James Sommerin. The Crown at Whitebrook, Wales

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 19th January 2012
James Sommerin is the Michelin star winning Head Chef of The Crown at Whitebrook, a restaurant with rooms located south east of Monmouth in Monmouthshire, Wales. The restaurant was awarded a Michelin star in 2007 and has kept it ever since. James’s love of cooking started as a child, when he would bake every Saturday with his grandmother in Caerleon. He credits her as his biggest influence. “When I was a child I would stay over and every Saturday we would cook for three to four hours,” he says. He wanted to be a chef from the age of 12. After school he did formal cookery training and then worked at the Farleyer House Hotel in Aberfeldy, Scotland where he says chef Richard Lyth taught him pretty much everything he knows. He moved back to Wales in his early 20s and joined The Crown in 2000 as Sous Chef, before becoming its Head Chef in 2003. He also represented Wales in the final of the BBC programme Great British Menu in 2009.   James Sommerin thanks for inviting us in, wonderful to come and see you now that I've found you through all the lanes. Give us an overview of the Crown at Whitebrook, what you've got here, your accolades, number in your team, how long you've been here?. I've been heading up the team here now for the past seven years, five of which we've held a Michelin star. Fantastic congratulations. And we've just been awarded three rosettes so that's something else which is even better here at long last. Fantastic well done. We've got three rosettes and we're rated number 28 in the top 50 of the Good Food Guide, seven out of ten score. It’s really nice, it’s a very intimate little restaurant and we've hopefully got eight in the team but staffing issues are obviously up and down. Do you have rooms here James? We've got eight bedrooms and we seat mid to high 20s for dinner. We could seat 30 but 30’s a little bit tight. So we have nine tables in the dining room and we have a great team at front of house that's basics and it’s all about non-stuffy dining, relaxed informal, serving great food and just exceeding everybody’s expectations. Now my guestimation is you’re in a very food-led area here, you’re very close to Abergavenny, wonderful, wonderful Welsh produce, my guestimation is that's quite key and instrumental in your menus. Yeah when I'm designing a menu we try to use as much local produce as possible but obviously it’s quality over locality really so we use the length and breadth of the British Isles, as Wales is not renowned  for its scallops or for its langoustines so we look further afield but it’s definitely food driven. I try to use as much local produce as possible so it’s about 90% on the menu locally. No one likes to pigeonhole their food style but if you had to pigeonhole it what sort of genre, how would you describe your food style? I think it’s really hard to pigeonhole any type of food now, everybody’s used the term modern British but what is modern British? It’s worldwide, your larder cupboard is endless. I'd like to say modern British and it’s got a good Welsh influence but purely more for the quality and the locality of ingredients. So quality is more important than locality for you? 110% yeah quality’s paramount. And in terms of you who’s been your biggest influence in your career to date? Two people really the biggest and most influential person in my career was a guy called Richard Lyth who I worked for when I was in Scotland, nothing special, you know, but a fantastic chef and his qualities were second to none. What made him a fantastic chef? Depth of knowledge, strict attitude, proper work ethics really and I learnt everything, all my basics there. So from being able to prep whole deer to all the fish and everything else. So very well rounded. And your second one? My second one is my grandmother really because if it wasn't for her I probably wouldn’t have got into the trade, you know, just for being able to… What she kicked you out of home did she and you had to find a job? ((laughs)) No well my Gran was just…we used to go and stay at my Gran’s on a weekend and she used to cook. We used to cook together and that just spurred it from there. So she's the one that got me into the trade, I don't know whether that's a good thing or a bad thing but yeah she's the other biggest influence. Give us an example of a current dish on the menu that best sums up your cooking. That's quite a tough one actually. I suppose we've got things like such as an aged fillet of beef that we have aged for five weeks. Wow. Yeah it’s local and then we try to age it for a further sixth week. It just depends, usually the butcher can guarantee it’s a minimum of four… So that's 40 odd days? Yeah. Wow. The fillet comes in roughly on average four weeks aged and then we try and hang it for a further week. The depth of flavour is amazing, it’s fillet but it’s not like eating normal fillet because it has flavour. Although fillet is often very, very tender it doesn’t always taste of something. This has actually got a good gaminess to it. Which is brought about by the over hanging is it? Yeah and it’s stunning. We serve that with local watercress. It’s just a purée.  We make a little horseradish and thyme potato, it’s a bit like a dauphinoise that we slice, no cream, cooked in butter and then we serve it with some sweetbreads and just some local vegetables. So it’s a really, really nice dish, it’s very fresh but it’s really hard because we get some fantastic Welsh fish as well. We've got amazing sea bass on and turbot and turbot for me is such a fantastic fish and served with simple things like cauliflower, bone marrow and samphire and fresh Scottish girolles. How many menus do you run here then James? Well we run a light lunch menu, which is really cost effective I suppose for the customers. If they’re price sensitive then it’s a good one for them to come in on. We've got a light lunch that you can pick three; starter, main and dessert. We also run a six course tasting menu on a lunchtime and then we have the á la carte but then in the evening we also run a six course blind taster and a nine course blind taster. When you say blind you mean people don’t know what’s coming? Yeah we don’t print it up and then I can use whatever I want. If there's anything that's  fantastic coming in seasonally, I had a batch of pigeons delivered yesterday, 50 brace, and it gives me the opportunity to put them on because they’re in season now. And in terms of pricing what do you charge for those menus? The light lunch menu starts at two courses £25.50, three courses £29.50. So it’s good value for money. It’s  very good value Is that important for lunch that you've got to be competitive? I think it’s definitely got to be competitive, not only that we're out of the way. You’re in a place where people have to physically drive, it’s not as if someone’s passing by here is it? No and we struggle, we don’t get any business trade. So we're too far for a lot of businessmen to come here for lunch which is a pity because you can have a bloody good meal here and really wow people if you’re looking to take them out for lunch. We have to be price sensitive because we've all struggled this year with the pinch and if you can give fantastic value for money it’s only going to encourage people to come back. Actually even on the light lunch menu they get five courses because they get an amuse bouche and the pre desserts and they get canapés on arrival which a lot of restaurants you go it, if you go for the more cost effective menu you don’t get any peripheral. And I don’t see the point in that I think if you’re there to showcase you want to entice people back. That’s a good philosophy. Now we are in the middle of nowhere but the Crown has diversified, you've expanded as a company and a group, you've obviously got the restaurant in the Celtic, how do you manage your time between overseeing both of those? You've got a head chef down there as well but how do you manage your time between the two? I manage the time between the two, I try to get there two days a week but it’s hard and it all depends on staffing but I've got a good head chef down there that we work very well together as far as doing the menus are concerned and at the end of the day if I'm employing a head chef I don’t need to be there all the time. Sure there's no point buying a dog and barking yourself is there? Exactly. But is there a similarity in terms of food style? Could you go there and go, “Yeah that's a Crown dish,” or has Tim got his own style… Tim’s got his own style. After working in France for such a long time his style is quite classic which is nice. It’s completely different in style compared to my style because I like to be a little bit flamboyant, I want to wow people and for me you come to the Crown because I'm here and what I can do and what I want to do for you. If you go to the Celtic people do say that there's quite a big difference in the food but then you wouldn’t make two identical restaurants because then you’re going to shoot yourself in the foot. But I guess from a business point of view it gives you completely opposite ends of the spectrums doesn’t it? Here you are, a beautiful inn, middle of nowhere. There you are down in Newport, businessman’s lunch, captive audience in terms of hotel guests, so from a business point of view you’re covering a lot of bases? Yeah we cover a lot of sectors. The only problem is if the hotel’s full on conference and business we end up doing nobody in the restaurant In all fairness it’s quite a conference led hotel isn’t it? Massive. I must be honest they diversified really, really well when the recession hit, they went into the leisure market and the hotel was absolutely booming and I think they’ve covered all corners now and they know how to do leisure really well and they certainly are very well experienced at conference and marketing. So in terms of other aspects for the business and we  know that your  Thistle partnership is coming to the end are you looking for another property? We tried the Thistle and it was good, it was certainly a good experience. We've come out, things didn’t quite work the way that we wanted but it was all mutual. Nothing ventured, nothing gained? Nothing ventured, nothing gained that's it exactly but yeah we always say we're on the outlook for something else but only time will tell really. In terms of you then and the Crown,where are you and the Crown going to be in five years time? No where’s the Crown going to be? Here. Where am I going to be? I don't know. In terms of you then local lad, Welsh lad, where would you consider to be your favourite local restaurant? You've got a night off where are you going to take the wife? Stay in and cook. Really? I would yeah. Yeah? Yeah I think so. Fair enough. At the end of the day I don’t really eat out an awful lot, certainly not in the local area apart from if I wanted to go out for a nice meal I'd probably go to the Celtic but then it’s kind of a bit awkward when you’re sitting in the round and everybody’s looking at you and I don’t really like that. I think I'd rather stay in and cook to be honest. And a nice bottle of wine and you don’t have to worry about drink driving. Very true and on that note thank you very much, great to come and meet you. Yeah thanks very much for coming out. It’s a pleasure, absolute pleasure.
The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 19th January 2012

James Sommerin. The Crown at Whitebrook, Wales