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!!