Spotlight on Hotel Chefs - Luke Matthews, Chewton Glen

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 20th May 2011
Luke what I really wanted to talk to you about today was the change in dynamics of the role of the hotel chef and I think Chewton Glen's probably a fantastic example of that, , driving up the drive today you can see where the main house was and you can now see this beautiful extension and it's very different than it was 20 years ago and I think that's the same as the hotel chef role. So how do you think the hotel chef role has changed in the last ten, 15, 20 years? I think really here at Chewton Glen we have to be extremely flexible as a chef now, we're not just a restaurant we are a resort and we need to offer, from a very simple sandwich through to a fine dining experience, to a children's afternoon tea, the whole spectrum so you can't just focus on the restaurant food, you've got to be able to look at what we're doing for breakfast, the afternoon tea, right down to what sausages we're going to give the children and it's the whole"¦ Give us an understanding now of the size of Chewton Glen, I think at one time when it first opened it was 19 or 22 bedrooms"¦ It's 58 bedrooms now. The restaurant capacity is around 140 at this moment in time but we're just doing a fantastic refurbishment in there and we've created another conservatory and so it's going to be around 160. It's a big restaurant. Yeah but we've always had a fairly big restaurant here at Chewton Glen. Yeah sure, even when it was a small hotel it was a big restaurant wasn't it? Yeah I mean I've been here 18 years and the restaurant's actual footprint hasn't changed since I've been here. So we've always been on or around 140. So yeah it's a few more covers but it's been done in such a way out there that you couldn't see because there's all the different rooms linking together. It's not like a huge room We've got the restaurant, we've got banqueting, we've got a banqueting room at the Lake Suite which will seat around 140. We've got room service, 24 hour, we've got lounge food. We've got afternoon tea its immensely popular here. I guess that's the location isn't it? It's still that beautiful country house feel to it isn't there? Yeah there is there's loads of lovely lounges here to go and sit in and enjoy it so afternoon tea is quite an experience for our guest I think. In general how do you feel that the role of the executive chef's changed? I mean here we are in your office and there's equipment and there's crockery, there's SOP folders, there's all sorts of stuff, would you say now that the executive chef role in a hotel is far less hands on than maybe it was ten or 15 years ago? Oh definitely yeah. I mean I really miss being in there in the thick of it all but five days a week I just can't be like that any more. Because it demands that you're in the office? Absolutely I mean I've got 40 staff that report to me so just managing them is a pretty much a full time job really all the traumas that can be involved in that sometimes. I get out in the kitchen as much as I can but ultimately I'm the captain I've got to steer everything and make sure it's all happening. Has it been a release for you as the chef at Chewton Glen to not have the Star ? Do you think that's actually a weight off your shoulders? Yes!  we have always been driven by what our guests want, not the guidebooks, we put as much effort into breakfast and afternoon tea as we do dinner. We are also proud of the fact that everything we do comes out of one kitchen which ensures I am able to oversee virtually everything.  When we won the star and being part of achieving a star yes it's an immense feeling it's fantastic but I think the worst thing about achieving a star is you've got to maintain that and"¦ But the dynamics of the business were much different when you had a star weren't they? The hotel restaurant-wise is busier than it's ever been and that's not because we don't have a star but our restaurant is extremely popular so I don't know really. I think crucially to us is we want to satisfy our customers and we want to offer an experience which people really enjoy and any accolades that we can pick up along the way are fantastic it's great for everyone but ultimately it's the guest's experience, we want them to love what we're doing. Where would you say that you see the hotel chef role going in the next five years? Is it going to be more involved in office work, paperwork, and standards of performance, more health and safety? Yes it is I'm afraid really. Every day there's more legislation I think the key to success in a place like Chewton Glen is managing it. I've got to manage 20"¦because we've got 27 chefs, so 27 different characters I've got to manage and that can be an immense challenge but it's also a great deal of fun. Yeah and they all come with their own demands individually don't they ((laughs))? Absolutely ((laughingly)) yeah they do yeah some are more precious than others but ultimately they're all good. The changing Head Chef  role of the hotel chef do you think it's going to become more administrative, more legislation,  more paperwork, less hands on? Obviously it depends what size hotel you're in but yes I suppose the bigger the hotel the more paperwork and that goes with the territory doesn't it? That's part of it. In terms of the development of the Chewton Glen then, where's the Chewton Glen going in five years time.  Continuing to improve because that's the nature of our business we're always trying to improve and we've very fortunate that our owners invest in the property and that enables us to move forward and it's a forward thinking company. We simply can't afford to sit back and say, "Well we've reached the goal now," because the goal you never get to it, it's always going a bit further forward and there's so many great hotels in this country now, when I first started at Chewton Glen, Chewton Glen was one of the only one's of its type now there's lots out there so we have to be more aware of that. I guess the world's become a smaller place as well. And we are more travelled. Yes so we have to work harder if anything to keep ourselves moving forward. So do you benchmark yourself against London hotels or hotels in the area? Where would you say your competitor set is? Well I think anywhere that offers what we offer. We've now got into children in a big way. You might want to rephrase that. Yeah. ((laughs)) ((laughingly)) Probably do actually yeah definitely. Yeah we're now a child-friendly resort. But I think you have to be don't you because we're both parents and you will always look for someone that will cater for children, especially if you are a resort. If you're a business hotel, different thing. And that's a fact if you're a parent you become much more in tune with children, for example, don't serve children's food on hot plates and my chefs who work for me they'll send you something up on a steaming hot plate and because they don't have children they have ((laughingly)) no idea, you can't serve something to a child on a hot plate "¦ So do you look at children's menus differently? Because one of my biggest bugbears about children's menus is you only get chicken nuggets, sausages. Yes we do and what we're trying to do with our new restaurant concept is we're going to be offering all the restaurant food as half portions for children and I hope that's going to be successful. Certainly we want to encourage children to eat great food. I think personally that's the right approach. I think it's an easy option just giving them chicken nuggets and chips and I don't think that's the right way to do it. It isn't the right way but unfortunately that's what you get asked for all the time and being the nature of the hotel we are we want to satisfy our customer requirements. You've still got to do it I understand. But if you can nurture them when they're young to eat fresh proper food then that's great. Would you say in essence now that the hotel chef role, has become a Jack of all trades role? By that I mean we've just talked about children's menus, we've talked about spa, we've talked about banqueting, you've got to understand all of those areas it's not just fine dining now is it? So you've got to wear lots of different hats. You can't just focus on one thing and you need people within your team that are good at all areas, banqueting say, good at conceiving dishes for the new menus. You need good people around you and my sous chef (Jerome Chenet) been with me, well he's been at the hotel nearly as long as me but he's a fantastic support. Without people like that working underneath you, you can't deal with a job like this. I've got an extremely good pastry chef (Suzanne Haeuptle), you're relying on these people. How much time do you put into training and developing your team? As much as I can because ultimately the more they can do the better we become. So it's not just about what I can do it's about what everyone within my team can do because with the volume of food that goes through our kitchens here I can't do everything, physically cannot do it. Do you set them targets? Do you monitor how effective they are? How do you do key performance indicators? What do you use as a management tool to lead and to motivate training? I'm just trying to word this sensibly. I think Chewton Glen's a great place for anyone to work and I'm always telling my staff, especially the younger ones who haven't really seen other places, how lucky they are to be involved with here. Which is difficult when you're telling a young guy because the world's their oyster anyway isn't it? Chefs can start here and they think, "˜Aw big bad Chewton Glen,' and things like that but what happens invariably is they'll go out from here and a year later then they'll understand what I was saying to them about what a fantastic"¦ Sometimes they need a bad experience to realise what they had before don't they? Yeah and I'm always telling them what a fantastic environment they're working in. They've got a fantastic kitchen, they've got beautiful ingredients. They don't work ridiculous hours. They're treated properly and the hotel's a model employer so for any youngster that comes here it's a great environment. As a member of the academy of culinary arts I support the specialised chef apprenticeship,  we have some fantastic apprentices come through here and I normally try to have three, one in each year, and they're all really focused. I've got two at the moment they're really serious young chaps. Are they from Bournemouth college? Well they're going to Bournemouth college. One lives in Hastings, one lives in Bristol but they go via the Bournemouth college 3 months there a year and the rest with me,  but the standard that you get they're phenomenal these youngsters. And that's important isn't it to encourage them? Yes! I've just had one who left me, went to Australia and has come back to me again a specialised chef and he's brilliant, he's worked in some great places in Australia, every day off he was working in another restaurant and he's come back, he's brimming with ideas and showing me stuff that he's seen and that's fantastic and we want to encourage that. In terms of your own development then how do you keep abreast of what's happening in the industry, food trends? Is it important for you to continually monitor what's going on outside of the Chewton Glen? Yeah I think you have to don't you. I love food and I'm lucky enough to work in a place where we have fantastic ingredients, we've got the best supplies we can get and I just love food so for me going out eating as much as I can, reading books, anything, feedback from people who come, sending my boys out to work in other kitchens. Do you do that? Do you encourage them to do stages? Yes we do, I mean one of my boys he's recently been to Le Manoir, he also went to Whatley Manor, you know, it's great because they see another kitchen and another way of doing things, new techniques, I've just been to Gleneagles. Have you? Yeah last week I was at Gleneagles. Fantastic with Alan Gibb? Yes with Andrew Fairlie and to see the complete"¦how Gleneagles' service that big restaurant I think it's about 250 covers, they've embraced modern techniques, water baths and then to see Andrew's restaurant where every single thing is on quality and his food is fantastic. I was lucky enough to have dinner with Andrew as well and it was an absolutely brilliant meal. I think you're right at Gleneagles I mean I worked there in the early 90s and we had 75 chefs and what is now the main kitchen that used to be the hors d'oeuvre section. Yes it's changed. Are you embracing things such as water bath cooking and the new technology that's coming through? Yes we do you have to. Do you think it's a must for your type of role? I think if you put your head in the sand you're just going to get left behind. You've got to embrace this technology and I'll look at anything and make my own mind up. I won't just rubbish something I want to see it, I want to see how it works, can it make life easier for us, can it make us more consistent? If it does we need to implement it and we're very lucky here that we've got support if I need something like that they'll buy it for me  I want to talk to you about now is there's been a big shift in trying to reduce hours, you mentioned Gleneagles, you know, Gleneagles has an annualised hours system and I interviewed Alan Gibb for exactly the same feature that we're doing with you and it's no secret when we were there in the early 90s we were doing ridiculous hours, we started at stupid o'clock and we finished at stupid o'clock and it's great that hotels like Gleneagles are now setting a benchmark and an industry standard, is that something that you're embracing here? We have to. You mentioned earlier trying to reduce people's hours so how are you going about that? We've done it from day one. Fantastic. From, I think the directive came in in 98 didn't it? So from day one we've worked 48 hours. All my chefs work 48 hours. We've got a clocking machine. Does that help with the recruitment loop? I'm sure it does yes.. And does it help with staff retention? Yes it does. Yes they have a split. The boys go home in the afternoon. I really don't want people there longer than they should"¦ And you enforce that do you, or your team enforce that? Yes of course that's the culture is they've got to go home in the afternoon And do you get your arse kicked in the nicest possible way if it doesn't happen? No, me? No because it can be managed so because we've got a clocking in machine all the hours are recorded that people are working, this all comes into my office p.c. I can look on there and see what time people have started, what time they've finished and we manage that on a weekly ongoing scenario. I think it's crucial that they get their splits because I think what we do is hard enough anyway and to not get a little bit of fresh air in the afternoon is not healthy. Do you ever see an evolution that you can offer straight shifts? Well with our new restaurant concept I think there is a possibility that we may well be able to because we're going to have longer opening hours Because although a split's fantastic and don't get me wrong getting any break is much better than an AFD. But a straight's better yeah. It's still working in the morning, working in the evening isn't it? That's not a criticism. But a straight through isn't better. No absolutely that's what I said it's not"¦ a split is better than an AFD. Yeah. I would hope that within the next couple of years we will be able to operate on some straights, a mixture, like they do in the London restaurants, a mixture of straights and splits, that would be my goal and as a model employer I think we need to go that way and this will help with recruitment, with retention, definitely. I mean we have some people already who work straights within the kitchen but I need sous chef's cover really from eight o'clock in the morning until 11, 12 o'clock at night. I need a sous chef in the kitchen because as soon as lunch finishes we can be knocking out 50 afternoon teas. So you want someone senior here making sure that the quality's right, the kitchen's being cleaned properly in the split when the boys aren't here and the phone still goes in the afternoon and everyone wants you all the time. I think there's every possibility we'll be able to introduce at least two straights a week and with our new restaurant concept hopefully we can increase the amount of covers we're doing over a longer period of time which will then justify making it much easier to recruit more staff to have enough people to do straights because the figures need to add up as well. Yeah of course they do it's a business at the end of the day absolutely. Well listen thank you very much. It's been great to talk to you. Good luck with the role. I know how busy it is and the demands on your time so thank you for taking time to talk to us. No pleasure. Thank you Luke.

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 20th May 2011

Spotlight on Hotel Chefs - Luke Matthews, Chewton Glen