This article is the fifth in a series designed not to provide ‘A N Other’ opinion about a chef’s output, to be lost in the now sea of increasing ‘noise’ about top end dining. This is something slightly different. In this article the chef will analyse each of their dishes sampled against the five criteria used by Michelin for awarding a Michelin star. How so? Discerning foodies will recall that at The Michelin Guide GB&I launch event for the 2018 Guides, a slide was briefly discussed by Michael Ellis (at the time WW Director of Michelin Guides), which for the first time highlighted the five criteria followed by inspectors in the awarding of Michelin Stars. Michael Ellis confirmed these under interview on that day, as a reminder he explained:-
“The first and most important criteria is the ingredients, all great cuisine starts with great product – the actual product itself is considered for freshness, quality, flavour and texture and so on. The second criteria is mastery of cooking technique. The third criteria is equilibrium and harmony in flavours; the plate must be in balance, so the sauce is not, for example, overpowering the flavour of the fish or that the seasoning of the dish is found to be exactly as it should be. The fourth criteria is regularity (or consistency) and this means starter, main and dessert are all of the appropriate standard and that each are also consistent over time. Finally, value for money is the fifth criteria.”
Rob Palmer honed his craft at Peel’s, so named after the former prime minister Sir Robert Peel, whose onetime estate in the picturesque village of Hampton-in-Arden, now houses the luxury restaurant with rooms Hampton Manor. Today the infrastructure for guests is abundant with road and rail a short distance away. A short drive from the M42, west of Birmingham, finds this peaceful idyll. Rob was originially sous chef to Martyn Pearn. After 4 years under Michel Bourdin and twelve years of Michelin stardom across La Reserve (Bordeaux) and Buckland Manor (Cotswolds) Martyn proved a great mentor in the grounding of classical technique. From September 2014, at the tender age of 27, the opportunity arose for Rob Palmer (below) to take the reins and stamp his own personality and creativity on the developing kitchen at Hampton Manor.
Ably and astutely developed by stages in Michelin Two Star kitchens such as Andrew Fairlee and Nathan Outlaw, by the 2017 ‘guide season’ Rob had led Peel’s restaurant to a first Michelin Star in the GB&I Guide, along with the award of 4 AA Rosettes and a Michelin Welcome and Service Award, all of which justifiably recognised both the wonderful food and front of house found across Hampton Manor.
Onto the food, the dishes to be analysed by Rob across the five criteria are langoustine, beef, eel and chocolate led plates.
Consistency and value for money will be considered separately before each dish is discussed in terms of the other three criteria. To aid consistency as well as development, each chef is given their own recipe book which is to include the house dishes as well as work on creative input to the team. The rule is that a recipe can be documented only after the chef has twice made that recipe successfully – twice is to ensure the difference between understanding something in theory and delivering it in practice. So typically Rob will provide his book and taste the dishes to check that each chef can produce the dishes to the correct consistent standard. During service Rob tastes dishes before they reach the customer or if Rob is not available the sous chef will taste the dish. Incoming chefs are trained thoroughly, which is a natural insurance of consistency, anyone who comes in shadows a section for a period of time until they are comfortable.
In terms of creation or evolution of dishes, not everything has to come from Rob, it is a collective effort involving tasting and refining, before agreeing whether changes or new dishes make it to the menu. Naturally as dishes evolve the taste make-up of the whole dish will change, so in addition to taste checks during any given service, every couple of weeks dishes are collectively re-checked. This ongoing tasting process ensures that dishes are served as intended and that no deviation has happened (by accident) over the course of say twenty services. This is very different from a chef unilaterally deciding (typically in a very large kitchen environment) to do something differently during service outside of the house recipe for a dish, the nature of the Peel’s kitchen is close knit and the value add of each chef clearly visible from front to back of the kitchen, so such an instance is ruled out.
When asked if Rob felt he was a scientific or instinctive chef, he felt that instinct was critical to being successful at the top end of the industry in that all ingredients are unique, so simply applying the science of weighing things out and cooking for a set period of time will take a chef so far but mastering the art means having instinctive creativity in the kitchen. Peel’s keep up with seasons and pay focus and inspiration to the concept of an English walled garden (below), the garden at Hampton Manor is in its first year but this is developing into a stunning resource. While Rob will employ a few different techniques and Asian influences in the dishes produced, the protein, vegetables and garnishes have a clear English focus.
In terms of value for money, there exists a kitchen GP, but the hotel as a whole may meet in the middle with Peel’s, so say, large functions naturally yield higher margin compared to Peel’s top end restaurant kitchen being afforded a lower margin. We put on a seven course menu for £95 and the customer will get a pre-dessert, snacks, amuses (as traditional ‘extras’ on a menu) but in addition premium produce such as Wagyu Beef or Langoustine may feature in dishes: How many top end independent restaurants are required to charge a supplement for these sort of luxuries? The nature of the way the hotel works allows Rob to put on these wonderful premium ingredients for the customer.
Beef comes with a certain masculine comfort and accessibility factor, the kitchen experimented a couple of years ago with taking beef off the menu but brought it back by popular demand. Rob decided that rather than offer a kind of cliché like ‘fillet of beef’ (which has been done so often), Peel’s would instead offer rare and premium breeds such as Longhorn and Wagyu. While these breeds have limited access, they remain the best choices for kind of sheer quality and flavour that turns customers in regulars.
Now the three dishes, Langoustine (above), Beef, Eel and Chocolate led dishes are analysed by provence of ingredients, cooking technique and balance and harmony on a plate.
The Scottish Langoustines are from Keltic Seafare, which the kitchen get in every week and are beautiful products. Nothing is wasted, the shells help make the sauce with a little ginger for some heat (added to the bisque). The dish is served with leek. The langoustines have a delicate flavour so to cook and season it naturally brings out the best of the product. Rob consciously doesn’t over manipulate the ingredients which could lead to overwhelming the natural balance and harmony of a dish. The philosophy is to try and stick to no more than three flavours on a plate. In terms of the langoustine dish Rob would want no more that the taste of langoustine, ginger and leek cooked properly and accurately seasoned.
The three flavours of the Wagyu Beef dish are beef, carrot and black garlic (above). The carrots are from the walled garden, an English black garlic which is sourced from the UK, and the thoroughbred Wagyu beef from Aubrey Allen. Aubrey Allen sources the beef from Earl of Stonham farm which offers the best Rob had tried on the market. The beef is cooked sous vide at fifty-six degrees for six minutes and then quickly seared in a pan to give it a little caramelisation. The brushed glaze of soy and sugar works very well. The black garlic ketchup enhances the natural flavour of the beef and complements the dish.
The eel dish (above), the sustainable eel is acquired from the Devon Eel Company, already smoked as the kitchen don’t have the capacity to smoke them in house and the consistency and quality is superb. The team fillet, skin and portion the eel before pan frying for less than a minute. The Kohlrabi is cooked sous vide in preparation and then to order is diced and roasted in a pan with miso butter. The Kohlrabi is also blitzed with a 2% salt solution and fermented for a week in sous vide bags. When ready, they squeeze the juice out and infuse the eel bones. The result is loads of natural seasoning, smokey eel, salty sea herbs (samphire or sea perslane) and an acidity from the juice that bring together the dish perfectly.
The Chocolate dish (above), Rob had been drawn to the idea of the chocolate notes in sherry combining with chocolate. Each element of chocolate has different textures and intensity through different percentages of cocoa. There’s biscuit, croustillant and a frozen mousse to go with sherry. Rob says proudly “I love this dish.”
Not only does the cooking at Peel’s delight the most discerning of palates but the needs of the market in general are met squarely between the eyes. The mantra of three tastes on a plate, where the key is in the clear quality of ingredients prepared and cooked properly, is a rule that has reaped dividends. Add to this a warmth of welcome from service that is barely matched across the country and customers are inevitably woo’d by this irresistable combination. The customer base naturally draws from the growing fanbase of Michelin dining from across the flourishing Birmingham area, where no less than six Michelin starred restaurants reside. Fine Dining Guide look forward to returning in the near future and following the great progress made by Rob Palmer and his team. Long may their success continue!
Hampton Manor, Peel’s Restaurant, https://hamptonmanor.com/