A pioneer of the movement that propelled British food from laughing stock to world leader talks to Mark Sansom about how he’s about to shake up the UK hotel scene
His name, is Michael Caines. He’s one of the most decorated chefs that the UK has ever produced and has confronted and overcome more challenges than most of us are likely to experience in a lifetime. Now, at the age of 48, he is about to embark on his ‘biggest project yet’, renovating and launching Lympstone Manor, a ‘new breed of country house hotel’ in East Devon. To understand the gravity of what he means by this, allow us to briefly put his personal life into perspective.
At two weeks old, Caines’ mother put him up for adoption after his father returned to the West Indies. He was adopted by Pat and Peter Caines and became the youngest of their six children in Exeter. At school, he was the only mixed-race pupil in the playground. He fought. The fact he was the best-looking boy inschool didn’t do him any favours with his male peers.
In 1994, shortly after landing his dream job at Gidleigh Park, he lost his right arm from the shoulder down after his car flipped in an accident on the M4. A few years later, his mentor and close friend Bernard Loiseau killed himself with a shotgun to the face in his kitchen amid rumours he was to lose his third Michelin star. Then late last year, Royal Clarence Hotel, where he was heavily involved for 15 years, was razed to the ground in a fire. Caines has, you could say, had something of a complicated path through life.
But enough of all that. He certainly doesn’t dwell on it and neither should we. Indeed, as he strides into Soho’s Dean Street Townhouse on a miserable winter morning with a swagger generally reserved for a fruit and vegetable seller, he shows none of the weigh of the past. His smile is Hollywood- grade pristine, his trademark pencil beard is on point and his grey houndstooth tailoring, tight.
He grabs a seat and the meeting begins – as they so often do – with the exchange of business cards. He notices me pausing to read the designations after his name: MBE, chef-patron, chairman, and thinks that I’m weighing up the quality of his card. I’m not Patrick Bateman and this isn’t American Psycho.
‘They’re only second-generation cards,’ he excuses. ‘The next run is going to come with a lot more weight and a heavier emboss on the font.’ They look fine to me. Have you ever heard of someone taking three versions of a business card? I begin to get an idea of just how far his attention to detail stretches. After all, this is a man who has held two Michelin stars for 18 years and has been banging at the door of a third for nearly as long.
A three-star quandary
‘I’ve always had a great reputation or creating bold flavours,’ he states. ‘I’ve been in the top five restaurants in the UK for 20 years, so I don’t have a complex about my cooking. Though I do recognise that I have an opportunity to do something special with the restaurant at Lympstone.’ At this point, I fully assume he’ll dodge the question of achieving a third star. I clearly don’t know Caines very well. Like he has all his life, he confronts the question head-on.
‘The third star is something I’m aware of and something I want to get. We’ve invested a huge amount of money here and I want a return on my investment. It’s quite extravagant.’ He takes to his feet and begins to walk me through his imaginary kitchen, pointing: ‘Here we’ve got the bakery. Just here will be the butchery and here the fish prep.’ It’s a more vivid tour than any CGI or 360-degree image could ever create. His enthusiasm is palpable; as the people eating their breakfast on the adjacent table would attest.
He won’t, however, be offering a chef’s table. ‘It’s just not the right environment for me,’ he says. ‘The only reason they exist is so that restaurants can charge a premium. We’re going to be premium anyway, so you may as well eat in the restaurant – I’ve spent a premium on it, so enjoy it,’ he says. ‘We don’t stand on ceremony in my kitchen and it can be a fraught environment. Chefs easily become distracted, too. Stick a pretty girl in the kitchen and that’s it: game over.
‘I will be cooking as I always have, putting flavour at the core and using local suppliers where possible. I like buying local for a number of reasons but the main one being that I get more control. I get to shap what’s being produced and open discussions with the growers. I’ve worked in this area a long time and know it better than anyone and what it can do in terms of ingredients.’
I ask if there are any trends he will be following and he gives me a death stare. Luckily it’s broken by breakfast arriving at the table. ‘Mind if I tuck in?’ At first, I think he is talking about his eggs.
‘Don’t talk to me about trends. Half the restaurants want you to think you’re in Scandinavia and are trying to be Noma, making you sit on some uncomfortable deer hide on a minimalist table. That’s not very English.
‘There’s too much messing about with food of late for me and too many “concepts”,’ he continues. ‘It verges on ridiculous. It’s an obsession of chefs to just cook a tasting menu, which limits your choice of wine and the guest’s experience. With things like fermentation, your palate gets tired. It’s like an assault, dish after dish.’ He pauses for a mouthful of salmon, chews, swallows and carries on: ‘Chefs look to themselves too much, too. The chef can’t see himself as the main reason people go out to eat; he is the conduit to a good night. People go out to feel looked after and you can’t get that if it’s like you are at someone’s altar.’
A new breed of hotel
Caines has similarly stark views on the hospitality industry. He’s spent a lot of the morning outlining what Lympstone Manor is not going to be but what can we expect from his magnum opus?
‘We’re going to go straight in as one of the best country house hotels in the world. It’s going to be audacious. Audacity is a word that has been bandied about a lot and I like it,’ he says. ‘I’ve bought a run-down Grade II-listed estate and I’m turning it into what I think is a perfect example of what a modern hotel should be for the next 25 years. We’ve got a 60-cover restaurant and 21 bedrooms designed to the standards I would expect myself. There are bespoke carved marble tubs on private terraces, a fantastic zinc bar and service will come from people I know, trust and have worked with – everyone has bought into the philosophy I’m looking to create.
‘But I’m not recreating Gidleigh Park,’ he stops. I had deliberately not mentioned the name of Caines’ previous employer, Food and Travel’s Hotel of the Year 2016 and just 48km from Lympstone Manor. Which is 48km closer to London and nearer to Exeter Airport, Caines is very quick to point out to me.
Rumours of an acrimonious split were widespread after the end of the pair’s 22-year, two-star Michelin partnership, however Caines plays it with a relatively straight bat. ‘I had given everything I could and asked to become a partner in the hotel. I was told that it was a family business. So I worked my 24-month notice period and started putting things in place for a country house hotel I would like to visit myself.’
The art of creating a hotel is something that Caines has spent a lifetime studying from the inside and with Lympstone Manor he is conjuring his dream.
‘Country houses have always been where people entertained and when a lot of them were turned into hotels in the Sixties and Seventies, they continued that tradition,’ he says. ‘Though too many have gone into disrepair. Ripped fabric isn’t shabby chic, it’s an excuse for underinvestment. Owners have been buying these assets and sweating them, rather than giving something back.’ He’s also creating a vineyard from scratch. ‘We’re going to make English sparkling wine growing pinot noir, pinot meunier and chardonnay grapes. It just so happens the area has a microclimate that is in the top five intheUKforgrowing–onapar to Nyetimber in terms of amount of rainfall, sunshine, daylight hours and the south-facing elevation,’ he says. ‘I’m hoping to plant the vines in spring and then it’s three years from vine to fruit, then another year for the first fermentation, then another six months ageing. All being well, you’ll be drinking Lympstone cuvée in five years’ time.’ When Caines says he’s going to do something, you’re inclined to take his word for it.
It goes without saying that 3 April, the hotel’s official launch date, will be the biggest of Caines’ already glittering career. What will he be thinking? ‘Check on, two covers,’ he says without missing a beat. ‘I’ll be in the kitchen creating the best food of my life. Someone has got to cook the food and that’s what I do best.’