cofounder of Abode Hotels, I take on the role of Director of Food & Beverage.
So there are six Abode hotels now, is that right?
There will be, currently we have 4; 2 in development. Exeter, Canterbury, Glasgow and Manchester with Chester next year and Salisbury there after. Then there is Bath Priory Hotel and Gidleigh Park Hotel, which exist within the group Bath Priory Limited, and my role there is technically Executive Chef for both. Within Abode Hotels, we have Michael Caines Restaurants which is something I set up in 1999, we also has Michael Caines Taverns, Bars & Grills - it's a group within the mid market, so anything from sandwiches in a Boutique to Michelin starred restaurants - they all appear under the Michael Caines banner, we are pretty much covered in that market segment. And I do pretty much everything, from designing the ground floor, logistics as well as the planning and development of all the outlets.
So a lot of your role isn't necessarily chef driven?
Well, it depends how you look at it. A lot of people say if food is your business then you should be in the business to know what your business is about. I take two different views as to what my role is about - one is of the creative chef and the other one is somebody who likes to be in control of the destiny of the business. I think chefs, historically, abandon the kitchen around about, 25/30 I call it, a mid career crisis (laughter), where people get to a certain level and Chefs find they are treading water or they are Sous Chefs that can't get a break to be Head Chefs or they're a Head Chef and can't get a break to get their own place. When we start, we all have this delusional dream that all we want in life is to own your own restaurant.
Then when you own your restaurant you soon realise how hard it is.
Absolutely. My development has always been within and alongside hotels, and as you progress within a hotel you realise that hotels can and do actually make good money because of the bedroom conversion to profit and food and beverage supports that. I think it is important to understand where one can exist without the other, for example in city centres you can have a destination restaurant and you can survive well in that market but in the country, somewhere like Gidleigh Park, if that was just a restaurant in the middle of bloody Dartmoor trying to charge £100 a head - we wouldn't survive.
So you need the rooms as well?
Well, you need to put it in context of what your business is. You know as well as I do the number of Chefs who find it difficult running a restaurant outside London - it's tough. Michelin star food is great but the mass market want simple food and restaurants that aren't so highly priced that they exclude the local population. I had been at Gidleigh Park nearly five years when I realised that Exeter was lacking a really good midmarket restaurant which would cater to the local needs. I went into it just thinking that my prowess and knowledge in the kitchen would be enough but then I quickly realised, after I lost a lot of money, f***ing hell, this is a complete f***ing disaster I didn't have any control over wages "¦
Was that a good thing, did it wake you up, so to speak?
Well, it did because you can either go bankrupt or become more resolute in your approach to business. Failure is always part of your learning curve, as long as you learn from your mistakes I think you are fine. It's naivety. It's a combination of factors that make a business a success and when you are in a kitchen there are only two real factors that really matter and that is your skill to make it and your skill to orchestrate a team, but these days you get to a certain point and you have to look beyond the hotplate. I know a lot of chefs that have gone into management and have abandoned the kitchen and they end up looking down on the kitchen. And I guess the Chef-entrepreneur is a new phenomenon for the 21st Century. It's a phenomenon that really started in France with Fernand Point going to Paul Bocuse and then onto le Troi Gros, you can actually document the progress of these chefs since Fernand Point. He liberated the Chef from the servant to the hotel or restaurant, all of a sudden Chefs became restaurateurs; they got the accreditation; the real praise for what the restaurants are really about.
They took food away from silver service and turned it into food that was delivered and interpreted by the Chef on the plate. People started to take an interest in the whole thing because you can have great service but without great food it's an empty situation; equally when you provide great food you need great service. One is no more important than the other, but equally, I think Chefs are beginning to realise that if you truly want to take charge of your own destiny then you need to take charge and be in control of everything around you and not just the food. Not all Chefs are capable of being great Chefs and great businessmen, sometimes they partner up with businessmen, Gordon (Ramsay) did it with Chris - absolutely brilliant. Others have got a wife that is good in business and they partner up. However you do it is up to the individual but what is important is that to survive in this industry you can't stand still - creatively or in your own circumstances. I could still be just the Head Chef at Gidleigh Park plodding along; giving it my all with no guarantee that I would get three stars any quicker and equally I don't own Gidleigh Park so I was only ever going to be Executive Chef. I have been here (Gidleigh Park) 15 years, but I don't have any stake in the business, so 8 years ago I thought if I want my own place I had to start my own business and it's not until you start your own business that you are fully exposed to all the realities of that. I didn't start off with a clear format; I made mistakes and that taught me along the way. But I always remember that food is my business, you can't abandon one for the other. A lot of chefs forget to have the creative input or don't cook anymore or they sit back and rely on a small repertoire of dishes and they rely on those dishes to keep the quality. But that's not what I do, I am a great chef and that is how I have managed to come this far and you can't abandon that. But I also have to have time to plan and develop new properties, so it's balancing my time effectively.
OK, so Michael tell use how it all began? You are an Exeter lad aren't you?
Yes, the Grosvenor House Hotel was my first job.
Your first job after college?
Everybody said "Go to London".
Is that still the case?
No, not anymore but you have got to remember in the mid eighties that's what you did if you wanted to make it. Work in a big hotel "¦ we all knew the names Mosimann, Edelman but also emerging at that time were independents such as the Roux Brothers, Tante Claire, Nico, John Burton Race and an emerging young upstart called Mr Pierre White (laughter) and you had the likes of Raymond Blanc in the countryside.
Which is where you went after the Grosvenor, is that right?
Yes, I was at the Grosvenor House, in their Michelin starred restaurant and from there I went to Le Manior for three years.
Someone told me the brigade when you were at Le Manior was like a who's who list of Michelin Chefs.
Yes, when I first got there, there was a guy called Richard Neat who went on to get two stars; Eric Chavot was working there; Simon Hague won one star at Mallory Court was there and Arron Patterson from Hambelton Hall was working there.
What made Le Manior such a special place at that time?
I think it was a combination of two things - without doubt RB (Raymond Blanc), I think one of the most under-valued contributions of British cookery, Marco Pierre White, recently acknowledged that he would never would have got a third star but for his time at Le Manior. At the time there weren't many three star places to choose from and it was very French dominated and everyone was talking about Raymond Blanc - he was a lot more modern and had a light approach in his style and it was so different to everywhere else. It was in Oxfordshire, beautifully set in the countryside and after having the rigger of 11/2 years in London that is like a breath of fresh air.
After that, it was France?
Yes, I had 3 years there and Bernard Loiseau for a year, just over and then to Joel Robuchon.
So with all these operations, was the goal always for yourself to gain a star?
Oh, gosh yes. I was always told by all of the chefs I worked for that I would get a third star one day - well, I haven't got it yet but they all said it.
Is that what motivates you now?
Yes, whether or not I get it is irrelevant but my goal is that I will always cook at a certain standard of food. God, I know how to cook - I've worked for some great Chefs. I think the knack of it is to make sure that all of your team; your staff all work to the same standard and they all understand what it takes to achieve it. I believe that we are firing on all cylinders; we are as good as any hotel or restaurant in the world let alone in Britain because there is only so much you can get out of the food and understanding it unless you go down the Heston (Blumenthal) or El Bulli route which are a minority niche market. I think the great Chefs all have the same make up/skills but it is the way they interpret it on the plate that makes them different.
Local foods, you're very passionate about your local area?
Yes, we champion great local foods all round the country. I think that is a culture that is important.
To come back to Gidleigh for a moment. It was widely talked about in the industry that this was going to be your year for the third star "¦ is it a disappointment when it doesn't happen?
Yes, I think you analyse everything that you do but you can't beat yourself up too much about it. I was disappointed, of course I was. Michelin are saying that they want Chefs to be in their kitchen and yet Ducasse can't be in all his kitchens and he has rising three stars. We have been cooking at 2 stars for 10 years now"¦
Which is a great achievement.
Yes, it is considering I am still only 40 so you have to console yourself with that.
Christ yes, you're on par with Le Manoir and he has been trying a lot longer!! (laughter) It's always difficult to pigeon whole food styles, and I don't want to pin you down, but how would you describe your food style?
Modern classic - it does what it says on the box! So lamb with garlic and rosemary is what you taste. I don't f*** about with food too much and play with peoples minds. We are forward thinking in the way we cook but at the same time acknowledge the classics. I am classically trained and that's my background.
But is there anything wrong with that?
No, nothing at all.
I see too many kids now who want to be Heston and I don't mean that in a disrespectful way, but do you not think you have to understand the basics before you can get to the experimental stage?
Yes, and people tend to forget that in Heston's history he did his own apprenticeship and it was only when Gordon (Ramsay) took Heston to Fernard(Point) El Bulli that he came back and was inspired to go his own way. And Heston is a genius and only once in a while a person like that comes along and they pull it off - not many manage that! But with that comes a whole generation of want-to-be's that ultimately fail to understand the fundamentals of what makes great food. I don't think Heston or Fernard ever loose that perspective.
Who inspires you now, Michael?
My colleagues and contempories, and it's important to say that, I am a foodie - I love food. All my Chefs are very talented and they contribute. I love eating out and I am always
looking for inspiration. For instants, if I am eating out at Marcus Wareing's I would say "Well fantastic, this guy has two stars, where do I benchmark against that?" Quite frankly, I think we are doing alright. Equally, you go to, say, Gordon's and this is three star "Well, why is this so much better that what we do?" so you are always looking at it from a benchmark point of view but equally you look at what they are doing. You might think wow but I wouldn't have done it like that, but that is OK because there is no right and wrong in cooking. Food is so subjective. At the end of the day what makes the whole experience rounded is what the customer buys into. The seasons also inspire me - I have a veg garden; I draw on eating out, as an experience. Both Loiseau and Robuchon both said to me "Look you can go on working for people all the time but you loose your creativity". When you're young you are always more daring; you have nothing to loose. Like great bands their first albums are always the best; they have had 10 years to draw on; to create their first album and then their second album is rubbish because all they have been doing is promoting their first album and haven't been able to create. Food is no different.
Last question, Michael, you have been hugely successful. AA Chef of the Year 2007, MBE, what's your goal now? What gets Michael Caines out of bed every morning?
Third star, with out question. Everything I do, even if it's Abode, it's about the third star. My culinary ambition is still three stars, until the day I die or am removed from the kitchen that will be my focus. If you get to the point where you can't be in the kitchen or you can't be in control of what's going on and the third star becomes a romantic dream rather than a possibility then I think I would rather give up and retire. At the end of the day, a third star would be great but I also want a successful business which has got longevity. The third star is my goal because I am a Chef and that is my craft but I think Chefs have to learn that if you rely on accolades alone it can be a very short life and you don't always make the money. They'll always be somebody younger than you coming up; biting at your heels. But I am lucky because I know the third star can be done and at the same time I have long term security in my businesses.
Michael, thank you very much. Good luck with the third star and Abode. It's been fantastic to meet you.