David Taylor, Grace & Savour at Hampton Manor: 'We're going to make mistakes here, but at the same time, we're never going to use that as a reason not to keep trying'

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Deputy Editor

Spotlight: David Taylor, Grace & Savour at Hampton Manor

To many diners, a restaurant is just a restaurant. Book a table, pop in for a meal, don’t forget to tip. But restaurants tell a story. That of the owner, of the chef and their team (even when they are one and the same person); the city or rural estate where the restaurant is built, the history and heritage of that location; that of the suppliers and the realities of their day-to-day lives. 

Rarely though, does so much thought go into a restaurant’s story as into Grace & Savour, set to open within the walls of Hampton Manor's Victorian Walled Gardens on February 24th. The project was thought up by founders James and Fjona Hill (who also own Peel's and Smoke), who found the right match in chef David Taylor (Purnell's, Maaemo) and house manager Anette Taylor (David's wife).

Until last year, David and Anette were set on building a life in Norway, but the opportunity to be involved in the project at Hampton Manor was too good to pass up. This was their chance to put their ideals and experience into practice: to source great ingredients domestically, to give hard-grafting farmers and growers the recognition they are due, contributing to a more sustainable environment and a healthier society, all through the medium of hospitality. In everything they do at Grace & Savour, David explained, "we ask ourselves, 'how is this sticking to our ethos, and how is it breaking away?'"

Inside Grace & Savour. Image credit: Fjona Hill

The 26-seater restaurant will offer a 15-course tasting menu, with the main attraction being a 24-hour immersive experience, including a stay in one of the five garden bedroom suites.

The idea is for guests to derive as much information, knowledge, or pure hedonistic pleasure as they want from their stay; for them to leave feeling enriched and curious, but most importantly having enjoyed delicious food. 

"It's got to a point where everyone is quite opinionated on what is the best experience, what really works," David said.

"Should it be really story-led or should I leave you alone? It's becoming more and more subjective. What we are trying to create here is something that allows you to come and experience it as much as you want."

Why create such a restaurant?

Just like the estate owners, David concerns himself with every aspect of how food goes from the ground onto our plates.

The industrial-scale pesticide use in farming and the effects it has on the environment, producers' livelihoods, human health, and ultimately the flavour of what we eat; the flawed nature of legislation and accreditation schemes, which leave so much room for interpretation that words like 'free-range' are almost devoid of meaning; the implications of importing produce from around the world, mostly by air freight, and the irreversible damage caused by depleting our domestic fish reserves with benthic trawling, to name a few of his worries.

The chef believes that by investing in regenerative farming, and supporting dedicated British growers, restaurants can help deliver meaningful change in the direction of our national food supply. 

"You can't save everyone or do everything," he said. "But I really want us to challenge ourselves to stick to the seasons and be reactive to nature rather than demand on it."

Scallop, chicken, fermented bread
Image credit: Fjona Hill

Challenges and limits

The chef knows that to hold yourself to such a high standard comes with challenges. 

"It is tough to try and maintain a menu which I feel is as unstable as this," he said.

And it's true - until two weeks ago, there was no fruit to put on the menu because everything but rhubarb (a vegetable) was out of season. This week, his artichokes have had to come over (by boat) from France while he located a British supplier, and he may have to use frozen fish - a method his suppliers are perfecting, as their 10m boats can't go out to sea in bad conditions - or rethink his fish course completely.

"I'm not going to use a lesser product, but if we're going to act truly sustainable, if we're going to really wrestle with the challenges that are faced here and support fisherman come rain or shine, we have to adapt and not just go, 'oh, we'll just cut you out,'" he said.

In an earnest attempt to make a British ginger Ivy House Farm Dairy rice pudding, "I discovered that ginger is tropical, only grows in the summer, and is actually really hard to grow. Lesson learned."

He could go on, and knows that the thought he puts into each ingredient might still lead to mistakes.

"I'm never going to say we're going to get everything right, and we're probably overlooking stuff.

"We already know that we're going to be failing at something and that's okay because, at the end of the day, all we can do is learn and try and do better and leave the land better than the way we found it.

"We're going to make mistakes here, but at the same time, we're never going to use that as a reason not to keep trying."

Not a one-size-fits-all

The £420-a-head price tag for the twenty-four-hour experience of dinner, breakfast, and test kitchen lunch leaves no room to the imagination as to how it is spent: outstanding produce, prepared with a great length of thought and intent in a beautifully crafted space, where a highly-skilled, knowledgeable, passionate team of people guide guests through their stay. 

But not all restaurants can do this, and if they did, nobody would eat out ever again, David knows it.

Due to Brexit and Covid, he said, "we're in a stage right now where prices are going through the roof."

But in this kind of dining, "the pricing has to go up, not because there's a big fat cat trying to make all the money, but because, unfortunately, the cost of produce is probably getting to a real stage of what it actually costs to make."

Given the obstacles already faced by restaurant owners across the UK, the chef would never want to pressure others into following down the same route. "I would never want to say that this is easy or that I would expect others to do the same. 

"What I hope is that we can offer an alternative way, or be in assistance there - even if it's connecting to one local grower, that can change their lives, and the quality that you get there is often phenomenal.

"I don't want exclusivity deals with growers or bakers, or anything like that. I really want to be open-handed with this and create community, because I think the industry - certainly with what we've just come through, community is what we need more than anything, and a solution to those problems."

Prawn, winter radish
Image credit: Fjona Hill

Beyond the plate

Not impervious to the staffing crisis, David is fortunate to have a great team of people around him already, and intends on making sure that they are well taken care of.

As well as four-day weeks for all, the whole crew will be invited (but, he insists, not obliged) to go on weekly trips to meet growers and farmers across the country, and will be given training that will not only serve them in their current jobs, but help them build their skills to open their own restaurants in the future.

In the kitchen, David is planning on running dish projects, which, he explained is not necessarily about getting a dish on the menu, but an opportunity to express themselves, taste, give feedback to one another and work on an idea.

"100 percent, if it fits, put it on the menu, I've got no qualms about that." 

He believes that the process teaches his team emotional resilience and that, as a chef, a dish does not define you - and thus, making a bad one shouldn't be something you take personally.

"I think that's what makes it fun, challenging, and exciting - embracing that. You can just see the energy and the enthusiasm in people when they have that sense of, 'I have a say here, I have a voice here.'" 

Goat's curd, rhubarb
Image credit: Fjona Hill

'We have to be vulnerable to create a better future'

Though he embraces his role as the leader of a team, David sees it as much more than just being at the top of a hierarchical structure.

"It's about allowing your team to flourish and become better than you," he said. 

He tries to cite a quote he believes originates from Thomas Keller, along the lines of, ’if the next generation are not better than we are, then we have failed.’

"We've got to do what we can to help the next generation be better than we are: to source better, to pay better, to care better, to do everything better. We can't do that with a closed fist. We have to be open-handed, we have to be vulnerable to create a better future." 

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Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Deputy Editor 21st February 2022

David Taylor, Grace & Savour at Hampton Manor: 'We're going to make mistakes here, but at the same time, we're never going to use that as a reason not to keep trying'