Restaurants with Rooms

Adding rooms to your restaurant is an excellent way of adding a revenue stream but, more importantly, it increases the distance your customers will travel to see you. Chandos Elletson went on his travels.

Stéphane Borie, chef and owner of The Checkers Inn, with his wife Sarah and her sister Katheryn

Stéphane Borie, chef and owner of The Checkers Inn, with his wife Sarah and her sister Katheryn

I visited five very different restaurants each with rooms and restaurants that ranged from one to three stars. I was very impressed with what I found because this trend demonstrates that chefs are increasingly switched on to revenue streams outside the kitchen and that's exciting.

First up was The Checkers Inn in Montgomery, Wales, which is home to The Frenchman and The Farmers Daughter’s. The Frenchman is the chef, Stéphane Borie, and The Farmer’s Daughters are his wife Sarah and her sister Katheryn Francis.

Stéphane has a star for the restaurant, Sarah doubles up as the pastry chef and front of house and Katheryn brings her skills as a trained nurse to complete a formidable trio, to whom service is paramount and the rooms have equal standing in the business.

I was given a very comfortable room with a large bed and a big bathroom with a deluxe shower. This ticked all my boxes. In the past if I had wanted to take my other half to have a meal at The Checkers we would have had to have found accommodation elsewhere and it would have been unlikely that we could have found anything nearly so comfortable.

A ROOM AT The Checkers Inn in Montgomery, Wales

A ROOM AT The Checkers Inn in Montgomery, Wales

But because we could stay at the restaurant meant that we could make a special journey and experience not just the food but also the room and this turned out to be the key to success.

"The rooms must complement the food and the restaurant," Katheryn explained. "Our guests are coming for a Michelin-starred meal. They quite rightly expect that to be excellent. It's the same with the room. This has to be beyond their expectation and everything has to be right."

In my room everything was perfect right down to the home-made biscuits beside the kettle and it was nice to be able to enjoy a good meal and then just walk upstairs to bed. Talking with Katheryn made me realise how much work goes into the rooms which cannot be the preserve of the chef. There needs to be a separate staff for this which is sometimes the wife or partner(s) of the chef or another team.

At The Walnut Tree, near Abergavenny in Wales, Shaun Hill has two cottages that are a short walk down a path from the restaurant which can be taken for a night or two. Each cottage has a couple of bedrooms, a sitting room and a kitchen. But no-one from the restaurant has responsibility for the rooms.

THE WALNUT TREE INN, Abergavenny

THE WALNUT TREE INN, Abergavenny

 "I don't know anything about rooms," Shaun Hill told me when I visited. "I don't want to make beds or check fridges. I also don’t want to offer breakfast. So, I got a local hotel to service them for me. They are experts at housekeeping and this way I get to spend my time in the kitchen. We put basic food in the fridge and the guests look after themselves in the morning. It works very well.”

At The Star Inn in Harome, North Yorkshire, chef Andrew Pern has had rooms for a number of years in a separate building over the road from the pub. My room had a pool table in it and was amazingly appointed with a huge bed and a magnificent bath.

However, it wasn't until the next morning that I really saw how different The Star Inn was to the other places I visited. Breakfast was served in a huge room downstairs at an enormous round table with a splendid buffet all laid out. All the guests sat round together communally which was unusual and actually a great experience. Not far away was an open kitchen with stools where the chef was making the cooked breakfasts to order.

"We're in the middle of hunting and shooting country here and I wanted to create something that could be hired out as a whole or that was communal if guests just wanted a room,” said Andrew. “It's great because it’s self-contained meaning that for a shooting party I can go over there and cook for them. I love that because it means that we offer something unique."

GETTING READY FOR BREAKFAST AT THE STAR INN, HAROME

GETTING READY FOR BREAKFAST AT THE STAR INN, HAROME

 At the three star The Waterside Inn, Alain Roux told me, "We've had rooms for nearly 25 years. But once we added them the business completely changed. It's now a non-stop operation. Guests arrive at 3pm and lunch guests can still be here at 6pm or even 7pm. Checkout is at midday and that's when our lunch guests start to arrive.

“We’ve added rooms gradually and we’ve never done anything other than a continental breakfast that comes on a tray. However, we do make all our Viennoiserie by hand every day. These have to have the same mark of excellence as our restaurant food.”

ALAIN ROUX SERVING BREAKFAST

ALAIN ROUX SERVING BREAKFAST

ONE OF THE COTTAGES AT THE WATERSIDE INN

ONE OF THE COTTAGES AT THE WATERSIDE INN

Meet the Flour Scientist

Andrew Wilkinson is a modern miller who has a passion for producing outstanding flour for baking and bread-making. His company, Gilchester's, is based near Newcastle and is slowly but surely becoming one of the best artisan flour-makers in the country. Chandos Elletson went to meet him.

Andrew Wilkinson, THE FLOUR SCIENTIST

Andrew Wilkinson, THE FLOUR SCIENTIST

When Andrew started thinking about wheat, he knew that he had to start with the soil. Good soil that is well fertilised produces a grain that is strong and rich in gluten (which is what gives bread its stretch. It's the elasticity in the dough that traps the air that helps bread to have structure).

However, Andrew wanted to grow organic wheat which meant he had to get nitrogen into the soil. Nitrogen, it turns out, is the major constituent of fertiliser. Before fertiliser there were two ways of getting nitrogen into the soil. One was through animals and their manure and the other was by planting a crop that naturally produces nitrogen.

Andrew didn't have any stock (cattle) and so he had to grow a crop to get the nitrogen into the soil before he could plant wheat. So, he planted Red Clover which produces nitrogen by a complicated process involving a bacteria called Rhizobia.

Rhizobia stores nitrogen after becoming established inside the root nodules of legumes - think peas or clover. So, when you plant Red Clover the rhizobia fuses into the root system and produces nitrogen. The next process is to top the crop (cut it) and then mulch it into the soil. You do this for two seasons.

aNDREW INSPECTS

aNDREW INSPECTS

 "This process is the basis of our fertility system," Andrew explained to me as we strode through a field of Red Clover next to the mill. "This gives us one to two years of high grade wheat and then we start the process over again.

"Growing our own wheat has been an absolute education. I didn't realise it when I started out. It was only because we got such great feedback about our flour that I could see that not everyone was doing it in the same way. It really is true that the soil produces the wheat that in turn produces the vitamins, minerals and gluten in the flour. If you get the first part wrong then the product will not be the same."

This was a wonderful science lesson for me. I have to admit that I have a bit of a thing for soil. Once we'd come in from the field it was time to learn about milling. I admitted that I didn't know anything about what happened in a mill and it made me realise how easy it is as a cook to spend your entire life not knowing even basic things like this.

The millstone at Gilchester's is from Germany and is ultra-traditional. It is two stones that rotate round and round and the grain is poured between them. As the grain is crushed it is expelled outwards as flour and collected. This is whole wheat flour.

A HEAD OF WHEAT

A HEAD OF WHEAT

 I didn't know that and I felt really stupid. Flour really is very simple. What happens next is where it starts to get interesting. 100% whole grain flour can have a maximum of 82% flour. The rest are the vitamins and minerals of the husk.

To get white flour all you do is sieve out the husk but as you do so you strip away the nutritional content until you are left with a fine white flour which is known by various terms. Pastry chefs will be aware of French T55 or the Italian flour 00 which makes pasta. Both these flours have zero husk.

"If you burn pure white flour in a crucible,'" Andrew continued, "you will get no ash. The ash is the vitamins and minerals - the husk. I can't get rid of it entirely and actually I don't want to. The flavour in flour comes from the vitamins and minerals and our customers love that.

"Indeed, there has been a big shift in flour towards the whole grains and the older varieties of wheat. We grow old varieties now like spelt, emmer and einkorn which are ancient grains that react very well to traditional, organic forms of farming.

"Restaurants still buy white flour from us but our domestic customers love the flavour and composition of our whole grain flours. It's really fascinating."

WHERE THE MAGIC HAPPENS

WHERE THE MAGIC HAPPENS

Italian Olive Oil: A Few Drops of Heaven

Olive oil at its glorious green-golden best is an ingredient of joy for cooks. Chefs love to use it to finish a dish to add that final touch of glistening brilliance. However, few understand where and how it is produced. Chandos Elletson went to Italy to join the harvest.

Maurizio Bocchi TACKLES AN OLIVE TREE

Maurizio Bocchi TACKLES AN OLIVE TREE

Maurizio Bocchi is not a typical Italian chef. You can't be typical if you decide to open an Italian restaurant that specialises in rigourously traditional Italian cooking in the middle of a Lancashire village that is really in the middle of nowhere.

La Locanda, the restaurant Maurizio runs with his wife Cinzia, is in Gisburn which is situated on the busy A59 between Clitheroe and Skipton. Parking is difficult and if you are driving through you could be forgiven for giving a fleeting thought to stopping before pressing on to somewhere more convenient.

Those who ignore convention are given a warm welcome and a treat. Maurizio's food is like being in Italy for real. But Maurizio's real passion is olive oil and he's become a passionate advocate for Italian olive oil that he cherishes above all others.

To demonstrate this he invited me to come with him to Le Marche in Eastern Italy and witness the olive harvest and see how one of his favourite oils is produced. Of course I said yes. There is no greater joy as far as I am concerned than visiting a foreign country with a knowledgeable guide and the promise of something good to eat.

So, with camera in bag, Maurizio and I flew to Rome from Manchester, took the coach to the main railway station and got on a train across Italy from one side to the other. Our destination was a town called Recanati on the Adriatic coast and there, Maurizio told me, was one of the last two remaining stone olive presses in Italy.

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As we bumped and rocked our way across Italy, crossing mountain ranges and swollen rivers, Maurizio explained why olive oil production was such a big deal.

"Olive oil is like wine in that the olives are harvested from a tree like grapes but the similarity stops there. The moment the olives are picked they start to oxidise and from that point on the deterioration begins.

"It is imperative that they be pressed as quickly as possible to preserve the vital ingredients they contain. The most important of these ingredients is polyphenol which is becoming more and more widely recognised as an important anti-oxidant in one’s diet.

"The problem is that polyphenols can be lost if the olives are not pressed straightaway or there is too much heat used to press them."

My head was already starting to swim. Strange-sounding chemicals was not what I signed up for but the mention of heat aroused my interest. They don't heat them do they, I asked?

"When the olives are crushed they produce a pulp and that pulp is then pressed. This literally squeezes out the oil. This process produces heat and if the temperature is not regulated, the olive pulp can overheat. The perfect temperature is 27°.

"That is the reason for the stone and the natural method of pressing. The stone keeps the temperature down but it is labour-intensive and that is why the vast bulk of olive oil is made using mechanical machines that use a variety of methods to automatically remove the oil. Some use tiny needles, for example, that puncture the olive skin. But all this produces heat.”

After nearly four hours on the train we reached our stop at Jesi and were collected by Gabriella Gabrielloni, one of the two sisters who run the olive oil business. She took us straight to the factory unit (which it really wasn't) to see how the process worked.

I was expecting something a bit antiquated, a bit like an old windmill with a huge stone press, but actually it was a modern unit. The stone press was two huge stone wheels, like tractor wheels, that turned remorselessly and crushed everything underneath them with terrifying ferocity.

THE STONE OLIVE PRESS

THE STONE OLIVE PRESS

THE PRESS

THE PRESS

But all that was for the next day. Gabriella took us to their home which is surrounded by olive trees and has a wonderful view over the hills to the nearby sea. It really is quite magical.

At this point in the story it would have been easy to put my feet up, enjoy the hospitality and watch the olive oil being produced. I could then have written a very worthy story about olive oil. But that's not the way I work.

I had come to Italy with a chef and I wanted to experience the oil with some food that Maurizio cooked. So, we sat down at dinner and made a plan. It turned out that the food we ate was of equal importance to the oil. Indeed, it could be said, that without food the oil would be pointless.

I understood this perfectly when the first course was served. You read about Italian home cooking but somehow the magnificence of it doesn't hit home until it is there in front of you face to face. Our first course was ravioli filled with fresh sheep's milk ricotta. This was drizzled with fresh olive oil from that day and tiny, beautiful rosemary flowers from the garden.

I am not a micro herb fan, I admit. I feel that this current movement to adorn all dishes with cress-like stems and leaves is pretentious and pointless, but here in Italy I was shown how it should be done.

The tiny rosemary leaves were wild, seasonal and were naturally in the garden. One on each raviolo was all that was needed and their effect was incredibly subtle. More would have been an insult and this is a lesson I feel all chefs need to learn. Less is more. Natural is always preferable over contrived. Food, at its best, is simple not clever. Those ravioli were a delight.

The next day was rain, a lot of it, and the sisters were concerned. They'd had a good run of weather but now the rain could have a big effect on the olives. Water now means that the olives swell up and absorb the liquid rather than produce more oil.

We went to see the process in action at the unit before going shopping by the seaside for fish. The previous evening I had spotted a wood-fired oven and a huge stone shelf that was used for grilling over embers. My task for Maurizio was fish, bread and oil - all cooked outside.

THE BEAUTIFUL HOUSE

THE BEAUTIFUL HOUSE

THE BEAUTIFUL VIEW

THE BEAUTIFUL VIEW

 I mentioned bread because Maurizio used to be a baker. He had grown up in Northern Italy on Lake Maggiore near Milan and had studied farming at college before finding his heart in cooking.

At the unit I got to see how the process works. The olives are separated from the leaves and then washed before being thrust under the giant wheels of stone. The pulp is then taken and put between mats until a huge cylinder of mat, paste, mat, paste is formed - a little like a giant döner kebab.

This is then taken to a pressing machine which slowly squeezes it all together, releasing the oil and the water they contain. This liquid is collected and put through a second machine that separates the oil from the water.

This is the first olive oil and the one we were using back at the house. It is not a pure oil yet but it is celebrated at the time of the harvest. It is a deep green and is completely heavenly. It is full of peppery polyphenol and they say, when you drink it, that you should cough. I did. This is a sign of the high polyphenol content.

To finish the oil it goes through a final machine that separates out the last bits of fibre and water and becomes the finished product. It is then stored in tall metal containers and flushed with nitrogen to keep the oxygen at bay. It is not bottled until it is ordered.

Olive oil hates light and must be kept in the dark. Light quickens the oxidation and olive oil will start to lose its properties after about a month after opening. So the advice is always to buy it in small vessels that can be used up quickly.

As it was raining I mentioned to Maurizio that we hadn't actually seen the harvest but I was assured that the next day would be better and we'd actually get our hands dirty. So, with that settled, we headed off for Porto Recanati and fish.

BUYING SQUID

BUYING SQUID

SQUID IN THE WOOD FIRE OVEN

SQUID IN THE WOOD FIRE OVEN

We bought local squid, octopus and a type of mackerel as well as a box of small fish for fritto misto. Maurizio was excited about his cooking and when we got back he got to work with the wood-fired oven and the grill.

 That afternoon I watched him work with the fish along with the Mama of the family. It was wonderful to watch the women work in the kitchen with such passion and authority. The squid and the octopus were reserved for the next day and were marinated in olive oil, garlic and lemon juice.

The next morning it was time to harvest. This was a simple process of stripping the olives off the branches with bare hands and letting them fall onto nets that caught them. That was it. They were then driven off to be pressed. It really was a simple process.

In the late afternoon Maurizio lit the oven and got olive wood for the grill fire. He had made bread dough that morning and baked it in the wood-fired oven. He built up the grill fire and put the marinated squid and octopus on the grill.

HOME BAKED BREAD

HOME BAKED BREAD

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He also took the mackerel and baked them in the oven on stone roof tiles. I picked at one when it came out of the oven and it was sensational, but the best was yet to come.

I need to describe what happened in detail because this was one of the greatest moments of eating I have ever experienced.

The table was being laid for dinner. The day had been fabulous. The blue sky came out. I had watched transfixed as the octopus was laid over the embers and started to cook. The smell of the bread in the wood-fired oven was intoxicating.

Maurizio declared that the first of the octopus was ready and we stood there ripping the tendons off and smearing them with that morning's oil and eating them with the bread from the oven. It was messy, it was spontaneous and it was heaven. The faint char on the octopus along with the sweetness of its flesh which revealed itself with every chewy mouthful was a sensation and all this rotated with mouthfuls of hot bread.

There comes a time when food just needs to be eaten there and then. There is no time for manners or plates or even knives and forks. It is at these primal moments when the joy of eating is at its most sublime.

It proved that the oil married to the food in the right moment ignited all the senses in one magic moment that I will never forget.

Saluti!

Saluti!

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Regional Revolution: Rules? What Rules?

Chandos Elletson continues his trip up North with stops at both The Walnut Tree Inn and House of Tides

Another facet of the enduring rural revolution is that new school may be trendy and exciting but old school is not a thing of the past. Where Sat Bains is at the cutting edge of modern professional cooking, Shaun Hill is at the opposite end of the spectrum. Though he began his career in London he has long been a rural chef - first at Gidleigh Park then at The Merchant House in Ludlow and now at The Walnut Tree in Abergavenny in Wales.

I am a huge devotee of Shaun Hill. I loved going to visit him in his kitchen in Ludlow when he cooked alone and still maintained a Michelin star. He pulls no punches and his food is simple and excellent as any of his thousands of fans will tell you.

Shaun Hill has stood the test of time and withstood all the advances of technology and trends and yet his food is as fresh and modern as it could be.

He doesn't do any growing and there is no tasting menu but there is serious technical cooking and judicious buying.

We started our chat on a hot subject: tasting menus or menu dégustation.

"Nico (Ladenis) used to call them menu disgusting. I rather agree with him," Shaun said with a smile.

"Tasting menus present problems. It puts you as a chef into safe territory as you always know what you will be preparing, but it makes marginal dishes a problem. Offal is gone and so are molluscs and there'll be no brains.

"The big problem is food allergies these days. I don't have to ask guests any more in advance. They tell me when they book. So my menu is designed around what I like to eat but structured in a way that allows everyone a fair shot at eating something they can enjoy."

The menu at the Walnut Tree is generous and it does have a way of making your mouth water. Shaun asked me if I'd like to eat something while we talked and I spotted a game terrine on the menu. It's something you don't see much these days.

"I used to make terrines when I worked for Robert Carrier back in the 1970's. Terrines were the dish of their day back then. At Hintlesham Hall I made about nine different types. Terrines are still good when they are done traditionally. You can't mess with them. They sell well but they need help like with a little piccalilli or a salad."

SHAUN HILL’S GAME TERRINE

SHAUN HILL’S GAME TERRINE

Needless to say his terrine was flawless and it raised an interesting point which to me has always been important: technical skill in cookery. Shaun Hill's terrine was every bit as refined and delicious as the sablé pastry at Sat Bains.

Shaun Hill could modernise his dishes to the level of Sat Bains but it would be a waste of time.

"Chefs must cook for themselves. If you don't you will never know when to stop and you will be forever checking what you do against others and that is a mistake. We all have a duty to our guests. They come to eat my food. They don't come to eat my interpretation of some other chef."

In Newcastle, Kenny Atkinson first won a Michelin star for his restaurant, House of Tides. It's located in the centre of town, a stone's throw from the River Tyne. I wanted to meet Kenny because he's another of a new breed of chef that is changing the face of fine dining into something much more approachable and in a place like Newcastle that is no mean achievement.

KENNY ATKINSON

KENNY ATKINSON

"There are better restaurants in Newcastle than ours," he told me. "But we score because we really look after our customers and when they come back we reward them. We are not as expensive as some places and this is deliberate. I'd rather be busy and make less money than charge a lot and be empty.

"My food is produce led, nothing new in that, but where we are different is the way our menu is structured. We have two tasting menus: a regular and a vegetarian. But you can have two courses if you want or three and we have a slogan on the menu that says: "Shy bairns get nowt." This means: "don't be afraid to ask!" If you want to mix and match off both menus - go ahead! We're here for you.

"I have a fine dining background in country house hotels. I found this very formal especially when it came to dress. At The House of Tides we are all about informal but the food has to have an edge to it that is interesting and delicious enough to make a great night out.”

“I have a lot of fun with my food. Take the mackerel dish that I once did on Great British Menu. It's described as Mackerel, Gooseberries, Lemon, Mustard. To cut a long story short it's a sliced white bread put through a pasta machine, spread with English mustard and then used to make a spring roll shape filled with mackerel. This is fried ‘til crisp and served with a gooseberry purée and a smear of mustard on the plate."

Now is a great time to be running a restaurant in the sticks. Whether you are old school, new school or somewhere in between you can innovate to your hearts content - so long as you understand that technical skills cannot be ignored. Good cooking is good eating. No amount of technology can ever replace it.

MACKEREL, GOOSEBERRIES, LEMON, CUSTARD - ONE OF KENNY ATKINSON’S DISHES AT HOUSE OF TIDES

MACKEREL, GOOSEBERRIES, LEMON, CUSTARD - ONE OF KENNY ATKINSON’S DISHES AT HOUSE OF TIDES

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