Postscript 2009: During 2009, Steve and Claire Love opened a new venture in Birmingham: See, Love’s Restaurant http://www.loves-restaurant.co.uk/
Steve and Claire Love are enjoying a personal and professional year to remember. The hard working couple, each with humility and charm in equal measure, recently celebrated their wedding. A shared passion extends to their restaurant in Leamington Spa; one of those establishments that reach the culinary heights and deserve the greatest admiration. Why?
As a member of the small but exclusive club of husband a wife teams who (with a couple of helpers) work every service their restaurant is open and make just enough profit to maintain their business. Scant rewards for their talents.
Love’s is at last enjoying the type of national recognition that it fully deserves. By sheer serendipity I discovered the restaurant shortly after it opened and have never been disappointed, easily proving worth the occasional special journey north.
Steve is the newly crowned Craft-Guild National Chef of The Year. An honour which proved a significant staging post for the likes of Gordon Ramsay, David Everitt-Matthias (Le Champignon Sauvage) and Mark Sargeant (Claridges). Less than a fortnight later, The 2005 Which? Good Food Guide saw fit to promote the restaurant to 6/10 and award Warwickshire Restaurant of The Year. The Editor of the guide, Andrew Turvil, made reference to the restaurant in the Consumer Association press release which resulted in some welcome national press coverage. The start of November saw yet more momentum when the trade magazine Caterer & Hotelkeeper ran a five page masterclass piece. Better still, Jan Moir of The Telegraph made a rare trip north of Watford and was suitably impressed. Quite a feat as she’s one of the most discerning food critics and notoriously hard to please.
Somewhere in between all this, Steve Love kindly found time to sit down with Daniel Darwood of fine-dining-guide.com.
Tell us about your background prior to starting your own restaurant?
For two years, I was head chef at a restaurant local to Leamington Spa called Mallory Court. Prior to that I spent six months with Gary Jones at Waldos, Cliveden – Gary’s now back as head chef at Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons. I learned so much
from him and not just the cooking – his natural enthusiasm and man management qualities. Before that I was at Ettington Park in Stratford upon Avon.
What are your memories of The Roux Scholarship and what it has meant to you?
It was back in 1997 when I was at Ettington Park. That was really the start of a new career, having previously worked in maximum two rosette country houses, I had the opportunity to consider the profession differently – as an exciting career.
Among other things, I had the chance to spend three months in the kitchen of Alain Ducasse in Paris. (I believe I was the second to do so after Jonathan Harrison) – a truly amazing experience, you would start at 5.30am and work right through to 1am.
I’ll always feel indebted to the Roux Scholarship for that experience. The time there was a real education; just understanding what three Michelin Stars meant was an eye opener. For example, one of their biggest sellers were three and half langoustines steamed, cut in half then covered with a layer of caviar. I was expecting complexity on the plate but in fact it was about the preparation, flavour and execution of the ingredients. Some of the spicing I’ve never managed to source since.
The start was quite intimidating – a young English guy coming into a kitchen of 30 chefs for 50 covers – a different culture to the UK where you’re lucky to find 6 or 7 for 80 covers. What is more, all the chefs were passionate and dedicated, they rightly saw it as a privilege to work in the Ducasse kitchen.
I arrived just after their summer break, Alain Ducasse came in and muttered something to each member of the team, when he spoke to me, I said, “sorry chef I don’t understand” – he realized I was the Englishman on the Roux scholarship and was immediately friendly – I could feel the daggers going into my back! (laughing). Actually, a couple of the guys in the brigade were very helpful, one in particular was Claude Bosi (now of Hibiscus): Claude was a Chef de Partie on the sauces. He can seem an imposing kind of guy when you first meet him but he was very friendly.
The industry has had more exposure in recent years?
There are chefs on TV that have done great things for the industry, then there are also those that create the perception among younger entrants that high earning head chef jobs come by the age of 21 – quickly followed by making a fortune doing TV advertising. The reality is a long apprenticeship and hard graft. Those that really want it soon come to the surface.
Which chefs have influenced you the most over the years?
Just about every head chef I’ve worked with for any period of time. The four year apprenticeship at the Welcome Hotel in Stratford developed my skills significantly. Chris Hudson taught me about kitchen management and how to make money.
Glynn Hughes, a pastry chef, is someone I’ve stayed in touch with and always appreciated his experience.
Michel Roux is someone I really admire and I speak to him as often as possible. I’m really flattered when someone like him, who I put on a pedestal, asks to see our latest menu and chats to me about it. Taking advice from masters like him is such a great help; he also gave me a reference for the head chef job at Mallory Court.
You now have your own restaurant with a relatively small brigade?
My dream was always to start my own restaurant and when this property became available we took the lease. There’s Jacqueline on pastry; on a Friday and Saturday night, Greg from Warwick University comes in and helps out. We’re open from Tuesday through Saturday and I have to be here every service, if I’m not here we don’t open – simple as that.
What are the essential qualities of your dishes?
In starters we look for something flavoursome but relatively light. One of the better sellers is a multi-layered, multi-textured Salmon dish. We also want to create a wow factor in that we produce something that people couldn’t reproduce at home.
Keeping it clean and simple has really helped my cooking develop – ensuring there are no more than two or three clean flavours on the plate and keeping the garnishes to purely those that complement the dish. I find that creating my own style or signature has evolved from experience – drawing on creations at other restaurants and working with other chefs but stamping my own personality on the menu. I also appreciate having the basic grounding in butchery skills which helps put on dishes that would be too expensive if bought in pre-prepped.
And what about the pastry side?
Garnish and sauce chefs are typically stronger in the marketplace but desserts seem to be more of a dying art. On my first day at Cliveden, Gary Jones put me on Pastry which was an experience I really enjoyed. It’s quite an exact science. I firmly believe that people remember the last thing they eat, so we want to ensure the desserts and petits fours are something special. Particularly as a head chef, or chef patron, you have to know and understand pastry to be able to instruct others as to what you want.
What are your views on Molecular Gastronomy?
I don’t understand it, so I don’t cook it. When you run a business and have a young family finding the time to step back and try and learn such things is difficult. I’ve not been to the Fat Duck but would love to visit. Heston really knows what he’s
doing, the trouble is with those chefs that see what he’s doing and try to recreate it but don’t understand how it is done. The results can be quite shocking.
What are your plans for the future?
We’ve been here three years and we’re now looking for a freehold property within the area. We did some refurbishment quite recently but feel that this is a sunk cost in a leased property. We’re keen to get a silent partner who will share some
profit but allow us to run a business autonomously. Ideally we’d go for a place with rooms.
Tell us about the Craft-Guilds National Chef of the Year?
I’ve been through to the finals three times. The first time I came third and was delighted. The second time I felt confident but we’d just opened the restaurant. This proved very challenging – driving back and forth to cook service in the restaurant while giving my best to the competition proved impossible. This year we decided to shut the restaurant and were delighted to win the heats, we also decided to stay over in London. Brian Turner, Jean Christophe Novelli and John Burton-Race were part of the panel of around 20 judges. You were given a list of ingredients to produce a menu. I cooked a Lobster Ravioli with a Langoustine on top with a Celery Broth and Lime Jam to cut through the fish. Main course was squab pigeon.
I boned the leg and along with a farce from the livers, some white pudding and chicken, made a mini ballontine. This was on some braised lentils with a pumpkin puree, a mild garlic broth and a jus made from the pigeon bones. Dessert was a tempered chocolate collar, poppy seeds, raspberries macerated in whiskey to help cut through the sweetness of the chocolate with a banana and whiskey ice cream. As well as the overall first prize, the squab pigeon was awarded best main course.
So it was time to leave – Steve had spoiled us with his time and his food. They were planning a series of dinners to celebrate the Craft-Guild National Chef of The Year award. The winning menu being reproduced with a generous list of wines.