Archive for February, 2017

Interview: Andrew McKenzie, MD The Vineyard Group (Feb 2017)

Posted on: February 20th, 2017 by Simon Carter

Andrew McKenzie fell in love with the hotel industry when, as a young boy, he successfully worked as a hall porter at a hotel in his home town.  After entering the hotel trade full-time Andrew embarked upon a journey which led him to The Vineyard Group.  Here, Andrew shares his knowledge and experience of near twenty years at the helm of this prestigious hotel group.

Andrew McKenzieTell us some personal and professional background about yourself

Having started on a paper round, I graduated at the age of thirteen to being a hall porter in a hotel in my home town in Scotland – The Royal Hotel in Bridge of Allan – I learned very quickly that if you are nice to people then in return they may give you some money; I made more in tips than I did in wages! That principle is the essence of hotel keeping.

I came from a typical Scottish working class, council house background but found the glamour of top hotels infectious – the seductive imagery of silver, crystal and jackets with tails – After leaving school, I started working at hotels around the UK, with the hotel companies getting gradually smaller – from the world-wide Inter Continental brand through to De Vere through to Shire Hotels (who owned The Stafford in London as part of Daniel Thwaites).

While the property at The Vineyard was being built, I came on board as second to the MD to originally run Donnington Valley. As it turned out the top position became available within a month after the opening, so around 19 years ago Chairman Sir Peter Michael made me Group MD and I’m still here and enjoying (nearly) every minute!

How has the market evolved for The Vineyard?

Our Chairman (Sir Peter) has a saying about his business: 100 by 100 in that it should be 100% family owned and last for 100 years. We’ve had our share of tough times here and that long view has been critical to lasting success. We realised that we needed to punch above our weight to sustain ourselves – wine and gastronomy in that discerning individuals would be at the heart of the identity but also offering a country retreat for small groups within city corporates and tech companies for business related purposes.


Monday through Thursday, there’s not a lot of tourist trade coming to the outskirts of Newbury, and the price point is outside the limit of travelling businessman, so when the credit crunch hit, it hit us hard. As an example, we used to sell higher value wine in good quantities but that market declined without our cost base particularly changing, so we’ve had to adapt, be more flexible and accessible to a wider client base.

The key benchmark we’ve set is not to compromise on quality: An example is making wine available by the glass, the better the quality of wine the better for the customer, the better for the business. To facilitate this we have the Coravin wine preservation system and offer over 100 quality wines by the glass. The sommeliers know how to match wines with the food or vice versa and importantly, are always recommending; which actually makes them the best wine preservation system!

In general, the Group is continually evolving to match the needs of the evolving market.

How would you describe your roles and responsibilities?

My five days a week role is strategically focused but I love a taste of working the floor in the property on a Saturday, as that was the element that seduced me into the industry in the first place. To give you an idea of the scope and size of the operation; originally there were 33 bedrooms at The Vineyard, now there are 49. At Donnington Valley there were 58 rooms and now there are another 56 plus a health club and spa. The Group has also recently acquired a hotel in Bedford, runs and owns two golf courses and a wine merchant business. We also manage two hotels on behalf of other owners but are looking at another two. So plenty to keep me busy!

What is your philosophy of people management?

Naturally, we want to employ warm, friendly people and nurture their talent and encourage the right attitude.

Should a staff member not be doing something correctly then their manager should first consider whether they have actually told them what they should be doing.  If they have told them but the staff member is still not doing the task right then the manager should consider whether they have properly shown them how to do it.  If they have told them and shown them and they’re still not doing it right then use discipline.  In essence, there are only three reasons why something goes wrong – communication, training or misconduct and in the vast majority of times it is the first case and only very few in the last.  We’re actually fortunate in that the hospitality environment is largely self-policing: If you don’t turn up for work on a Thursday morning for any wrong reason, then you leave your friend in trouble for having to cover for you so that tends to naturally take care of itself.

I call service ‘organic’ in that bespoke service is required for each guest – one size does not fit all – an example might be two couples in the bar from 7.45pm for pre-dinner drinks to be taken through to their table at 8.15pm. At the end of the meal both parties complain – one for being rushed, the other for service being slow – each had experienced the exact same process.

It is our job to proactively anticipate these different needs by carefully monitoring the customer experience so that each party receive exactly what they want without even having to ask us. Along similar lines the objective is to provide standards without standardisation.

For staff development and encouragement we must match and better what is out there in the market. To compete for the best talent, we offer all our staff regardless of their role WSET training. Our team of seven sommeliers are encouraged to visit wineries, attend tastings and enter awards and competitions to develop their skills. Key individuals are given a monthly budget to visit competitors and write a full report to benefit them and the company.

We also run a very popular Employee of the Year award. The team vote across the Group, a winner of each property is decided with the chosen three having a lunch with our owners and past winners. The executive team decide the order. The overall Employee of the Year receives a trip for two to Sir Peter Michaels Californian winery. Second prize is Eurostar to Reims for two nights with a hosted tour and lunch at Taittanger and third prize is a two nights stay in a Relais & Chateaux of their choice in the UK. The whole process is motivational and educational in so many ways for a large hard working team.

A mantra we have in the Group is that knowledge is cool, we encourage nerdiness; there is an expectation that to be best in class we need to have the utmost knowledge about our product to enable us to provide the right level of service to our guests. From the art on the walls, through the food on a plate to the wine in the bottle, we believe in equipping staff with knowledge. Numerous training opportunities are provided and the accolades that go with achievement are also proactively encouraged.

What are the perceived implications of Brexit on your business model?

So far no impact whatsoever, however a three pronged concern. First is the impact on our city based corporate customers who may become increasingly nervous and so stop spending, second is our staffing situation, third is currency fluctuations that may make wages less attractive to our overseas staff and Californian wine more expensive.

While around 40% of our staff are from the EU, that figure increases to around 80% for those who are customer facing. Essentially, when Eastern Europe opened up, it saved the bacon of the hospitality industry. Prior to that, there was less a recruitment shortage and more a recruitment black hole. While the trade deal is important to the country, the movement of labour is key for this industry – merely allowing people already here to stay wouldn’t be a solution as there is natural churn. If the solution proposed is the same as currently exists for Non-EU countries then the wage bill of that source of labour will also become non-competitive for our business.

All in all, interesting times, it will be what it will be and we will deal with it.

Zero Hour Contracts are found more in hospitality than any other industry, what is your view on them?

There’s unnecessary confusion about Zero Hour Contracts. The hospitality industry has always worked with casual labour and this contract simply facilitates this type of employment. While it is not something you might see at The Vineyard, at Donnington Valley we do about forty weddings a year and the result is peaks and troughs in the demand for staffing, so we have a pool of people we offer work to when it is available, the flexibility works for everyone, it’s a win win

Tells us your views of Social Media: Twitter, Facebook and Instagram?

From a business point of view I can see that for some businesses social media can provide a call to action and possibly help fill empty restaurants. Less so here, although we do have a full time digital marketing specialist who follows the appropriate brand values when contributing to social media.

As a personal Twitter user my observation is that it has become more reactive, for example to only read notifications and then making the occasional tweet rather than scanning through a feed. Facebook is a strong presence; we filled a fireworks event at our golf club very quickly through an Events page. Instagram has awareness immediacy about it and people get more quickly interactive.

All in all, a necessary exercise.

What do you think of trip advisor? And the trend of reader (customer) led feedback?

It’s probably the most important determining factor on whether someone will visit your hotel or restaurant.

There’s also bloggers and vloggers, so along with social media, these bring together your digital footprint. The professional inspector-led guides remain very valuable for creating benchmarks for us to learn and improve.

How have you evolved to capture the market for high-end dining?

A venue like here is inevitably seen as a special occasion destination restaurant, so our arrivals list on a Friday and Saturday night reads birthday, anniversary, engagement, birthday, anniversary, birthday and so on.  Two things are important, first to be considered best in class for wine, the second is at the same time to become more accessible through relaxed formality.

Lunch services have always been unpredictable; we’ve recently promoted an offer including a glass of champagne, half a bottle of wine, mineral water and coffee for a fixed price. This was so people know the total bill of what they will be spending in advance rather than maybe worrying about how much the wine will cost regardless of what the low headline price might be on the food menu. We’re always looking at ways to keep ourselves in the thoughts of our target market and to deliver the offerings that they seek.

In which industry bodies do you participate?

This is a fast paced and social industry so the more you can get out and speak to people the more you can learn. I’ve chaired the regional BHA (British Hospitality Association) for about 5 years. I also sit on the Restaurant Association panel, which is part of the BHA. Several years ago I chaired the Master Innholders and through that joined the livery of the Worshipful Company of Innholders. I now chair their catering committee and sit on the wine committee. Over time this may lead to becoming a Master of the Worshipful Company of Innholders – which would not only be a great honour but also involve a lot of eating out!

The Relais & Chateaux Association is an indicator of quality to customers but also useful for recruitment. I sit on the UK board and through membership The Vineyard staff are able to stay, subject to availability, at any R&C for £50, the properties also help each other in terms of staff training and development.

What is your proudest professional achievement?

Having previous managers go on to be general managers and fulfil their potential. Also being in a position to continuously develop young people and proactively put them forward for education, training, accolades and recognition. Achieving Hotelier of the Year 2008/2009 was a proud moment, around the same time being chosen as Chairman of the Master Innholders was a great honour.

Describe a day in the life…

Despite appearances it starts in the gym (I am a better advert for my restaurant than my gym!) Then my office is at the golf club where most days I will meet my PA at 0930 for a briefing, after which I go about my travels to proactively retain a loose hand on the tiller of the ship! This will mean dipping in and out, drilling down and retaining objectivity while seeing where any value added assistance can be provided. I have to be careful to not step on the toes of any of the professionals already in place and also appreciate that if I make a quarter turn without thinking it through then others may be unnecessarily running round in circles!

What are you plans for the future?

To keep growing and building the Group, to keep seeing talent develop and prosper and hopefully see The Vineyard continue to go from strength to strength!

Chef Interview: Robby Jenks, The Vineyard (Feb 2017)

Posted on: February 13th, 2017 by Simon Carter

After a progressive spell in kitchens of increasing merit, Robby Jenks found himself working a trial for a spot in Michael Caines kitchen.  The story is a fascinating one, a journey during which Robby worked 16-18 hour days for three and half years as he progressed through the sections at Gidleigh Park.  After later trials at The Square, Hibiscus and Whatley Manor, Robby then moved to work under two Michelin starred chef Martin Burge.  One year later the lure of a senior sous chef position took him back to Gidleigh Park for a further two years.  A Head chef position at Amberley Castle beckoned followed by arriving at The Vineyard near Newbury around the turn of 2016.  Interview conducted by Simon Carter and took place in The Vineyard dining room on Wednesday 8th February 2017.

Tell us some background about yourself.

At about the age of 14 or 15 I started washing up for a cousin who was a chef. It was Friday evening, Saturday and Sunday and back to school on Monday. I just really enjoyed the lifestyle and culture of the environment, very team orientated and going out together at night after work. It was almost like a little family.

Catering college didn’t feel right, I did two days full time and it simply didn’t stick. My parents advised me to get a qualification so I comprised and did a one day a week course while working the other five days in a local hotel. This was near where I lived which was fine for a while but soon it started to feel like I wanted something more so I started looking into the industry.

I found through research a place that had three AA Rosettes and that this accolade meant a form of quality and something that people in my profession aspired to achieve. The restaurant was near Exeter and so about an hour from my parents’ house. It was the first move away from home so it was a big decision.   I worked about a year there and was really enjoying the experience. I was dreaming of getting two or three rosettes in my career. There was lots of fun but after a while I felt there was more to be achieved and that something different was required to be fulfilled in my career.

After further research, I decided that I wanted Michelin experience and so applied somewhere fairly local in Gidleigh Park. After my initial email application, a whole year went by before I was contacted by Michael Caines. Michael explained that Gidleigh had been closed for refurbishment and were back in the business of looking for people.

I went for a trial and was immediately blown away – a different world – I was so far outside my comfort zone, people were asking me to do things and I didn’t even know what the ingredients were never mind what they wanted me to do with them. I remember the trial to this day, it was very humbling, everything was so big, scary, loud, bustling and just so different. It was a good day, I enjoyed it, but didn’t think for a minute that I had a chance to get a job in that kitchen.

I was there all day working along side his team and then Michael came in for evening service and the intensity went up yet another notch, even though it was a very tough place it was a truly amazing experience, and a complete contrast to walking out the back door at the end of the night and into the complete calm of the Devon countryside. An experience I got used to but at the time a revelation.

On my first day Michael told me he’d seen something in me that he liked in a proper potential chef. For over three and half years I worked 16-18 hour days. Hardest working time of my life. Started on the garnish and worked my way around the sections, it was a rollercoaster. It took about a year to feel as if I truly knew what I was doing and had properly broken into being an accepted part of the team, at which point the next new young recruit was coming into the kitchen.

The time I spent on hot starters was the most valuable of my career, it was where Michael Caines himself had made a reputation and I was eager to meet the high standards that he set in the kitchen. I owe Michael a lot; his nature is inspiring, enthusiastic, infectious, ambitious while at the same time nurturing and encouraging talent. He devoted a lot of time to people coming through and never tired of setting examples where needed. After I had made it to Junior Sous chef, Michael felt I would benefit from a fresh challenge and three trials over the space of a week were set up for me – at Hibiscus (Claude Bosi), The Square (Phil Howard) and Whatley Manor (Martin Burge) – when I got back from the week I had a long hard think about what to do next. I went to Whatley Manor partly as it was a contrast to the working environment of Gidleigh Park.

At Whatley, it was a calmer kitchen; the cooking processes were simpler but much more of them and much more in depth: Absolute precision with clean and clear flavours. You would taste, taste and taste again until it was absolutely right, which offered a different discipline. I also wanted to take a step back to Chef de Partie and be responsible properly for a section, which began on larder. Martin Burge was there every service from 9am in the morning so you were always working with the chef, which was great experience. I was there for a year before I got a call from Michael Caines with an offer of a Senior Sous at Gidleigh Park.

I went back there for two years, there were 28 in the kitchen having been on a rota of six one service in the early days so things had significantly moved on. I enjoyed a whole new experience there of being a leader as a Senior Sous chef, having to develop my own infectiousness, to manage people and processes instead of being managed.

After two years it was time to find my first head chef position, which proved to be at Amberley Castle. This opportunity gave me the chance to have a clean slate, to make my own decisions, to make my own mistakes and also to make my own success. It took around a year to understand how everything ran properly and to establish myself in the head chef role. It was a great learning experience and a successful one: The dining operation had been in difficult times with next to no covers lunch and dinner, within eighteen months the services were full, which is something I remain very proud of achieving.

I joined The Vineyard with all my cards on the table. I was up front and honest with Andrew McKenzie, who I must have met around 8 to 10 times before I actually joined. He knew all my strengths and weaknesses as well as the right environment for success at The Vineyard. One year later and we’re really into our stride…

How would you describe your style of cooking at The Vineyard?

I believe a style changes, adapts and develops over time; A journey on which you may ultimately find a signature but even then an evolution continues to occur. At the moment we’re looking at how, given a classical style of cooking, less can mean more to the end product, just because a particular garnish has been used before, is it necessary? My belief is that you learn as you go and I will always be adapting my dishes.

The style will be the signature of the future for me rather than a specific dish. If a dish is great it will need constant attention to be adapted to meet the changing needs and perceptions of the customers to be as close to “perfect” as you can make it at any given time.   I hope that one day you’ll eat a plate of my food and say straight away that’s Robby Jenks’ food – not because you know it as one of my recipes, like Pierre Koffmann is known for Scallop and Squid Ink, or Pistachio Souffle or Pig’s Trotter – but because of the signature style of the dish. At the moment I like to think my style is classical based but progressive, moving forwards and modern.

Describe the menus currently on offer?

We have a discovery menu which is aimed at finding new flavour combinations and that goes for the wine as well as the food. This is a five course menu. There’s the judgement of Paris seven course menu and an a la Carte with five choices in each course. A set lunch is four choices per course.

The accent is on the wine, it is a key feature of the Vineyard hotel and the restaurant. So the food will enhance the wine as well as vice versa. The Judgement of Paris dinner is about comparing the French and Californian wines, which was originally done as a blind tasting. This is the subject of the large painting as you enter the Vineyard and walk through the cellar archway.

What’s your kitchen management philosophy?

Promoting and developing from within, for example should I have a Senior Sous position become available then essentially I should need to recruit a commis.

I like to think that I’m one of today’s head chefs in that it’s an open door, you won’t get shut down for having ideas of your own! You have a good idea that’s maybe an improvement then we’ll take it on board and implement that idea. Likewise if what we are doing is currently right for the kitchen, we may discuss ideas but put them to one side. This approach is actually different from the old school dictatorial style of kitchen management, having said that you do need discipline, especially in a big kitchen like we have here: If you let people think you are a walk over then that’s exactly what they’ll do, so discipline and hierarchy remains important to get the right jobs done as quickly, efficiently and effectively as possible.

What is the size of the brigade in the kitchen?

Twenty five to cover the whole hotel seven days a week. Twenty of those are chefs. There’s breakfast, lunch and dinner in the main dining room plus food requirements of the bar plus 24 hour room service.

I have a lot of creative freedom as structures are in place to ensure day to day operational matters are taken care of which allows me to focus on more strategic issues such as creative menu direction and development.

How would you describe the front/back of house communication at The Vineyard?

We are all civil and respectful to each other. I like to think that we’re on the same journey together and aiming to please the business and the customers. There’s also the mantra that knowledge is cool, knowledge is key. So from my point of view, spec sheets, briefings, food combination explanations, food provenance, how and why dishes are created, as well as tastings are all organised for all the staff. This provides optimum knowledge, pride and ownership of the end products.

What do you think of social media platforms?

Relevant in today’s world although I’m not as active as I was before, perhaps my idea is that the marketing department can take photos of the food and write captions or maybe customer’s can take pictures and write about The Vineyard on social media as feedback. As I’ve got older I don’t feel the need to be on social media as some form of validation, I’d have better uses of my time. Being proud of your work and marketing your product is fine though.

…and feedback sites like trip advisor?

Any feedback is good and sometimes I learn something important. I prefer problems to be resolved at the time rather than publicly over trip advisor. Should there be genuine improvements over venting then I take it all on board. I check the web weekly.

What is your view of inspector led guides like Michelin?

I love the Michelin Guide. An ambition is a Michelin star. I like to think they watch chefs grow as people and cooks and reward them when they are ready. Perhaps it may come when you least expect it, they are like a romantic dream.

What are your ambitions for the future?

To keep evolving, to keep looking at improvement, to mature into a fundamental style that hopefully leads to having a restaurant with Michelin stars that has its own legacy that I continue to work at every day!!