Ian Webber, Head Chef Gidleigh Park Hotel, Chagford Devon

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 21st December 2010
Ian Webber is the head chef of Gidleigh Park Hotel, Devon. Michael Caines appointed Ian as an inexperienced sous chef four years ago but immediately recognised Ian as a talented chef with an abundance of potential. Today, he continues to develop in a hotel that continues to improve and expand. Ian trained as a 17-year-old at Combe House Hotel and has also worked in France, Switzerland and Ireland. Ian was inspired to pursue a career as a chef after a summer job at a local pub in Devon before starting his A-Levels. He immediately found his calling and decided against returning to college. From there, he hasn’t looked back and we have been lucky enough to talk to him. Introduction from Michael Caines MBE: "Being the head chef at Gidleigh Park where I have been for the past 16 years and held 2 Michelin stars for 11 years is clearly a very important and demanding role. Ian joined us four years ago initially as sous chef with no previous Michelin experience but I knew that he was a wonderful, talented chef, someone I could work with and develop. Four years on he continues to develop, as we all do, and as our business grows so do the demands within it and those demands have to be met by Ian and the team, whilst also striving to better ourselves. So it really is a difficult position to fill and I am delighted with Ian's development. The best compliment that anyone can pay is when our guests tell us how wonderful the food is, irrespective of who is cooking" Let's start by you talking us through your daily role and your responsibilities here at Gidleigh Park, including your title and length of service, and what position you were when you joined Gidleigh Park Hotel Devon. I'm head chef here at Gidleigh Park Hotel, Devon, I've been here for four years, I joined after the hotel re-opened. My role is the full running of the kitchen operation, both when Michael (Caines) is here and is not in the business. How many are there in the team? We have up to nineteen chefs in the team, that's how many names we should have on the rota.  We're running just under that at the moment. It's great to have a team that size, there aren't that many operations that have a team of nineteen chefs. Would you say that perhaps you are under more pressure than Sam (Moody), Michael is obviously based very close by, this is his original "baby"? No not all, Sam (Moody) has his own pressures.When The Bath Priory changed over and it lost it's star, Sam put himself under a lot of pressure to win it back. Michael, will of course also apply his own pressure on Sam but I'm here because Michael is here and for me this is a better position because Michael is here more often and I get to learn from one of the best chefs in the UK There must be a huge pressure on you to maintain two Michelin Stars here at Gidleigh Park, it's a very big responsibility? It's a huge responsibility, Michael worked really hard to achieve two stars here, so for me to maintain those standards and to even contemplate not maintaining those standards and losing a man's life time work, is a huge responsibility. In the four years that you've worked under Michael at Gidleigh Park, how have you developed and improved as a person, a manager and a chef? As a chef, I would say consistency, I've learnt to be more consistent; I understand that you are only as good as your worst day. We all perhaps have the ability to win accolades on a good day. Michael wants to acheive three stars, that's something that we all work for every day, that's our goal. What I understand far better now is that we need to be three Michelin stars on our worst days, so we work to be consistent every day, and we build and train the team to achieve that. What about as a chef, how have you improved under Michael in your four years? I think before I joined Michael, I was a good cook, a good chef, I understood flavour well. I think now I understand the bigger picture so much more, I think that I'm far more heads up, than heads down now. I'm able to know what's going on around me in all areas of the kitchen, through good communication, through checking, through tasting. Before I was very focused on what I was doing, now I'm able to control everything that's around me. As I said I feel that I'm a consistent cook, but I now need to ensure that the team are consistent, through training, discipline, and I think, that's where I've improved the most. What about the understanding of how to run business, how have you developed there?  I'm sure you'll agree having great food is a huge achievement, but it doesn't mean that much if you aren't making money, can't balance your costs or manage your pay roll? I would say, that I had a strong understanding of running a business before I came, from being a head chef in the past, I think, what I've developed under Michael is that I'm now more exact. Michael is very keen for us to create specifications for each dish that we do, so we know that every dish we do either makes its food cost or comes very close, and of course we have those dishes that make very good margin to balance our costs. Michael is very organised and exact in the way that he works, so I learnt that from him. I think before I was very food focused, however now I'd like to think, that I'm as focused on all areas of the business. I understand now far more what you need to do to make profit, and where revenue goes. For me the biggest challenge is the training and development of the team, ensuring that all the team are trained and can deliver products to the standard that is set by Michael. You joined Michael and the team, after the refurbishment - more covers, bigger team, bigger kitchen to manage. What has been your single biggest professional challenge whilst at Gidleigh Park and how did you overcome this? Yes, there are always more chefs coming through. We never turn anyone down that applies to us for interview and trial. We work really well with Exeter College and Abode Hotel and Michael Caines Restaurant in Exeter, that Michael co-owns with his business partner, Andrew Brownsword. It maybe that someone applies to Gidleigh and we can't take them, so we'll look at Abode Exeter, call them, let them know that we have a really good commis or perhaps a demi, and then in eighteen months they'll come and join the team at Gidleigh. It works really well, often people aren't ready to join a two Michelin star restaurant, so Abode can be used as a stepping stone, it works really well for Tom Williams-Hawkes who's an excellent chef at the Abode in Exeter. Tom works with Michael's repertoire of dishes, so anyone working with Tom gets a really good understanding of how Michael works, before they come to Gidleigh, with good foundation and good background and knowledge. Is nineteen the largest team of chefs that you've managed? As you know in most kitchens it's often rare to be fully staffed. But for me, yes, nineteen is the largest team that I've  managed, when I joined and we re-opened, we had a team of twelve, since then, business has grown, Gidleigh is doing very well, and the team has grown to reflect that.   You say that you continually recruit do you think that it's far to say, that not everyone is cut out to work at the level of you, Michael and the team at Gidleigh Park and perhaps often people don't appreciate the level of dedication required? Absolutely, it is about hard work, dedication and total commitment, it's also about passion and a desire to do well, and that is something that you have to do every single day, from picking salad to making a sauce. It's about making sure that it's perfect all the way through any process. You, at times, get people that come in, that you know if they last three months, they'll last three years. That first three months is critical, most of the lads in the kitchen have been with us for over two years. Often when people are here on trail, they get bowled over by the operation, the food that we do, but the understanding of reaching that level every day is not something they can match. We are not a hard kitchen, but we are focused and determined kitchen, and that's not for everyone.Gidleigh Park food How much importance do you place on training and the development of yourself and your team and how important is this to the Gidleigh Park as a whole? Training and development is hugely important as it keeps people interested, when I was younger I expected to learn something new each day. I was always open to learn from everyone around me even if that was a kitchen porter, and that's what I try to install into the guys here, that they can learn from anyone, whether it's me or it's Michael or someone on or below their level. It's important their minds are open. I think that the chefs that work here are trained incredibly well and when they leave Gidleigh Park, they could get a job anywhere in the world. What are you looking to gain from your operation next in terms of personal development and then future career opportunities? What I hope Gidleigh Park will offer me is the opportunity to become a great chef, but also to work with a great chef. Who knows at this stage where this may take me in the future - perhaps with Michael or Andrew (Brownsword). My present goals are to achieve accolades, but also to ensure that we serve happy customers, as that's the most important part. Exceeding the expectations of the guest, who have very high expectations when they come to somewhere such as Gidleigh Park. I think in the future I don't want to be Michael, as there is only one Michael Caines.
The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 21st December 2010

Ian Webber, Head Chef Gidleigh Park Hotel, Chagford Devon