Lewis Hamblet, Executive Chef and Food and Beverage Manager, South Lodge Hotel, West Sussex

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 18th January 2011

Lewis Hamblet is executive chef and food and beverage manager of the Pass and Camellia which both have rosettes in the AA Restaurant Guide and are both based at South Lodge Hotel, which are part of the Exclusive Hotels group.

Lewis began his career washing up in a restaurant at age 13. After training at Bolton Catering College, he worked at the Savoy Grill, where he stayed for two years and worked his way up from commis chef to demi chef de partie. After this he moved from London and took a job at the rural hotel Amberley Castle, but the isolation didn’t suit him. At this point he joined Exclusive Hotels with a demi chef de partie job at The Manor House. He stayed there for six years and worked his way up to senior sous chef. An opportunity came for him to move to South Lodge and he became head chef of the Camelia restaurant. Since then he has risen to his current position.  

Lewis, thank you for inviting me down today, to experience The Young Guns and the excellent concept of the Pass and Camellia here at South Lodge.  A great opportunity to promote young UK Chefs. It's quite strange seeing you in a suit though, tell us about the move out of your whites and into a suit.  Have you adapted?

It's been different, it's very easy for a Chef to hide behind the hotplate, but when you have to meet the customer face-to-face it is very different. As Chefs, we can often simple say "No that's how it should be" and often, we are right, but you can't say that to a paying customer, you really do have to learn to get around that and to start with it's very difficult.

Lewis, I know that, currently, you are doing this split between your role as Executive Chef and Food & Beverage Manager, but what was the thought process behind your desire to move from your whites into a more front of house role? Ultimately I didn't want to be a fifty year old still running around the kitchen.

You've got a few years to go yet Lewis!!!

South Lodge Hotel
South Lodge Hotel

Yes about twenty"¦"¦(Laughter), but you don't see old Chefs and I didn't want to become one.

Where do old Chefs go?

I'm not sure; there must be a huge room of them somewhere - a Chefs graveyard perhaps, so I decided to make a move to the front of house. I want to make it my responsibility for the food and service. It can be common, when there is a failing in the food, that the restaurant will go "Phew, that's down to the kitchen" and of course visa versa. I think that the food operation should be one team, and we should all share the responsibility, it should be a seamless experience, so if there is a problem, then it becomes our problem and we need to work on closing any gaps between the teams. I've ripped away my security blanket of my whites intentionally to develop myself.

Lewis, you have a stunning kitchen, Exclusive Hotels have really invested in the food business here. The Camellia has a new concept, The Pass is state of the art, you have a structured team in place, and the operations works. Was there a thought to "Kick back" and take it easy?

It is a fantastic kitchen, probably one of the best in the country, I am well set up in terms of team, but that is precisely why I got itchy feet.

So you're still very motivated and want to progress? I worked hard for a number of years to get this kitchen; it took me eight or nine years to get to this.  Business has been good and we got the equipment that we needed, it was a Chefs dream, really.

So often all the money gets spent front of house, with the kitchen tucked away in some broom cupboard under the stairs.

We are front of house, the whole open plan kitchen is very much on display not only for guests that are dining, but we encourage guests to come and see what we are doing, we can only do that with the right kitchen, the right equipment, and the right team.

So with everything in the kitchen set up, you needed a fresh challenge that you could "get stuck into?"

Yes, I never want to leave the kitchen and hang up my whites, well I say never, but never is a long time, but I don't ever see myself completely out of my whites, I want to split the role.

Lewis, you've already mentioned that as a Chef it can be easy to hide behind the uniform"¦ "No because I said no!" Chef mentality, so what has been the most difficult thing to adapt to in your new role?

I think it's the demands and the expectations of the guest when they come to a hotel, such as South Lodge, they form an image and expectation of the dish before it even arrives, different age sets have different views, and it's trying to see things the way the guest does, rather than the way I do, as the Chef. I needed to understand the thought process of their comments and feedback, and when you start to see things through the customers' eyes you do look at your product differently, and question, perhaps why did we change, perhaps we have changed it too much. So empathising with the customer and seeing it from their view point.

You've been at South Lodge a number years as "Chef", how has the front of house team taken to you in your new role?

They now have a direct link to the kitchen, and of course, they have back up.  I've worked really hard with them setting up detailed SOP (Standards of Performance) manuals, they all know the food, they've tasted the food together on the hotplate, they have recipes, they have service images, so I hope for the front of house team, it has been positive. The front of house team still has a Restaurant Manager who is excellent and is new to the team, and two Assistant Managers, so it's not as if I'm in there every day, but they know that they can come and speak with me. I have young Commis Chefs in the kitchen, who will come and speak with me, and that's not because they can't speak, with the Heads Chefs, but because they feel they can, and that, for me, is the way that it should be, and that is the same for the front of house team.

Lewis, how important to your role is the infrastructure and team?  You mentioned having a Restaurant Manager, Heads Chefs within your team, we've read in the press hotel groups that have created F&B roles with their Chefs, they removed the Restaurant Manager and merged everything together, and often this has not worked.

The structure is paramount, you can't be the Chef, Restaurant Manager and Food & Beverage Manager, so you have to have the structure and we have that here, at South Lodge.  We have an Operations Manager, two heads in the kitchen, a pastry chef...In fact as a hotel, we have invested in our management structure not reduced it.

As I mentioned this role has often been driven by cost, and it's then not uncommon for the role to fail and the hotel to revert back to a "Traditional Structure".

I can't remember a time, with Exclusive Hotels, especially at South Lodge, where we have been short of staff through budget restraints.  We have been short of staff, like many operations, because we can't reach the correct calibre of staff. We never panic buy, I always say that sweet taste of a bargain lasts far less time than the bitter taste of quality, when you know that you are employing a chef or waiter/waitress who is not right, it's only ever going to be a band aid on the problem, so the hotel's never been understaffed through budgets. We are entering into a period where we are going to be fully staffed, and that's the first time we have been fully staffed for a long, long time.

Lewis, you are part of Exclusive Hotels which is a very luxury brand, but it's also a very food focused brand? It's incredibly food focused.

You have some very talented Chefs in the Group - Michael (Wignall) at Pennyhill Park,  Richard (Davies) Manor House, Matt (Gillan) here at South Lodge, the guys at Lainston.  How big a factor has the core focus on food within the group been on your longevity within Exclusive Hotels?

South Lodge Hotel
South Lodge Hotel

I think, the figures speak for themselves I've been at South Lodge for twelve years but with the company for twenty years because we are a food focused company, we are invested in, we are well treated, looked after, they give us the staff levelling that we need to deliver. Last year all the Chefs where taken to Noma in Copenhagen, the year previous to that we went to l'atelier de Joel Robuchon, we've eaten at Claude Bosi's Hibiscus, and we are encouraged to go as individuals too.

Danny (Pecorelli) is hugely passionate about his food.

Danny loves his food he genuinely does, I think that deep down he's a frustrated Chef!!!!! (Laughter) He always looking at what we do and buying a piece of equipment for himself that he's seen us use in the kitchen, and I think, that is why we have just a great food culture here, because of Danny.

So Lewis, what is next for you?  You've been with the company twenty years, we are sitting in a stunning open plan kitchen restaurant, you're looking very dapper, in your suit, where are you going to be in five years?

If I'm honest, I don't really know.  It would be easy for me to slip back into my comfort zone, and that is something I'm keen to avoid, I think if the trend continues then, it will be more F&B focus.

Are you being pushed from above to be more front of house focused?

No.

So, it's you that is driving this move?

I applied for a vacant role of Food & Beverage Manager, and when they asked me why do we need this role I said "We don't."

Ok?

I wanted the role to change slightly, with different areas of responsibility and as a result of that I've taken on the responsibility of the restaurant, and of course, the kitchen and the Banqueting Manager now oversees the bars. So the Food & Beverage Manager role has been split - the Food & Beverage Managers within Exclusive have never been responsible for the Kitchens. So I now have that responsibility, I took over a strong restaurant and strong team. We've invested £250,000 in the restaurant, the new concept, and food, new uniforms.

There has been so much doom gloom, recessions, down turns - whatever the buzz word is, and to see that amount of investment must be a positive thing?

Of course, but we are generating the revenue, the business is there.  We offer great value for money, great food at affordable prices, you have a three course lunch in the Camellia for £20.00, that's better value than a pub!  And, of course, we are delivering that at a five star standard.

That's always is a challenge, though, with a hotel of this standing - the perception that you're going to be too expensive, and often, people will drive by and visit the local pub.  How do you get the local trade through the door?

There is a threshold problem that is always difficult to overcome. I think we are very welcoming here, I've felt often when entering grand London hotels with doorman, that very same thing, I certainly don't feel, that we are in any way like that.  That first welcome is so important, we don't want our guest to feel intimidated or out of place, and that is how we are trying to encourage people, through warm friendly service.

Lewis, thank you very much.  It's always great fun to meet with you.  It has been a great experience to see the operation here at South Lodge. Thank you!

Thank you!

If you want to work front of house like Lewis then have a look at our jobs board for current vacancies. 

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 18th January 2011

Lewis Hamblet, Executive Chef and Food and Beverage Manager, South Lodge Hotel, West Sussex