Simon Hopkinson talks to our roving reporter, Douglas Blyde...
“I think you can afford to go a touch thinner, Tom” says Hopkinson, lifting coppa-style sliced beef sourced from Trealy Farm, Monmouthshire. “We’ve also been discussing sausages” he adds, observing the full English at the centre of attention.
Hopkinson looks relaxed – clean shaven and tanned. Tom Rains wears a sports jacket over chefs’ whites – a look, according to Hopkinson, which approximates to Marco Pierre White. “I haven’t been a chef since 1995,” he says. “I cook in private.” Rains interjects: “They call me ‘chef’ in the kitchen and Simon, ‘Simon’”.
So how did their culinary meeting of minds occur? “I was approached by Brian Williams, MD of Squire Hotels,” says Hopkinson. “We met and chatted food. Simple as that.” That was three years ago. “We opened at the end of November, and the next Chapter hotel opens May 2012 on Magdalen Street, Exeter.”
Does Hopkinson see his role as similar to Marx Hix’s Chef-Directorship at Caprice Holdings, restaurateurs behind J. Sheekey, The Ivy and Scott’s? “Oh God yes. And I really like working with Tom because he gets very inspired about new things, like eating out. We need to take a week out. He hasn’t even been to Bibendum yet! And I want to go to Oliveto, Victoria for pizzas.”
The Montpellier represents a return for Cheltenham-raised Tom Rains to his roots, having spent a decade in London kitchens, L’Escargot, The Berkeley and Claridge’s, then The Old Bell Inn in Wiltshire - “not far from Whatley Manor and Tracklements relish”, he says.
“Simon came to eat at my restaurant twice,” says Rains. “I had to cook for him as part of the interview. He sent the four course menu two days before which consisted of Niçoise salad, Parmesan risotto, roast turbot and summer pudding – food from his heart. I was cooking through the nights to get everything right. Guests at the hotel I was working at must have wondered why there was so much turbot on the menu!”
Signature British dishes at the Montpellier include potted shrimps with wholemeal toast, roast chicken with sage and onion stuffing, bacon and sausage rolls and bread sauce, as well as rhubarb crumble and custard.
“It’s great now but it can get better,” says Rains. “When I was in London I was stuck in a basement kitchen. Here, with our show kitchen with open grill and Beech oven, I’ve got great contact with customers. And I’ve met my suppliers. Martin the butcher came in the other day because he wanted to make sure we were cooking his meat properly. It’s important suppliers understand what we’re trying to do.” Hopkinson adds: “All my life I’ve never been totally satisfied.” “And we want it to be the best hotel in town”, adds Rains, as I grind what turns out to be pepper from a salt cellar.
“I understand Simon’s views on food,” says Rains. “That’s why the relationship works. He puts thoughts in my head and I go away and think about them and come back to him. I’ve already a list of six things to improve from last night’s service.”
I wonder why the mackerel escabeche from that service was served in a bowl – the only starter to be presented in such a way. “To annoy me!”, replies Hopkinson. Rains shakes his head and smiles. “I tried it on a plate but it looked... loose.”
I ask the due whether there will ever be a Chapter Hotel’s cookbook. ‘I’d love to think so,’ says Rains, anmd Hopkinson nods energetically.
I finish my fresh fruit salad and homemade granola. Rains must leave to prepare for a delegation of food bloggers bussed in for lunch. Spotted by guests, Hopkinson also needs to head to reception to sign copies of his book, ‘Week in Week Out’...