Executive Head Chef Luke Matthews was able to spare time from his very busy kitchen to update me on recent developments. It says much for his job satisfaction that Luke has been with Chewton Glen for over twenty years. He is content but does not rest on his laurels as the everyday demands are relentless: the generous buffet and cooked breakfast; the popular set lunches; the Spa pool lounge with healthier options; afternoon tea averaging 60-70 guests; and dinner for a maximum of 156 covers. Large wedding and conference parties create additional pressures, especially on busy Saturday nights. But this is nothing new, and his talented, hard-working team of 28-30, many of whom are specialised chefs, has coped admirably well.
Luke’s effective management style has produced a higher than average retention rate, often for three years or more, in an area with few local attractions for young chefs. This means they are passionate about their work and show the dedication and consistency needed in a highly pressurized environment. Not that he overworks his “great” team as his insistence on an afternoon break and a maximum five day working week demonstrates. His nurturing of young talent through the Academy of Culinary Arts scheme – five have joined the team and two more are in training – is a recent initiative that has also added value to the team.
Grateful for continual investment in the kitchen and dining areas, Luke has found making the restaurant more accessible – which began shortly after we last visited in 2010 – an unqualified success. With a choice ranging from soups and simple grills to seasonal a la carte dishes and a fine dining tasting menu, some 80% of residents now opt to dine in, compared with 50% previously.
Whilst this approach might not appeal to Michelin inspectors, this is, thankfully, not his main priority. Rather, it is giving people what they want to eat, from gourmet to light meals, in unstuffy, relaxed surroundings. Luke stresses the need for a balance between continuity and change in the food offering. Many hotel guests stay for a few nights and need variety; others return for popular dishes such as cheese soufflé and Thai lobster curry which would be hard to take off the menu.
Clearly, given the exigencies of catering in a luxury country house hotel, and a hugely successful one at that, Luke is not too precious about his food, producing limited repertoire for foodies, as is possible in smaller establishments. A refreshing honesty is also seen in his approach to suppliers. They need to be big given the scale of the operation but also supply the best. If this is not easily accessible, he will source from further afield, not being a slave to local or regional sourcing. Whilst an increasing amount of seasonal fruit, vegetable and herbs is being supplied by the kitchen garden, and foraged items sourced within the hotel’s grounds, the need to maintain good relations with his suppliers is paramount. In this regard, sourcing of sustainable produce is very important: The Dining Room is a member of the Sustainable Restaurant Association, being awarded the maximum “Three Star Sustainability Champion” in its star rating scheme. Special events placing extra but rewarding demands on the kitchen have included the well-attended Alex Lewis Trust fundraising dinner with guest chefs James Martin, Pierre Koffmann and Michael Caines. A “Sweet as Honey” estate tour was planned for 29 June and a Taittinger Summer lunch took place on 19 July. With the 50th anniversary book in preparation, Luke will be even busier than normal in finalising past recipes.
The Dining Room at Chewton is, in fact, five areas re-modeled from the old Marryat/Vettiver restaurant. Each has its distinct character and can be sectioned off depending on numbers and occasion. For instance, the seductively dark Wine Room, lined with display cabinets housing some of the finest vintages, can be used as a private dining room as well as for wine tasting. In contrast, The Summer House, which has benefitted from a recent makeover, is light and airy, with a fresher look. A new wooden floor (replacing the tiles), upholstered carver chairs, and lime green banquettes set against a paneled mirrored far wall make for more stylish, comfortable dining. The two rows of well-spaced round tables, dressed in fine napery remain, are separated by long wooden serving tables decorated with miniature trees. The circular steel chandeliers add a twinkle of light but need to be supplemented by spotlighting above the tables. Overseen by the young and knowledgeable Restaurant Manager, Alex von Ulmenstein, service was in safe hands.
The extensive menu features dishes to suit all tastes. International influences are seen in Thai lobster curry, Vietnamese chilli beef salad and Lamb tagine. More conservative diners might opt for roasts from the trolley or fish and steaks from the grill. The extravagant could indulge in oysters and caviar whilst the abstemious might stick to a choice of three soups. There are nine starters, eight mains, eight options from the grill and three roasts (Friday to Sunday only). A six course tasting menu, (£70 + £45 for wine) is available, whilst the set lunch menu (£26.50 for three courses) offers a generous choice of three starters, five mains and three desserts. Connoisseurs face a real embarrassment of choice from over fourteen hundred wines – one of the most extensive wine lists in the South of England. Both Old and New Worlds are amply represented, along with wines from up and coming wine producing countries. A team of five sommeliers led by Francesco Gabriele liaise with over 30 suppliers in maintaining a distinguished cellar which in 2014 won the esteemed three star World’s Best Wine Lists awarded by The World of Fine Wine.
Sipping cocktails in the bar, the wide choice on the menu delayed our decisions, but true to what Luke suggested, we decided on what we WANTED to eat rather than adopt the “right” or “balanced” approach. For starters, I opted for Cheese soufflé, a signature dish that has been on the menu for some 20 years and which, shamefully, I never tried on my previous visit in 2010. Twice baked, it was well risen and fluffy, bursting with Emmental flavour and floating on an unctuous pool of warm double cream and cheese lifted by a generous dash of kirsch. A truly decadent dish, both light and rich it was served with a lightly dressed walnut salad to give balance of texture and flavour.
Elizabeth had a tian of Portland crab, featuring the freshest and sweetest of white meat bound in a light mayonnaise and spread with a thin layer of the stronger tasting brown meat which did not overwhelm the dish. Balanced by apple and pickled mouli, which gave the necessary acidity, celeriac remoulade for crunch and melba toast for a crispness, this was a simple, well-constructed dish employing the finest of ingredients.
As an intermediate course we shared a tasting portion of Thai lobster curry, a favourite amongst restaurant guests. The crustacean was accurately timed, preserving its sweet succulent flesh, whilst the medium strength coconut based sauce was an authentic balance of hot, sour, sweet and salty flavours. Okra and pak choi provided fresh, mild vegetable accompaniments.
A main course of lamb tagine came, amazingly, in deconstructed form. Braised neck fillet in a rich but not overly sweet sauce was meltingly tender. The slow cooked, flavoursome shoulder was encased in crisp brik pastry. Diced apricots came separately as a garnish along with harissa with a powerful but not overwhelming kick. Giant jeweled couscous and wilted spinach completed this original interpretation of a Moroccan classic.
Elizabeth chose from the grill selection. A thick cut of calf’s liver cooked medium as requested came with crisp ventreche bacon, a gratinated Portobello mushroom and a creamy dome of mashed potato. Served with a separate red wine shallot sauce which brought these elements together successfully, this dish exemplified the skill in cooking simpler dishes which demand as much care as the more complicated ones.
We both chose light desserts having indulged in substantial starters and mains with an extra intermediate course. My trio of sorbets, mango, raspberry, lime has intense flavours and exemplary textures, having been scooped at just the right temperature. Served with biscotti, this was a clean and refreshing finish to the rich courses that preceded it.
Warm rhubarb and raspberry soufflé with a crumbled topping was light and fluffy with a judicious balance of sweetness and acidity. Batons of softly poached rhubarb, both red and green varieties showed the pure fruit at its best. The accompanying clotted cream ice cream was exemplary in taste and texture and, thankfully, was not dropped into a soufflé, a practice which spoils both elements.
Coffee completed a memorable meal, different from the tasting menu I enjoyed on my last visit five years earlier, but equally enjoyable. The skills demonstrated then, the careful balance of flavours, textures and temperatures, the refined creativity, conscious artistry in presentation and judicious timing, still apply, but now across a wide range of dishes. Given the scale in catering for such a prestigious establishment, this is no mean achievement.